A new kind of “nativism”

“Stop trying to be cool.”

Chances are you’ve either heard these words uttered by a teen, or uttered them yourself. Digital natives, whether out of territoriality or impatience, often get annoyed with their elders’ well meaning attempts to “assimilate.” Call it “digital nativism.”

Of course, the existence of resistance isn’t reason to give up. It’s still important for adults to try and reach out to younger people. The question is how to do this without being invasive or offputtingly clueless.

Recently, a couple of articles have reminded us of this dilemma. First, the Guardian reports on UK educators who are trying to “exploit their students’ passion for the new generation of interactive online communication tools … to deliver academic content.”

[A] research exercise carried out by the Joint Information Systems Committee (Jisc) … revealed, amazingly, that students want to be left alone. Their message to the trendy academics is: “Get out of MySpace!”

To be fair, the article wasn’t all one sided. The study concluded that educators need to tread carefully, but should still get involved. Moreover, the article suggested that students themselves may feel ambivalent about the “adult invasion.”

“Students appear to want their cake and eat it,” says Phipps. “They appear to want to keep their online persona private but when you ask them whether they’d like instant communication with tutors or feedback on essays (via Skype or Facebook) the answer is always yes.”

All this set an interesting backdrop for news, in the New York Times, about New York City’s aggressive plans to connect with students digitally.

The city is planning an intensive campaign that would use cellphones to help motivate students, most of them minorities and from poor families, in two dozen schools. … Every student in each of the schools will be given a cellphone.The effort, officials said, will use text messages — drawn up by an advertising agency and sent over the phones — that promote achievement.

It will be very interesting to see how this approach works. Based on my experience with schools trying to be cool, I’m skeptical. The Times article raises the possibility that students won’t bite – but it doesn’t consider the possibility that it will backfire.