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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.