Navigating White Water: The Digital Age and Sensory Learning Styles

Rebecca L. Oxford Distinguished Scholar-Teacher University of Maryland The Digital Age is a period of white water change that is currently affecting second and foreign language (L2) learners, especially those born in or after 1982 (“digital natives”). This paper shows how the increasingly available digital media reflect and support L2 students’ sensory learning styles (visual, auditory, tactile, and kinesthetic) in ways that were impossible before the Digital Age. INTRODUCTION “Change itself has changed: It has become so rapid, so complex, so turbulent, and so unpredictable that is now called ‘white water change’” (Gelatt 1993: 10). “White water” refers to the roiling, white-capped water that occurs in river rapids. White water is dangerous or fearful for some people, while for others it offers a grand opportunity to develop and use their navigational skills, quick thinking, and agility. The Digital Age began with widespread use of the Internet in 1982, bringing the tremendously volatile white water of digital technology change. The Internet is the vast global network of smaller computer networks at three levels (backbone, mid-level, and stub), bound together by copper wires and fiber-optics. The term digital describes any device, especially computer-related, that can read, write, or store numericallyrepresented information. (The term digital came from digit, which means a finger, often used for counting, or part of a number.) The world wide web arrived in 1990, using the Internet as the physical structure and serving as the global system for interlinking hypertext (digitally stored and nonsequentially retrieved) documents by means of universal resource locators (URLs) and hypermedia (an information system using a hypertext program to link multiple media, such as video, audio, and print). With the advent of the Internet, the Web, and vast numbers of related digital technologies, second and foreign language (L2) learning has become strongly affected by Digital Age white water. Among the most interesting developments are virtual reality, i.e., simulated digital worlds such as Second Life (http://secondlife.com; see Lamb 2006) and other massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), which are now being used for L2 learning and are studied by serious applied linguistics scholars. Handheld wireless devices, which are increasingly sophisticated, have the potential to make digital L2 learning occur almost anywhere, anytime. Of course, I am talking about technologies in industrialized societies, although some of these technologies are already available to an extent in thirdworld countries. Many L2 learners are digital natives 1, Prensky’s (2001) term, were born into the white water of the Digital Age (1982 and beyond). They are “bathed in bits and bytes” (Tapscott 1998: 1), surrounded and infused by digital media. Digital natives are compulsive multitaskers, sometimes using five or six media at a time (Rideout, Roberts, and Foehr 2005). Digital natives are often described as information-drenched, distracted, cognitively overloaded, superficial in thinking, and too busy for or unfamiliar with real analysis or synthesis (Aratani 2007, Oxford 2008b, Prensky 2001). (This paper does not address these particular digital-native aspects, which are a matter of serious concern, but instead discusses more
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Digital natives are sometimes called the Digital Generation, the Net Generation, Generation Net (Aratani 2007), Generation D (for digital) (Prensky 2001a 2001b), and Generation M (for media) (Rideout, Roberts, and Foehr 2005). Dede (2005) roughly divides this 1982-and-beyond generation into two groups, millennials and neomillennials, which, he asserts, have somewhat different learning styles. However, his distinction does not seem to hold up well in practice.

Digital onlookers are interested and observant but have not yet leapt into Digital Age white water. including MMORPGs and virtual worlds. These are today’s “Digital Native” students— Digital Natives accustomed to the twitch-speed. analyzing/synthesizing. the school. the immediate community. Digital natives and digital immigrants hope for L2 learning programs that use digital media to engage.000 emails and instant messages sent and received. and Internet are bored by most of today’s education. Learning styles influence the nature of any person’s L2 learning experience. These sensory preferences are influenced by opportunities present in the roiling white water of the Digital Age. L2-learning digital immigrants are often eager to learn with entertaining digital media providing nonlinearity and rapid feedback. and for them technologically-rich L2 learning is not a necessity. like printing out emails or not using instant messaging.. over 200. digital onlookers and digital foreigners. and closure-oriented/open. and the larger culture. while digital foreigners either have no opportunity for. so it is easy to work with others. at the very most. maybe. Born before 1982. over 500. Learning styles are not merely inborn traits but are instead affected by experiences and socialization in the home. over 20. active.000 hours watching TV (a high percentage fast speed MTV). Oxford 2001. The numbers are overwhelming: over 10. and similar comments could probably be made about numerous digital natives in Korea. introverted: most energy comes from the inside world of one’s own thoughts and feelings. physical experience. with a range of possibilities in between. or interest in digital white water (Oxford 2008b). and instant gratification.S.000 commercials seen—all before the kids leave college. accessibility to.S. well meaning as it may be. The following table is an example of the extroverted/introverted style. and.000 hours talking on digital cell phones. over 10.) Many L2-learning digital natives enjoy videogames.positive aspects in relation to sensory learning. multitasking. and Oxford 2003. Two groups of non-digitally-involved L2 learners. being caught up in white water can be an immensely exciting. connected. quick-payoff world of their videogames. such as extroverted/introverted. rapid feedback. so it is more difficult to work with others) can be depicted as follows. and empower their sensory learning styles while strengthening their L2 skills. although there is no single “best” L2 learning style (Ehrman. fun. not a “yes/no”. ABOUT LEARNING STYLES L2 learning styles are the individual’s broad.000 hours playing videogames. Prensky (2001: 1) describes the digital exposure of U. HOW THE DIGITAL AGE INFLUENCES L2 SENSORY LEARNING STYLES For digital natives and digital immigrants. Japan. 5. “either/or” dichotomy. fantasy. entertainment. adventure. Our children today are being socialized in a way that is vastly different from their parents. which indicates where the learner gains the most energy (extroverted: most energy comes from the outside world of other people and events. Leaver. the continuum shows two contrasting modes. graphics-first.000 hours of book reading. and many other countries. but they might be slightly more able than digital natives to adapt to less media-rich L2 learning. Germany. . Reid 1998). digital immigrants jumped into digital white water later in their lives. sensory. preferred approaches to L2 learning. This paper is primarily concerned with the sensory learning styles of digital natives and digital immigrants. Each learning style can be represented by a continuum. For many learning styles. one at each end. mastering many digital technologies but sometimes doing non-Digital-Age things. exist. digital natives in the U. communication. MTV. stimulate. random-access. nonlinearity. and they want L2 learning to have gamelike and multimedia qualities: interaction.

S. and (b) asynchronous CMC. That means she wants to learn English by means of great amounts of visual input from pictures. DVDs. listening). is very strong. SUPPORT OF THE AUDITORY SENSE Support of the auditory L2 learning preference occurs through audio CDs. Conference calling. print (reading. using speech data compression techniques and encapsulated in data-packet streams over IP (Jackson 2007). auditory (sound. e. such as chat rooms and instant messaging. is made free or almost free with . auditory text enhancement (which can digitally slow down recorded speech).Table 1 Extroverted/Introverted  Very strong extroverted preference Moderate extroverted preference Mild extroverted preference Both extroverted and introverted preference. enlarging key words or sentences.. such as email and blogs. and animation. but as sensory learning style continuum does not contain a contrasting aspect. Unlike other learning styles mentioned above.g. Table 2 Visual  Very strong visual preference Moderate visual preference Mild preference visual Weak visual preference Very weak or no visual preference Ok-soon’s visual preference. films. SENSORY LEARNING STYLES Each sensory learning style. Visually-oriented online games. is very rich through (a) synchronous computermediated communication (CMC). the last of which are now “standard issue” to L2 learners at many U. has an introverted preference that is rather mild. and for such a person the preference shown on the continuum for each of the four senses would be at the far right in this system. pictures. Digital text enhancement. hearing). including Scrabble. and many others. and kinesthetic (movement). can easily move back and forth Mild introverted preference Moderate introverted preference Very strong introverted preference Jorge. Auditory does not have a titular opposite either. Visual forms of feedback and record-keeping are features of most computer programs for L2 learning. Voice-over-Internet Protocol (VoIP) systems carry telephone signals as digital audio. nor do tactile or kinesthetic. visual (sight). videogames. If she also has a very strong auditory preference. government language institutes. moderate auditory and mild tactile. and other forms of digital emphasis are boons to those with a visual learning preference. exists on a continuum. Some people might not like to learn through the senses at all. the person whose style preference is shown with  above. she would similarly want a lot of input through the medium of sound (speaking. which can be useful to L2 classrooms that want to set up instructional relationships across countries. Less flexibility is shown when the preference is very strong one way or the other. VoIP allows a given broadband connection to transmit more than one secure call at the same time. My own sensory preferences are: very strong visual and kinesthetic. DIGITAL AGE STIMULATION OF THE VISUAL SENSE Visual stimulation using print. meaning that he can also exercise the extroverted tendency if needed. can be used to practice elements of the L2. Table 2 is an example of the continuum for one of the sensory learning styles. crossword puzzles. or a variety of other visual means. shown above. because there is no seeming “opposite” of visual. tactile (touch). This paper will focus only on sensory learning styles rather than all types of learning styles. Each L2 learner has a preference level that can be shown on every sensory style continuum. and MP3 players. writing).

VoIP can be linked to Internet services for video conversations and data-file exchanges associated with those conversations. MP3 players also provide other L2 learning assistance.com). teachers and parents might be very happy to see their students passionate about L2 learning because of MMORPGs. digital power.php). sell. http://ctl. the player behaves like a traditional Flash MP3 player and can be connected to a PC. a virtual world that offers a “vast digital continent. consists of blogging for which the medium is video. the last of which “learn” about the student in order to aid learning (Dede 2005). and kinesthetic. tablet PCs.d. digital devices that allow the person to record his or her L2 speech and check the pronunciation via visualized sound waves. experiences. Players enter (and sometimes help create) online virtual worlds. FOUR-SENSE STIMULATION FROM WMDS Wireless mobile devices (WMDs). were directly created for dual-channel learning purposes. films. MP3 players can provide L2 lessons. and Whyville. Vickers (n.) documents the L2 uses of Second Life. Quest Atlantis. as shown next.jsp?Nick=wild. This mode also allows integration with other Internet services. A whole genre. personal digital assistants. Stanford Research Institute (SRI) is conducting intensive research on WMDs for learning. Chinese. along with sound. sometimes combined with science fiction and simulated violence. easily portable devices that can connect to the Internet. and trade with Linden dollars. One of the most popular MMORPGs for L2 learning (English. but some aim for cooperation. dual-channel L2 learning is also catered to by digitally downloadable films and DVDs. which are handheld. dollars. auditory. and smart objects.net/archive. Users can play music and view images stored either on the player or on an optional microSD card (Associated Press 2007). cell phones.secondlife.VoIP. tactile. though not specifically for L2 learning (Dede 2005). In addition. often with closed captioning. and other languages) is Second Life.slanguages. When the 4-gigabyte Sansa Connect is not connected to a wireless network. Each player has one or more personal “avatars” that interact with the avatars of other players. WMDs create “augmented realities.com/projects/displayProject. Frequently these virtual worlds involve classic fantasy. provide “psychological immersion” (Dede 2005). and let learners express their multifaced identities (Dede 2005). teeming with people.sri. because of the rich visual worlds in which the story characters live and operate. CDs bearing visual and auditory material. MMORPGs. WMDs are increasingly used for L2 learning that naturally stimulates not just two learning channels but all four: visual.” help users access digital services anywhere there is wireless capability. could be creatively adapted by L2 teachers for excellent dual-channel learning. Still other virtual worlds used for MMORPGs. 2 Other virtual environments. DUAL-CHANNEL (VISUAL AND AUDITORY) IN THE DIGITAL AGE Digital natives and many digital immigrants expect dual-channel L2 learning. and MMORPGs are a perfect solution. entertainment. and Dark Age of Camelot. which now has its own annual conference for L2 professionals (http://www. However. 2 . and opportunities” (www. such as audio conferencing. Spanish. Typically the games are competitive. Along with the purely auditory advantages mentioned earlier for VoIP technology. Option Technologies Ariefiyono (2008) presented research showing that certain MMORPGs lead to addiction to the game and possible fatigue due to many hours playing the game. have amazingly detailed graphics and animations. put users in touch with others online. such as River City. and blogs that link to YouTube videos.S. In Second Life participants (known as “residents”) can buy. and homework activities. EVE Online. doing a range of challenging to develop each player’s character. and great physical flexibility. not just visual or auditory. which can actually be converted to real-life U. Those who want to use VoIP from independent locations can do so. Other WMDs include handheld gaming devices. The tactile sense gets a bit of a workout from keyboards and touch screens. such as World of Warcraft. vlogging. Wireless MP3 players not only offer sounds and images but also involve touch (tactile sense) and allow movement (kinesthetic sense) without loss of Web connectivity (Associated Press 2007).

E.L. History of VoIP. Retrieved July 24. but what are the costs? Ability to analyze may be affected. B. These changes are clearly recognizable in the very rich support of the sensory learning styles of these learners. Retrieved July 23.wordpress. Some L2 teachers.edu/Library/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/PlanningforNeomillennialL/39899?time=121 6856271 Ehrman. System: An International Journal of Educational Technology and Applied Linguistics 31(3): 313-330.L. C. schools and universities frequently fail to invest in the types of digital technology that many L2 learners now require. and given that fact. nor are they aware that sensory learning styles play a huge role in L2 learning for many students. especially digital natives and many digital immigrants. Planning for neomillenial learning styles. It is hoped that L2 classes and teachers will catch up with the sensory and digital expectations and needs of digital natives and many digital immigrants. and create new sensory options for those learning an additional language. Teaching English as a Second Language (Boston: Heinle / Thomson Learning): 359-366. B. White water will continue to churn.csmonitor. combine. and R. L2 educators need to navigate in dramatic.). 2007. digital programs are currently available. creative ways. (2008. Leaver.E.usatoday. and physical. Y. meaningful ways in the classroom and to simultaneously encourage digitally-enriched. morph. independent ways to learn those languages without a teacher.html Oxford. 3 . 3 REFERENCES Aratani. it can be an L2 session in a virtual world like Second Life or an online discussion with an e-partner halfway around the globe. April 9. students’ sensory concerns help drive the entire digital instructional design industry. p. TOWARD THE FUTURE The Digital Age has authored vast changes and opportunities for L2 learners. 2007. Educause Quarterly. Oxford (eds. G. I am currently working on an article on social networking in L2 learning in the Digital Age. Indeed. 28 (1). Celce-Murcia (ed. multimedia-based. Individual Differences: Advances in Knowledge. Ariefiyono.L. Yahoo. July 23). sensory preferences of students will play a major role. possibly losing interest entirely. and if they do not pay attention to sensory learning style needs. 2001 ‘Language Learning Styles and Strategies’.com/2008/07/23/are-mmorpgs-addictive/ Associated Press. Lamb. 26 Teens can multitask.). many students who have the choice will decide they do not need standard classes (Oxford 2008a). from http://www. 2008 from http://connect. Homework does not need to be strictly pen-and-paper exercises..com/2006/1005/p13s02-legn. digitally-enriched or digitally-delivered learning options – or else they will become very frustrated with L2 learning. For more on independent L2 learning. are not fully informed about the vast possibilities inherent in digital learning. 2005).M. 2006. R. Dissertation. extracurricular L2 learning for students.L. their students will seek alternative. Yussi Ariefiyono’s playground: Are MMORPGs“addictive”? Retrieved July 23. L.. A1. Jackson. 2008 from http://yussiariefiyono. B. 2008 from http://www. Christian Science Monitor. SanDisk team on wireless MP3 player. Many independent. see Oxford (2008a).com/tech/products/gear/2007-04-09-yahoo-sandisk_N. If L2 educators who are unfamiliar with digital L2 learning do not become better informed. 5 ‘Real Learning in a Virtual World’. Digital natives and some digital immigrants will move toward alternative. experts worry.L. M. Oxford. perhaps the majority. Since white water is all around us. In addition. The brightest possibility is for L2 educators to incorporate multiple digital technologies in exciting. Leaver. University of Texas at Dallas.educause. In M. Oct. Ehrman. and R. new. 2005.htm Dede. 2003 ‘Overview of Research on Individual Differences’. Feb. Washington Post.Interactive offers software allowing any student with a WMD or laptop to log onto a website and converse with the teacher (Associated Press. In Special Issue. Digital technologies will continue to grow. 2007. M.

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