Digital Natives and Spaghetti Sauce

Brian wrote about about the EDUCAUSE ELI web seminar on net gen learners , and after reading that post and the great comments, I got to thinking about the overgeneralization of the mythical "Digital Native". Fast forward to this morning's bus ride, where I'm watching Malcom Gladwell's presentation at TED2004. Now, Malcom is the author of The Tipping Point , so I was expecting some discussion of how small changes build up to affect large, even transformative effects. But, he wound up talking about something so much more interesting, and likely more important to my perception of students. Spaghetti sauce. No, really.

Malcom told the story of a friend of his named Howard Moscowitz, who was hired in the 80s by Campbell Soup Company to help revamp the Prego spaghetti sauce. They wanted to come up with the perfect sauce, to gain market share against Ragu. Instead of trying to whip up a bunch of batches of prototype sauces to test on volunteers in order to find the perfect sauce, he identified a series of variables (things like sweetness, saltiness, chunkness, spicyness, etc...) and took the resulting 30+ combinations on the road. He gatherred hundreds of volunteers, giving them each 10 small bowls of spaghetti with a preselected sauce variety on top. He then had the volunteers rate the sauce on a plain old Likert scale, winding up with reams of data that didn't look like it made any sense. Until he started to analyze the relationships between variables.

Howard found that there isn't one perfect sauce. There are three. Something like "Regular", "Spicy" and "Extra Chunky". (the names were different, but you get the idea) Seems pretty obvious now, but at the time, everyone was looking to design a single perfect sauce, inspired by a typical Italian sauce (which was perceived by all as the Ultimate Spaghetti Sauce, of course). In all of the focus groups held over the previous 2 or 3 decades, not a single volunteer mentioned that they liked "Extra Chunky" sauce. They all said that they would prefer the thin Italian sauce. Yet, after analyzing his data, Howard could see that 33% of people prefer "Extra Chunky" with the remainder split between the other two varieties.

This tells me a few things that are actually relevant to my perception of students in general, and "Digital Natives" in particular.

  1. There is variabilty in preferences (whether in spaghetti sauces so learning styles) and that understanding that variation is not only expected but necessary for success.
  2. People don't know what they want. They might say they would prefer the Italian sauce, or pervasive ubiquitous online communication. But individuals either have difficulty identifying and communicating their actual preferences, or they may be truly unaware of them (whether as a result of cultural pressure or other factors).
  3. We need to better understand the variables that affect our interactions with students. It's not enough to say that students are "Digital Natives" or "Net Genners". There is no One True Student. Individuals vary by learning style, experience/comfort with various strategies (online and offline), socioeconomic status, maturity, locus of control, etc... and we need to identify common clusters of these variables and develop strategies to support these groups (and the individuals that compose them).

We're already doing much to try to address these variables (blended learning to help students that have to work 30 hour weeks to access their courses when and where they can, etc...) but I think it would be much more productive to focus on these variables rather than brandishing labels like "Digital Natives" and "Net Genners"

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