Will the Real Digital Natives Please Stand Up?

We assume that most students are “digital natives” and will naturally understand concepts and  issues surrounding technology, but in my experience with freshmen, this isn’t always the case.  After spending the past week doing a unit on Global Digital Citizenship with students in which they created PSAs using iMovie and Photo Booth, I was reminded of this. Not only do students struggle with knowing the important issues surrounding technology (very few could go much deeper than cyberbullying or obesity from playing too many games), but they did not have the skills to gather the appropriate materials online or use the two programs being introduced and weren’t willing to problem solve to figure it out. So what do we really mean when we say our students our “digital natives” and how should this influence our teaching?

Sitting in a recent tech training session, I was reminded once again of the prevalent attitude of students as “digital natives” and the effect this misconception could have on the classroom and educators. The trainer, after walking a group of teachers through the technology, made a remark in passing akin to “oh, but your students will be able to do this already.” This assumption is akin to saying that students will be able to compose a symphony or write a Petrarchan sonnet simply because they’ve been exposed to music and language in their environment. If teachers take on this assumption, the results are frustration when they find that students don’t in fact know what the teacher needs/expects them to know, dismay if they think the gap between the natives and the immigrants will be too wide to be bridged, or lack of properly prepared students  because they were expected to somehow have already absorbed the knowledge from their environment by virtue of being born post 1990. A child may be able to pick up a language from hearing it spoken around them without formal grammar lessons, but technology is not a language. There is also a big difference between being able to post pictures to Pinterest or download a song from iTunes (skills they are fluent in) and being able to evaluate research online or skillfully manipulate the myriad, ever changing tools our digital world throws at us.

A  recent Economist article “The Net Generation Unplugged” argues “Only a small fraction of students may count as true digital natives, in other words. The rest are no better or worse at using technology than the rest of the population.” Other scholars writing in the British Journal of Education Technology in 2008 point out that due to variations in economics or abilities, there may be as wide a range of differences within those classified as being “digital natives” as there is between digital natives and digital immigrants.

All of this is not to say that we shouldn’t examine how technology can reach students and improve our educational methods. But let’s go into 1:1 education knowing what we’re really up against so we can best serve the students.

Sources: “The Net Generation, Unplugged.” Economist (London, England) Vol. 394, No. 8672. 06 Mar 2010: 10. SIRS Issues Researcher. Web. 08 Mar 2012.



Posted on 8 March 2012, in Digital Citizenship and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. integratedintention

    I think your analysis is dead on. Although some of my students are digital wizards – I’ve had many students struggle with very basic tasks. Familiarity with Facebook does not imply digital competency.

  2. I do believe they are “digital natives,” but I agree with your argument about what that term actually means – and how it impacts us as educators.

    I like to compare this idea of “digital nativity” to citizenship in the United States. If your students are “digital natives” then they are akin to natural-born American citizens. Note that the mere fact that one is born in America does not make them a great citizen or contributor to society. It is through civic education in school, among many other factors, that natural-borns become productive citizens of the USA.

    The assumption is, then, that most teachers are “digital immigrants.” We are like actual immigrants from other countries…coming into a new environment and trying to assimilate; we may ultimately gain our citizenship, but we are not natural-born and true assimilation doesn’t always come easily…even after our “naturalization” process is completed.

    So, I think that “digital natives” come into this world with an aptitude for, and fearlessness regarding, technology that we “immigrants” don’t innately possess. However, they are still children. They don’t come out of the womb as experts in the application of technology to learning and interacting socially. They still need to be educated in responsible and productive use of technology.

    As a school, our message hasn’t changed…the medium has.

  3. I like these analogies, particularly the one regarding US citizenship. While persons born in the US are very familiar with US customs and culture, how many of them could pass the exam that all immigrants applying for citizenship must take?

    Our students are comfortable in a digital environment, but don’t come hard-wired from the womb with step-by-step instructions for all possible software or internet situations.

    A situation I encounter repeatedly is helping my students evaluate the results of a Google search. While their first assumption is that all information can be found on the computer, they don’t necessarily know how to select search terms that will lead in the right direction. They also need help and guidance in evaluating the search results. The idea of examining sources for credibility, purpose, bias, and so forth is not new at all. We are simply teaching the same skills we have always taught in a different venue.

  4. It’s easy to see where these misconceptions are coming from; this commercial from Sprint (and particularly the bit I’ve started the video at) is a prime example of something we see every day, whether it’s on TV, in a restaurant, or in our own homes.

    I wanted to emphasize something that resonated with me: “…weren’t willing to problem solve to figure it out.” Problem solving is the key to digital proficiency. Computers have come a long way, and whereas 15 years ago you had to know HTML to make a website, I’d place money on the fact that most teachers here (myself included) wouldn’t know how to make simple hyperlink without a processor doing it for us!

    And that’s the great thing about how computers and technology have evolved; they’re meant to be intuitive. They’re designed to be easily figured out. We need to encourage our students to take those steps.

    p.s. I’ve put in some HTML; hopefully if they don’t work I’ll be able to edit/delete my post, but if they don’t and I can’t….

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