Katie Davis: Who is the learner of tomorrow?

Katie Davis is an assistant professor at the University of Washington's iSchool, a researcher, and co-author (with Howard Gardner) of the acclaimed, "The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World." She investigates the role of digital technologies in the academic, social, and moral lives of today's youth, bringing this research into practice with educators, parents, business leaders, and policymakers throughout the U.S. Project Information Literacy interviewed Katie in June 2014 to discuss how technology is changing the nature of learning, for better and for worse. (Interview posted: June 10, 2014)

Katie Davis is a young researcher on the rise. She investigates the role of digital technologies in the academic, social, and moral lives of modern youth and works with educators, parents, business leaders, and policymakers throughout the U.S. to put her research into practice.

Katie grew up in Bermuda during the late 1980s. Unlike many of her peers in the U.S., Katie had limited access to television stations. She had no computer at home, but could use her school's computer lab once a week. These early experiences made Katie curious about the impact of technology on youth, shaping her studies at Harvard, where she earned two master's degrees and a doctorate in education.

Katie joined the University of Washington as an assistant professor in 2012. She is a lead researcher at the university's Digital Youth initiative, investigating topics such as bullying, fanfiction communities, digital badging, and music in STEM education. She is also on the Advisory Board for MTV's digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line.

We interviewed Katie in June 2014 and discussed how technology is changing the nature of learning for today's youth and emerging adults. We also discussed technology's negative impact as well as its potential for powerful learning across the age spectrum using innovative ideas, such as digital badges.

PIL: In "The App Generation," you and co-author Howard Gardner cull from a richly diverse set of data points to understand how today's youth navigate intimacy, identity, and imagination with the availability of digital technology. You have argued that while previous generations have been defined by political and social movements, those in the digital born generation are defined by the technologies they use, with the most significant technology driving this identity shift being the app. How have apps impacted the nature of learning for today's youth and early adults? What will the "learner of tomorrow" look like, say, 10 years from now?

Katie: We use the app primarily as a metaphor to help illuminate the central themes that emerged in our research. After all, we started the research before the iPhone was invented and before "there's an app for that" became part of our cultural lexicon. This means the youth in our initial wave of research were not using apps in the way we've come to think of them being used on smartphones and tablets. However, when apps did come on the scene in their present incarnation, we recognized that particular features of apps—their wide variety, on-demand quality, branded icons, and design constraints—helped us to make certain points about how youth approach personal expression, intimate relationships, and creative pursuits.

I think some of these features could easily be applied to the realm of teaching and learning to consider how today's new media technologies have impacted the nature of learning and even what the learner of tomorrow might look like. For instance, today's media ecology—much like apps themselves—provides young people with unprecedented access to a wide variety of information and information sources. This access calls on certain skills that are needed to locate, judge, and synthesize information, some of which may be of questionable merit. The challenges of sifting through large quantities of disparate information elevates the importance of teaching information literacies, including literacies that are more specific to the affordances of new media technologies, such as transmedia navigation, remixing, and distributed knowledge construction.

In the book, we introduce the concept of an app mentality that evokes the on-demand nature of apps and the way they are used to perform discrete tasks, such as locating a restaurant, shopping for an item of clothing, or talking with a friend. The app mentality can be considered an algorithmic way of thinking—any question or desire one has should be satisfied immediately and definitively. There is little room for ambiguity or sitting for a time with uncertainty before arriving at a decision or insight. We draw a connection between the app mentality and an increasing risk aversion that we saw manifest in the way youth approach various aspects of their lives, including their schoolwork. After all, when one's technology lays out a clear path from point A to point B, there's no need to consider or explore alternate, less certain routes. The learner of tomorrow may need support to break free from an app mentality that demands instant, unambiguous answers to all questions.

PIL: In PIL's 2011 "Balancing Act" study about how college students use the library during "crunch time," we found students were making an effort to pare down their interaction with digital devices, but still needed the technology for their assignments, taking refresher breaks, and keeping in touch with friends. In a recent presentation, you discussed the sense of ambivalence that youth express about the role of technology in their lives. In a 2011 article, you describe one college student's sense of fragmentation, of being "everywhere and nowhere" because of her digital life. What are other drawbacks in connection with life in a digital world mentioned by the young people you have studied? Any surprises? What strategies do you see youth employing to deal with the negative side of technology? Are the strategies working?

Katie: The feeling of being "everywhere and nowhere" captures two forms of ambivalence toward digital media that I've heard many youth express during the course of my research. The first is a sense of pressure to be always reachable by one's friends, regardless of the time, one's geographical location, or offline commitments. On the one hand, being able to connect so easily to one's friends is a great thing. Thanks to messaging and social media apps, youth can stay plugged into their friends' daily rhythms even when they're not with them. They can also use their mobile devices to make "on the fly" arrangements to meet up with friends in person.

I've seen how these affordances can support the development and nurturance of meaningful relationships. After all, close friends and peer groups are important contexts for youth development, particularly identity development, so it's important that young people have the ability to access and be accessible to their friends. At the same time, the immediate, round-the-clock nature of computer-mediated communication does add a sense of pressure to these relationships, a sense that it's one more thing to monitor and check off a list of to-do's. And, given the centrality of peer relationships during the teen years, the social consequences can be dire if one fails in this regard.

The second ambivalence associated with being "everywhere and nowhere" relates to feeling like the many connections and interactions youth experience through their digital devices—often simultaneously—somehow don't measure up. One teen I interviewed, 17-year-old William, expressed this feeling well when he told me, "People usually, the first thing they are not doing is talking to you [online]. They won't be actively talking to you. They will be browsing something on the web and every time they have, like five minutes, they will just quickly write something to you." On William's end of such a conversation, he feels like his friend isn't paying attention to him, that their conversation isn't registering in any substantial way. Based on my conversations with other teens, I suspect that the friends on the other end of William's conversations likely feel the same way. What I believe William and other teens are expressing is a desire for meaningful connection, whether to another person, to ideas, or to oneself. It's hard to experience such connection when one's attention is distributed across many tasks and social interactions.

In terms of youth's attempts to deal with these challenges, I think they're still searching for workable strategies that don't compromise their social, academic, or work lives. The same is true of adults! I've heard of young people deciding to go on "Facebook fasts" for a period of time, sometimes in coordination with their friends. Some youth try to impose time limits on their social media use—or their parents try to impose such limits for them. A few youth opt out of social media altogether, but the social cost can be high. Going forward, I hope to see social norms emerge that make it easier for us all to be less active on social media, less immediately responsive to text messages. I hope that's not wishful thinking!

PIL: Your research on today's youth and their digital worlds has added insights to our understanding of the difficult issue of cyberbullying. In your research, you have found youth who spent less time online, had a close relationship with at least one parent, and tended to experience school as a "safe space" were less likely to experience cyberbullying. As you've seen the transition from high school to college, would you say cyberbullying changes? Is cyberbullying a simply distressing fact of life in the digital age? What can college administrators do to prevent cyberbullying on their campuses and better support their students?

Katie: One of the most important insights I've gained during my research on cyberbullying is the problematic nature of the word itself. First, cyberbullying is an adult word. It may be okay to talk about cyberbullying with younger children whose worlds are still largely shaped by adults and their authority, but tweens, teens, and emerging adults will likely tune out of any conversation or intervention about cyberbullying. Channeling their likely thought process, one might say that, as an adult word, cyberbullying couldn't possibly have any relevance to their online practices and experiences.

The other problem with the word cyberbullying is its bluntness. At one end of the extreme, it's used to characterize the kind of teasing among friends that may escalate temporarily beyond the realm of friendly banter but dissipate soon after. At the other extreme, cyberbullying is used to refer to speech that feels so threatening and incessant that it drives one to drastic measures. And, of course, everything in between these two extremes also counts as cyberbullying. Such a broad definition makes it difficult to create interventions that are appropriately targeted to the particular challenges that youth face when they go online. Those challenges will be different among different age groups, in different communities, and in different schools. For this reason, I believe that college administrators will be in the strongest position to support their students if they set aside the word cyberbullying and start by listening to the specific challenges that their students experience when communicating through networked technologies.

PIL: Digital badging is a hot topic among educators and librarians today. You recently received a grant through the HASTAC Digital Media and Learning Competition to investigate digital badging systems and how they motivate learning. What have you identified as current best practices and future directions for digital badging? How can and will badging systems motivate lifelong learning, particularly among adults who are well beyond their school years?

Katie: Like any hot topic, there's a lot of hype around badges without a lot of clarity around what it means to use badges to motivate lifelong learning or concrete evidence to support that assertion. When thinking about the potential and future of digital badges, it's important to be clear about what badges are and what they are not. First, what badges are not: they are not a new way of teaching; they're not even a new way of assessing learning; and they're certainly not a one-stop shop for solving the many challenges we face in trying to provide a high quality education to all young people. Characterizing digital badges in any of these ways is not only inaccurate, it obscures—and may even undermine—what badges can actually do to support learning.

So what are digital badges? They're web-enabled digital icons that contain metadata associated with specific learning goals and practices. As such, they represent an alternative way to recognize and reward learning across a variety of domains, both inside and outside of formal educational contexts. Being web-enabled means badges can be transported across contexts, opening up opportunities for learning to be recognized and connected across a potentially wide variety of contexts. I say "potentially" because there are some pretty important challenges that we need to figure out first. For starters, there must be the technical capacity to transport and display badges across various platforms, something that Mozilla's Open Badges initiative is working to achieve (but there's still considerable work to be done). Second, there must be a willingness on the part of learners to share their badges beyond the contexts in which they earn them. In my conversations with high school students in Providence and Seattle, many of them have expressed ambivalence about showing their badges to external audiences, particularly their peers (some don't want to be seen as bragging, others don't think badges are cool). Third, there must be broad stakeholder buy-in regarding the value of recognizing skills and achievements through digital badges. After all, a digital badge may not be worth much outside the context in which it was earned if external audiences—such as college admissions officers or potential employers—do not place any stock in badges.

Setting these challenges aside, I'm most optimistic right now about the processes involved in developing a digital badge system. In talking with educators who've developed badge systems, as well as in my own work with a team of researchers, students, and educators to develop a badge system at Seattle's Pacific Science Center, I've come to appreciate the fact that going through the process of deciding what and how to badge encourages deep reflection about learning objectives, meaningful learning activities, and authentic forms of assessment. Opportunities for this sort of reflection are often hard to come by in learning contexts, whether in school or in out-of-school settings. If badges are going to be more than a digital sticker, I believe that educators must be given the time and tools to engage in this sort of reflective work.

PIL: With all you've discovered about youth and early adults in the digital age, are there still things that young people do that surprise you? What burning questions do you hope to answer next with your research?

Katie: A question that researchers love to be asked! I'm interested in what will come of the current work around digital badges in education. Is this just a flash in the pan? Or is it the start of a fundamental shift in the way we document, recognize, and connect learning across contexts? In my own work with digital badges, I'm hoping to continue developing a digital badge system at the Pacific Science Center and use it to explore the possibilities and challenges associated with leveraging such networked technologies to connect young people's learning across their contexts and open up future learning and career opportunities.

Given my location in an Information School, I'm also interested in seeing how libraries continue to evolve in the midst of the digital revolution. The Institute of Museum and Library Services is doing important work right now in thinking about the future of libraries as networked learning spaces. I'm excited to continue to be part of that conversation, because I see great opportunities for libraries to play a pivotal role in fostering connections among youth's disparate learning contexts.

Katie Davis lives in Seattle, Washington. She is an assistant professor at the University of Washington's iSchool.

Katie is the co-author (with Howard Gardner) of "The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World," (Yale University Press, 2013). She serves as an Advisory Board Member for MTV's digital abuse campaign, A Thin Line.

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of educating and preparing college students to succeed in school, the workplace, and as lifelong learners in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how college students find and use information for courses and for use in their everyday lives. PIL is conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington's iSchool.

This interview with Katie Davis was made possible with the generous support of a research grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons.