Engagement and Motivation Part I: Digital Natives

This post marks the beginning of a new daily trend here. Over the past several weeks I was posting “one-page” overviews of each section of my dissertation lit review. Now that I’ve begun fleshing out those sections, I have more material to post – complete with quotes and citations. I’ve already posted two of the sections in their long form as word documents, but now I’ll be posting brief (blog post length) excerpts each day.

This is the first part of the Engagement and Motivation section of my dissertation lit review:

One of the fundamental properties of an effective constructivist learning environment is that it engages and motivates students.

Engaging and motivating students has been a primary concern of the constructivist movement since long before computers and video games. Now, though, modern complex video games offer a new multi-modal medium for engaging students and a wide variety of new strategies for motivating their participation.

For more than a century, traditional classroom lessons – including lectures, reading, and written assignments – have often failed to effectively or reliably engage and motivate students. As Dewey (1938) noted, many students come to “associate the learning process with ennui and boredom” (p. 27), and as Slator (2006) explained, these “uninspired students often create difficulties for instructors and themselves” (p. 10).

In recent decades, video games (and other interactive media) may have exacerbated this problem. Students, particularly gamers, are now coming to school with higher expectations of engagement and interaction. Papert (1993), a student of Piaget, made the argument that video games encourage in students “an industriousness and eagerness that school can seldom generate” (p. 3-4) and that “school strikes many young people as slow, boring, and frankly out of touch” (p. 5).

Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

Prensky (2001b) introduced the metaphor of digital natives and digital immigrants, in which students who have never known a time without the Internet, email, cell phones, and video games are considered digital natives – and in which adults who have to learn these technologies later in life are considered digital immigrants. Prensky (2006) makes the case that today’s students, the digital natives, “are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach” (p. 30). He cites research suggesting they think differently, particularly on account of playing video games (2001c, 2006 p. 32-39). He explained several differences in their cognitive style (2001a, p. 52) and ways in which they interact differently than digital immigrants (2006, p. 41-50). In short, he concluded that “immigrants teaching natives causes problems” (2006, p. 29). Carstens and Beck (2005) also found that “gamers showed a range of different opinions and behaviors” compared to non-gamers (p. 23), and they suggested that gamers have comparatively little respect for traditional authority and training.

However, these same technologies, including video games, can also offer a solution to the problem. Papert (1993), for instance, believed that “video games teach children… that some forms of learning are fast-paced, immensely compelling, and rewarding” (p. 5). Prensky (2001a), too, felt that video games are “one of the few structures that we currently have that is capable of meeting many of the Games Generation’s changing learning needs and requirements” (p. 65). Shaffer (2005) wrote that “computers and other new technologies can help make learning engaging and relevant in ways Dewey suggested” (p. 6), and that students can have “intense and intensive” experiences playing a game as part of a class project” (in press, p. 3). Shaffer and Gee (2005) concluded, “contemporary video games are profoundly engaging and motivating to young people” (p. 15). Gee (2005) also discussed the motivating pleasures even simple games such as Tetris can bring a player (p. 13). He went on to say that “cognitive science… has shown quite clearly that feeling and emotion are not peripheral to thinking and learning” (p. 30), and that “if learners are to learn… deeply… then they need to feel and care about the world… in which they are playing” (p. 30). An interactive game space can offer “rewards from the beginning, customized to each learner’s level, effort, and growing mastery and signaling the learner’s ongoing achievements” (Gee, 2003, p. 67). Gee even shared an anecdote about a video game motivating very young students to learn to read (Prensky, 2006, p. 163). Because video games can thus empower the learner, games can be used as part of a motivating “loop of rewards and reinforcement – [giving] a taste of empowerment and ownership, leading to more engagement, which, in turn, allows further empowerment and so on” (Jonassen, 2003, p. 114).

I’m seeking feedback on this writing, so please let me know what you think in the comments.