The Myth of the Digital Native

We hear a lot about the notion of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, a concept originally suggested by Marc Prensky in a paper by the same name.  It makes a presumption that those born after the widespread introduction of digital technologies are somehow out of step with the world of technology, while those who were born and raised in the digital age are naturally able to function within it.  Prensky contends that these younger folk – the “natives” – are born into a technology rich environment and are therefore akin to those who grow up natively speaking a given language, immersed in its use and able to converse fluently with it, while the “immigrants” are like those who come to a foreign land and need to learn to speak a whole new language. He argues that the immigrants will always have a digital “accent”, and therefore their non-native heritage will always be conspicuously obvious.

To be a native implies that you are not only comfortable, but knowledgeable about the culture in which you have grown up. Being a native – of a country for example – suggests that you know the words to the anthem, have an idea about your country’s history and geography, that you have become steeped in its many traditions, culture and language.  It suggests that a certain amount of understanding and knowledge comes from being immersed in it, such that you may not always know how you know things, but you know them nonetheless.

The Natives vs Immigrants concept serves as a neat, tidy metaphor that is useful on a basic level to help understand some of the differences between Gen-Y and those who grew up in the primitive pre-Google world.  However, the problem with the metaphor is that while it’s neat and tidy, it is demonstrably wrong on so many levels.

Here are three simple examples from own personal experience…

Exhibit A: My class of Year 11 students doing a course in computer applications.  These students are 16 and 17 years old.  That means they started school around 1996.  By 1996 – when they were in kindergarten – personal computer software had been around long enough that certain standards had emerged, making their operation relatively easily to understand.  Computers had been in most schools for the better part of a decade. The World Wide Web had been invented three years earlier in Switzerland by Sir Tim Berners-Lee and although had not reached its full stride quite yet, it had already started to make a significant impact on the world.  Windows 95 – an operating system which brought the Internet directly to every computer desktop – had been around for a year.  These students had certainly had grown up in an environment that immersed them in technology from their very earliest days at school, and they all grew up computers at home.

And what do I observe these students doing with technology?  They know how to search Google … badly. They mostly use single words for searches and click on the first or second result on the first page of results, assuming that the top result must be what they were looking for. They are mostly unaware of any other search tool besides Google. They have never heard of tags.  They can add content to their Facebook or Myspace pages, but they mostly do not know the basics of how HTML works, what embed code is or how to use it, and their sense of graphic design on their own site pages is quite poor.  They mostly use the clunky Hotmail service for email, partly because of a mistaken belief that a Hotmail account is required to use MSN Messenger, and partly because they have no real idea that alternative webmail options even exist. They had never heard of Twitter, Gmail, GoogleDocs, Flickr or Delicious.  Their use of older, more conventional productivity tools like Word or Powerpoint was basic at best, with almost no knowledge of even semi-advanced features like Find and Replace, Change Case, the use of Styles, Tracked Changes or Index tools… all of which are extremely useful to a senior student.  Their understanding of a tool like Excel for analysing data was almost non-existent.  They rarely used any software beyond what they needed to be technologically functional in their own little world.

Sure they can text on their cellphones pretty quickly, most have large numbers of friends on IM services and social networks, and they are good at sharing photos and illegal music, but beyond a sort of functional literacy in using a fairly small set of popular online tools, I would hardly describe them as “digital natives”.

Exhibit B: Two boys I know, one 16 and the other 18, each get a new laptop for Christmas and want to connect them to their existing home wireless network. Their father struggles with the wifi on the new Vista laptops for several hours but cannot get it working, so I was asked to lend a hand.  Despite having no password for the router or WEP key, I manage to look up the router’s default password using Google and log into it  (because, of course, it was never changed).  I reset the router, create a new WPA2 key and within a few minutes, despite having never worked with Vista before, all the computers in the household are now connected and working.

The 16 year old boy now asks whether I could help get his XBox 360 connected to the wireless as well, since he has had it for over a year and neither he, his brother, nor his father have managed to figure out how to connect it to the wifi network.  Let me repeat that… a 16 year old boy gets an XBox and a year later he still has not worked out how to connect it to the household wireless!  I show him what to do and within minutes he is online. He then says that he was given a XBox Live subscription last Christmas and has not yet activated it because he did not know how.  I help him step through the instructions and, aside from him lying about his age during the setup process, it’s up and running in a few minutes.  He waited over a year to do this.

This didn’t particularly strike me as “digital native” behaviour.

Exhibit C: My own two kids have grown up in a house that was always full of computers and gadgets. They saw lots of examples of technology being used in interesting ways and they had access to pretty much any hardware or software tool they wanted.   Despite this, my 13 year old daughter needed help setting up her new iPod, did not know how to insert an SD memory card in her mobile phone, and had to ask for assistance to get her photos off the camera.  My 16 year old son, although an avid gamer, complained that he could not understand Open Office when I switched him from Microsoft Office, and until I showed him what to do, could not work out how to save a document using Open Office in a format that the Microsoft computers at school could open.

I love both my kids dearly, but that seems to me to be a pretty bad example of what it should mean to be a “digital native”.

So is there such a thing? Is being ‘“digitally native” really a function of being born into a particular generation, as Prensky suggests? Is it true that our youth are just naturally better at adapting to technology? Is it purely a function of age, or is it far more complicated than that?

Despite these examples, I also know of many kids at the other end of the spectrum; those who are incredibly adept at using and learning technology.  I’ve had students who are amazing digital artists, others who can easily create complex computer code, and some who can take apart and put back together almost any piece of hardware you can throw at them.  I know some kids who learn new software almost instantly, who seem to “get” whatever technology they encounter almost immediately, and who do it all with such comfort and ease that onlookers are astounded.  But when we see these kids we make the mistaken assumption of thinking that they are representative of their generation, that all kids are like them. These kids are the ones we hold up as the “digital natives”, the ones that make us marvel at just how intuitive they are when it comes to using technology.  The problem is that these kids are not really representative of their whole generation.  They are freaks – naturally good at technology in the same way that others are naturally good at swimming or gymnastics or drawing or singing.

Prensky’s logic falls down for me when I see older folk – those who were clearly born before most people had even heard of a microchip – behave with just as much “native-ness” as many of their Gen-Y counterparts.  Many of the cleverest, most insightful technology users I’ve ever met are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, and should – according to Prensky – be speaking with an almost unrecognizable “digital accent”, and yet they don’t.  So I’m convinced that age has very little to do with it.  I’ve seen 80 years olds who can surf the web effectively, use a digital camera, carry their music around on an iPod and use a mobile phone.  And I’ve seen teenagers that can’t figure out how to Google a piece of information properly, don’t realise that Wikipedia can be edited, and have no idea how to listen to a podcast.

So if it’s not age, then how can we say that someone is “digitally native” in a generational sense?  How can we support an argument that suggests anyone not born into this technological revolution will always have a “digital accent”.

I think we make a huge error of judgment if we assume that just because a 14 year old takes a lot of photos with their phone and sends 300+ texts a month that they have some sort of innate “digital native” status. We seem to assume that because they use tools like Google to find information, that they understand how to do it well.   And we assume that because they might have 200 friends on Facebook that they understand what it means to live in a digital world.

I’ll agree that being young does, on average, tend to make one more at ease with technology.  It usually (though I’d argue, not always) means that someone born into a technology-rich world is less afraid of the digital world, not scared of trying a new device or piece of software and more able to pick up its use more quickly.  Kids are usually not afraid to learn new skills and software and tools… they just aren’t always very good at doing these things in a particularly broad or deep way.  My observations of most younger “natives” suggest that although they are generally quite good at using technology to do a fairly narrow set of tasks that matter to them (as you’d expect) such as sending text messages, playing games, downloading digital music and managing their collections of online friends, they can often be pretty lacking in further technological depth.  The wider perception held by many, that “they are young and they spend lots of time online, so therefore they must be whizzes when it come to anything to do with technology” just doesn’t hold water.  When you can find plenty of examples to support the idea that those who should be naturally adept with technology are not, and an equal number of examples of those who shouldn’t be, but are, I think we need to rethink this whole natives and immigrants myth.

It’s a dangerous myth because it has some real implications for how we approach technology in schools.  If we believe that “all kids are good with technology and all adults aren’t”, which, in its most basic terms, is the kind of polarised thinking that the native/immigrant myth perpetuates, it can play out in schools with all sorts of bizarre unstated beliefs…

  • “As long as the hardware and software is available, it will make the learning more effective since the kids already know how to use it”
  • “We don’t need to actively teach the responsible use of social tools… the kids already know how to use them”
  • “As a teacher I don’t need to really understand this stuff, since the kids will figure it out”
  • “It’s ok to be a basic user of technology, since the kids are all experts at using computers”
  • Using technology in class is not that important, since the kids spend so much time using it out of school anyway”

… all of which are ridiculously untrue of course, but if you look for these unspoken beliefs it’s amazing how often you find them.

Perhaps we need a greater meeting of the minds. Instead of thinking in terms of us and them – natives and immigrants – maybe we need to value the qualities that both parties bring to the table – combining the fearless sense of exploration of our natives with the wisdom and experience of our immigrants – and work harder on teaching and learning from each other, regardless of age, so that we all live happily in this shared digital land of ours.

Image: ‘gran´pa, gran´ma n´ pa´
http://www.flickr.com/photos/36613169@N00/41294219
 
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90 thoughts on “The Myth of the Digital Native

  1. Great post- I work at an at-risk school and many of these kids have trouble with basic technological functions and problem solving or troubleshooting. The funny thing is,they go to an online school so they must believe before entering that they have a decent command of the computer or Internet. Unfortunately, many of the kids that fall into the canyon of the digital divide are not also digital natives. Does being a native have more to do with accessibility then with age?

  2. I agree with your thoughts Chris. I have been in so much staff Professional Development hanging onto the thought of educators being technologically ignorant …..whoops digital immigrants and I guess I for one have been offended being labelled such.
    Jamie McKenzie also has a good thought http://fno.org/nov07/nativism.html

  3. Everything about your post is good. The opening picture is excellent because it an excellent example of online communication supporting & expanding a civil rights pro-immigrant rally. It seems to support the native (young immigrant protesters) having a natural connection and use of social media to organize a major spontaneous event. It would pit, in that context, the older, house-to-house organizers against the young-tech savvy generation. Yet, that same photograph, while giving due credit to the youth presence, also supports the idea that immigrants can be just as at-home and effective in their new environment.
    You are absolutely right that the Digital Native vs. Digital Immigrant metaphor or contrast is wrong-headed. As a former H.S. English teacher, and currently an education advocate, I admit that many colleagues are techno-phobes, or at least techno-neuters. It does seem, without a deeper look, that the young are so tech-proficient that we adults do better to leave them to their own devices. (just noticed, so I’ll take a credit on pun intended)
    I can bear witness that teenagers shouldn’t be left totally to their own devices in learning how to express themselves in writing: that is, communicating cogently, logically, expressively, perhaps even creatively, will not happen for a majority of the population without support, guidance, focus, coaching, and even (perish the thought) correction. I’m not a Ms. McGillicuddy- grammarian but I’m also not abdicating my teaching role & responsibility when wearing my English teacher sombrero.
    So, long intro to praise your build-up to the bullets on the bizarre (unspoken) beliefs and closing paragraph. Your examples are powerful, precise and a bulls-eye. We need to bring to light and examine the many tacit myths surrounding technology, social media & what skills, talents and proficiencies an individual possesses. I’m 66 and I’ve slowly backed into the 2.0 world. It’s dizzying but not off-putting; I see some of the same snake-oil marketing that I’ve experienced in hundreds of booths at educational conferences ricocheting in twitterland. My generational learning path gives me some tools to spot the carnies and the hucksters. And yet, I’ve got 1300 connections in LinkedIn (in 6 months), one major blog and two minors, 380 TWITTER followers, and a bunch of entries in de.lic.ious., several articles in DIGG, recorded a dozen podcasts as interviewer & interviewee, uploaded over 30 articles on ed topics and that’s what I can recall at home without my password cheat sheet for most of the social media connections.(My senior moments are clearly concentrated around passwords & entry codes).I’m one of those exceptions that proves your critique is correct. An aging, flatulent fogie ferociously forging his way through the brave new social media 2.0 world…and loving every keystroke and mouse-click.

    I’ll be recommending this posting and your blog in general to my ed advocacy contacts.
    Keep sharing your clear thinking, and please, keep writing.

  4. Welcome back Chris
    I’ve never subscribed to Prensky and I’m only a Johnny come lately to all this web2.0 tosh.

    Most of the expert instruction, deep learning, applied and responsible uses of the things we call technology lies with the master learners, not the apprentice learners. Nothing has changed there.

    Your point about fearlessness (push this and see what it does?) is valid however. Thats why if they don’t get it within an hour and with little inclination to engage with sustained reading (thinking? theory testing? logic?) they wait for someone who can, maybe even a year.

    I liked McKenzie’s take on this same issue http://www.fno.org/nov07/nativism.html
    Sorry I cant code for nuts, I’m an immigrant.

    Hope Canada was as good as it sounded, no twirpy little phish there we hope.
    regards
    Tony

  5. perhaps the prensky proposition has been over extended…

    the native analogy merely points out that ‘doing’ technology for the sake of being novel is not enough

    in fact the xbox example is perfectly consistent with the yawn factor the latest techno gadget often provokes
    (provoke a yawn!?..hmm..stifle perhaps)

    note the energy with which newbies..(noobs=derogatory) embrace novel uses of technology

    in education or more precisely schooling..it’s because we can

    still not good enough!!

    unless or until there is a good or better reason to use an innovative technology..then keep it as a ‘trial’ or a ‘pilot’ ad do not expect ‘everyon’e to get too excited

    a common enough complaint heard constantly…nearly whiningly from education bloggers..about how the vast majority ‘do not get it’

    well maybe they do!

    schooling is about getting grades to go to the next level..

    the curriculum is still so out of date..it’s barely to the 1970s with sciences…that it is a constant struggle to make the learning relevant

    and here’s the nub of the argument

    the confusion of purpose between education and schooling

    as for gen Y..they do not have getting impatient with slow or inadequate response times..we all get impatient

    it’s not just the children (some!) who have high expectations of advanced technologies…all users do

    perhaps the natives description is not a generational thing..more an attitude to learning…the immigrants learn rules…natives know and understand

    not confined to necessarily younger or older members of society

    more a state of mind about whether they can still learn…ask a question, get an answer, apply the knowledge to a new(novel) situation creating a new skill

    sounds remarkably like the 21st century skill set touted around some of the blogs…seems like a description of a life long learner..with or without advanced technologies

    in fact some learning is best done without any technologies….perhaps the appropriate tool for the job is the aproach to take

    unfortunately the politicians need for a panacea is not satisfied by an ‘it depends’ solution…constructivist approaches require individual responses to each individual..only then can learning take place

    the sheep dip approach to schooling doesn’t do it…if it ever did!

  6. @Chris
    A great post. The examples you use are spot on. Most of the kids in my school are the same way. When it comes to cell phones and social networking sites they are amazingly talented. Push them outside that edge and the wheels fall off the cart. We are beginning to broadcast home basketball games on ustream. I have to meet with students today to show them how to use ustream and camtwist to superimpose the score. Their instructions over break were to figure it out. I guess the old man principal has to show them how to do it.

  7. I largely agree with you, except on one point. There are certainly plenty of kids around like those you described. However, I’d venture the idea that in a contest with 30 kids vs 30 teachers, exposed to a great digital learning environment, it would be the kids who would pick up learning in that environment heaps faster than adults. So yes, we need great teachers. That the kids you encounter (which are like the ones we all encounter) have no idea how to seek for and utilise information well reflects not so much on the kids as it does on the learning environment. I say this because too many of the teachers we work with have no clue! I am tired of showing teachers the basics of information literacy – they should have that under their belt by now!

    Great post, and time that we all got together and challenged the futurists and big talkers who earn a crust making grand statements. Send ‘em back to the classroom and see what story they would tell then!

  8. Hi Chris,
    Thank you for yet another relevant and interesting post! In my little experience, I also tend to believe that the native/immigrant categorisation is not necessarily to do with age, it’s mostly individual. I have many teenage students who are as techno-phobic – or at least as uninterested in and negative about technology – as some of my colleagues who are counting the years to retirement. And the same goes to those who eagerly welcome and experiment with all the new web2.0 tools.
    As for your last bullet point (“Using technology in class is not that important, since the kids spend so much time using it out of school anyway.”), I have been very surprised to learn this very argument from teenage students themselves! I would have thought the majority of them would be happy about some change in standard English classes with the introduction of some technology use, but no, some of them protest that it is a waste of time since they can learn all that on their own at home. Here, I am sure most of them are thinking exactly of the very limited use of technology – sending text messages, uploading pictures of their weekend escapades, writing funny comments for their friends’ pictures or doing research with Wikipedia as their only source! I couldn’t agree more with Aurelio’s comment about the importance of “support, guidance, focus, coaching and correction” from teachers – and parents, too.
    Your concluding paragraph, Chris, is very well put, too :)

  9. I have happen to have re-read that paper from Prensky recently as research for my MA. I do think that -forgive me father, for I am about to sin- that he does stretch the metaphor a bit too far in my humble opinion, which is probably also malinformed and irrelevant anyway!

    I think Prensky does have a point however, which I believe to be right, and it is that there is an inherent expectation of technology among students that was not there say 20 years ago.

    Wait for this masterpiece in diplomacy: I think both Prensky and Betcher are right on this one. Students use technology in an unquestioning and inherent, almost innate way these days (you mention social networks and email, for example) -so Prensky has a point- but they use it unthinkingly -here’s where you come in: they expect to use technology to perform certain tasks, but, because they have not been taught to use any of it effectively, largely because there was no one there to teach them, they have had to teach themselves, and both you and I know, as teachers, what happens when kids teach themselves, don’t we?

    To elaborate on Prensky’s metaphore, native speakers of a language will use that language perfectly, but a inmmigrant who has had to learn the language later on in life is likely to know and understand the grammar of said language better that the native speaker, since they had to study and think about it.

    I think that expecting a young person who regularly uses Facebook to know html code is the equivalent of expecting a 10 year old Australian child to explain away the difference between the passive and active voice or how to use the subjunctive in English.

    You are absolutely right though about there being a need for children to be taught to use technology efficiently, but that should be an easy job because they already know the basics…right? ;)

    José

  10. Great post! Couldn’t agree more, the lack of transferable IT skills our pupils have often surprises me. A good argument for using more open source software in school – get them off Office for just a while.

  11. You are right on about this – and you’ve got support from around the world about why overstretching this slogan is harmful. I wrote a blog post a while back collecting links to conversations and articles highlighting the problem.

    In particular, Bill Kerr from Adelaide has created a page on his Learning Evolves wiki about the problems with Prensky. Bill made some really interesting comments on my blog post about why he disagrees with Jamie McKenzie that you might find interesting.

  12. It’s so interesting that you’ve written this article. I’ve just finished Uni (studying to be a teacher) and this is one of the big documents that they use, so I’m really, REALLY familiar with Prensky’s work !!

    The thing I thought of as I was reading through your post was how it has a lot of do with immersion in technology, and all its aspects. I also think that it’s about being willing to try things- the family in your second example, needed to google how to do it, and then just try it. I find this happens a lot with many people that I know- they ask me how to do things, when really, all I do is go and either work it outby trying things, or google it.

    I would most certainly consider myself to be ‘up’ with current technologies, and therefore really a bit of a geek, but it has nothing to do with when I was born. Indeed, when I graduated high school, I think the only time I’d used a computer was at home to type up assignments- I wasn’t in any computer classes, or anything like that, and none of my other subjects required it.
    It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve just jumped, head first, into the internet, and computers and all gadgets, and just… learnt and soaked in everything I can.

    I think it’s important to teach kids that it’s okay to make mistakes, and to try new things (which you can’t really do when you undo it all with exams and the like…). I’ve just had my brother (a 2008 yr 12 graduate) doing some work with me this week, and his willingness to just do things I ask him to online/ on the computer, even though he doesn’t have any prior experience, and doesn’t think “I can’t do this” has made him a really valuable employee, and he’s been one of my best workers…

  13. Wow! There’s nothing left for me to say. You’ve said it all, and I couldn’t agree more. I had similar experiences with my 11th and 12th grade Contemporary Issues students who worked on The Networked Student project. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XwM4ieFOotA

    Those of us who are integrating technology into our curriculum have much to do. We must be very careful that we do not mislead our colleagues into believing that students already know how to use technology, or that they will automatically be motivated just because they’re working with computers. We must address the reality that our kids will only learn digital literacy if we teach them, and it won’t always be easy. Sadly, I feel that we are really letting our students down. We recently conducted a focus group at our school to find out what students thought about using technology to learn. There were huge differences between age groups (grade 4-12). But, some of the oldest students commented that they could see no benefit to using technology for learning beyond word processing. In their minds, technology is primarily for fun and communication with friends. Gives you an idea about what they’ve been doing with technology over the past 12 years.

    Thank for the thoughtful, important post.

    Wendy

  14. Love it that Live Traffic Feed has me reading from London!

    I think kids buy into the rhetoric as well. Did a lesson recently with some Year 10s. I could tell as I started up that they thought I was going to be a boring old lady talking at them- by then end we were swapping geek toy stories. Got to look past the grey hair (which I had as a five year old BTW).

    Will get to the meme when Live Traffic Feed sees me back in NZ.

  15. Your post is a great attempt to deconstruct the mythology behind the term, Chris.

    For what it’s worth, I actually think there IS such a thing as a digital native, but I absolutely agree that the term has zilch to do with young people’s ‘innate’ abilities or capacities to understand and use technology. Prensky’s starting point was, I believe rightly, the different expectations and the quite different world view of a generation that takes a data-rich environment for granted, especially when contrasted with the pre-digital expectations and world view of, for instance, my generation (born in the late ’50s).

    It is the mythology that has built up around the term that has done damage, I believe. The mythology that young people are somehow inherently more able to make effective use of digital technology has been propogated and has been allowed to thrive, unfortunately, because so many adults have allowed their enthusiasm for all-things-technological to cloud their judgement over the years.

    However, while the mythology is itself dangerous and counter-productive, especially in education, there is an even more hazardous consequence of the myth, namely that so many teachers across the world feel they have a ready-made excuse not to engage with the digital environment that our children and young people take for granted. We are the teachers of the digital natives; we therefore have a responsibility to ensure that we know and understand the complex milieu within which young people live today. If we do not, or cannot, then we are unable to serve their learning needs fully.

    How can a teacher who does not know how to make effective use of Google or Wikipedia or social technologies possibly give young people the help and expertise they so badly need to allow them to make sense of this world today, one that is vastly more complex and data-rich than the one I grew up in 4 or 5 decades ago or so?

  16. Hello Chris,

    Read you post last night and knew you were on to something…

    During my grade 11 ELA class this morning, we began an investigation into mind-mapping. I asked the class to take five minutes and discover as many different mind-mapping variations as possible. After we shared our ‘pooled’ knowledge, it was very apparent that all six groups (24 students)had searched the same sites. I polled the class and discovered that all of them used Google exclusively, had entered a single word search, and had ‘clicked’ the first four entries only…

    We as educators have loads left to teach! Thanks for the insights,

    Ciao, Stephen.

  17. I agree well and truly Chris. This was a recurring theme for me some time back. My return to the classroom was an anti-climax in many respects. I was hoping to achieve wonders with the students following my technological sojourn at university and whilste working in Singapore.

    I was surprised to find that the secondary school population was not overflowing with digital natives hungry for cutting edge challenges in a digital sense. In fact there was and is a sizable group that just want notes on the board and to be told what to study for in the exam.

    This very point has come up in staff meetings and during IT workshops, etc. Sure there are students who may know a few more keyboard shortcuts and can type much faster than I. Their use of mobile phones is impressive. Yet, there are a wide variety of IT skills lacking.

    They can all make an iMovie or Windows Movie Maker project but they exhibit little creativity with their editing, timelines, etc. They do not explore the technology. They may apply special effects but they do not know why they are applying the special effect. They produce a video then what next? Teachers then have to share the technological possibilities that are available to allow online publication or dissemination of the product.

    Even use of tools like Word or Powerpoint is quite basic on the whole. Rarely does a student show an eye for good design or layout. These skills need to be taught by a teacher with the necessary skill set.

    I am trying to encourage the student population at our school to avoid wasting endless hours with MSN Chat, MySpace and the like and steer their energies towards the construction of blogs and web sites that are beneficial for themselves and the wider community. It is an uphill battle. Some of my students have produced worthy web sites. One is actually earning about $50.00USD per day via Google AdSense on their site. Great way to earn money while still a Year 10 student.

    As I wrote some time back perhaps they are not Digital Natives at all but simply Digital Dilettantes… they are, and I quote from a dictionary, “…an amateur or dabbler; especially, one who follows an art or a branch of knowledge sporadically, superficially, or for amusement only”. More thoughts here….

    Tony, I love your reference to all the web 2.0 stuff as ‘tosh’. The terminology gets to me. The hype gets to me.

    Cheers, John.

  18. While the “Natives/Immigrants” term served a purpose to start with – to get a point across, it’s now being used as an excuse for teachers and it’s an overestimation when it comes to students. Now more than ever we need teachers to get on board with all of the issues of the so called “digital education revolution”. I believe it is a teacher’s responsibility to know and discuss issues like eSafety, social networking and anonymous and identified responsible publishing. Critical thinking has been missing from the equation for far too long.

    I fear that the National Curriculum (Australia) will be our last chance to bring syllabii into the 21st century. If we miss out on an ICT-embedded curriculum, we’ll miss out on the all-important credibility factor we are currently lacking: relevance.

    To everybody reading this blog and this article and this comment:

    “What are YOU doing to bring your fellow teachers into the 21st century?”

    To those teachers doing their own ICT thing on their own island, you’re really not helping. Where’s the continuity for your students when they leave your class? Motivate. Shake things up. Encourage. Model. Share. Adopt. Adapt. Review. Evaluate, Redefine. Above all, build that expectation. If teachers aren’t expected to use ICTs they won’t use it. If teachers are given an option to use ICTs, they’ll opt-out.

    We preach this concept of “lifelong learning”, but how many teachers actually practise it?

    Sorry for the rant. :)

  19. Hi Chris,

    As has already been expressed many people already before now, I whole-heartedly agree with you on the fact that digital “nativeness” is not dependent on age, and for many of the reasons previously outlined. What I am concerned about, though, as a teacher of IT, is that this assumption is having such a detrimental impact on my subject area! The move seems to be away from teaching IT as a subject, towards integrating it effectively into other subject areas and removing the need for it to be addressed separately.

    Now, I’m all for improving how ICT is used across the school, don’t get me wrong, but it annoys me that people who do NOT understand IT are the ones that are deciding what is and isn’t important, and I’m sure there are teachers in other subject areas that feel exactly the same way. This myth that we’re dealing with a whole generation of digital natives is laughable – just because they grow up in that environment, doesn’t mean they know it.

    As an aside, I found it interesting that a similar point was made in a movie I saw today. Slumdog Millionaire – without spoiling it for anyone, there is a point in the movie where a comment is made that the policeman’s 5 year old daughter would be able to answer that question (about the phrase that appears on India’s coat of arms) and that it was ludicrous that a man who grew up in India wouldn’t know the answer. Jamal turned to him and asked if he knew the details of some minor crimes that had occurred in the area – the policeman didn’t – and he made the comment back that any 5 year old living the slums would have been able to answer that question.

    It’s not safe to make an assumption so broad without really understanding all of the circumstances around someone’s life. This is the case we have here – kids are only native users of the technology THEY CHOOSE TO US, and generally that doesn’t include online research tools, word processors and spreadsheets. What it does mean is computer gaming consoles, portable media players and mobile phones. That doesn’t make them digital natives – that just demonstrates the role of these particular technologies in defining who these kids are and how they interact with one another.

  20. I find it less exasperating to teach my students than older colleagues who need to be taught numerous times how to perform a basic technical task. I’ve found that younger people pick things up quicker and then run with it. Sometimes I have to muster all my patience while teaching other teachers, some of whom seem a little lazy and would prefer me to do the task for them. Although teachers need to be given credit if they are trying to learn.

    Some teachers are scared to push a button, while my students are far more willing to experiment and try new things. It makes me want to cry that there are probably a few (top pay-scale) teachers at my school who have never googled subject-related learning materials in their lives. Our kids deserve better.

  21. Hi, I commented about this issue way back in November last year at:
    http://efoliointheuk.blogspot.com/2008/11/towards-new-digital-divide.html

    My main argument being that there are too many ‘elitists’ in the world of ICT and it is these people, of whatever age, who are causing a so-called ‘Digital Divide’.

    I have a long and continuous history of digital innovation stretching way back from the early 50′s ie pre-digital, including radio-control, radio-telescopes, audio-visuals, developed CEEFAX subtitling for the Deaf, teaching machines and then came the first PCs in schools. And to cut a very long story short I’ve been in ICT teaching and staff develpment ever since. – I’m now 67.

    So, what would Prensky think of me? For more of my rants see:

    P: http://www.raytolley1.xfolioworld.com

    B: http://www.efoliointheuk.blogspot.com/

    W: http://www.maximise-ict.co.uk/eFolio-01.htm

  22. I guess this is just like learning any skill some people will pick things up very quickly and be a natural (native) at it and others wont. But you still need expert instruction, coaching and guidance to become really good. Think of a swimmer who has a natural affinity with the water but still needs to master technique to become a great swimmer. We as teachers need to be teaching kids the techniques on how to become great ICT users. Which means that teachers themselves need to have the knowledge to teach it! Great thought provoking post Chris!

  23. Interesting post. I have to say, the term “digital native” seemed to make sense to me before reading your post. But, I now realize that “digital native’ really refers to the younger generation’s basic comfort level with technology. They are basically willilng to click on things many adults would be afraid to try. But..as far as getting deeper into technology and having a good proficiency with new tools….I think you are correct….most just don’t have the skills.

  24. Great post! Just because we are all exposed to the same things doesn’t mean we retain them at the same rate, use them or even like them. I find that in a class of 18 students, given the same lesson- some will “run with it”, some will be somewhat interested and others will just “tune it out”. Just because you are a digital native that doesn’t mean you are proficient in all aspects of technology, just like all of us in Algebra 101 didn’t become proficient in it!

  25. perhaps a more useful differentiation is the type of learner..or mindset

    fixed mindset = use status quo, not so adventurous, conservative, know what they know, rule dependent

    growth mindset = constantly seeking a better way, challenging, questioning, enquiring, have a go because they can…dare I suggest creative and constructivist as well!?

    fits to students and to teachers..nothing to do with age

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  27. Well said, Chris. There is risk and unending frustration (especially in teaching) when making assumptions about prior skills. We teach alphabetical order, various comprehension skills, skimming, scanning all throughout the early education process. Why would we assume basic technology skills would not also need to be taught and revisited each year on various levels?

  28. There’s a lot of data out there on digital ‘advantage’ and ‘disadvantage’ and it’s easy to surmise why Prensky could reach some of the ill begotten conclusions that surface under the cover of metaphor. Having said that, you’ll be amused to note that twelve years ago I couldn’t even put a word document together and when put in front of a computer I felt truely ‘Lost in Space’. However time and tide flow and now pretty much everything that opens and closes is on friendly terms, although I am having trouble getting my head around the algorithmic intracies of programming for visual representation of data.
    If there were a nail more deserving of a good hit on the head it’s skewed notions of writers such as Prensky, that serve to inform those who make decisions on our behalf.
    Nice work Chris. Clarity is important….thanks for bringing it.
    Encouraging to read also the intelligent dialogue generated by this post.

  29. A lot of what Prensky attributed to generational differences is merely the well-known process of frontal lobe maturation. Young children have always had shorter attention spans and less ability to focus and organise. As frontal lobe connections mature we can do these things (for better or worse some might say. There are so many fiddly things with computers that even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs make a hash of their public demo’s as things don’t go to plan. No amount of aptitude can substitute for the trial & error that is often required in this ‘manuals-free’ era.

  30. Hallelujah–someone has finally said it! Let’s stop being afraid of the “digital natives” and step up to the plate to teach them how to responsibly and effectively use the wealth of technology available to them.

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  32. Hi Chris,
    I both agree with and disagree with your comments. I have studied Prensky in my recently completed Masters and we all need to remember that he wrote about this theory in 2001. 2001 – in technology circles – was a long time ago! FYI, Prensky has updated this theory – see http://www.marcprensky.com – from Digital Natives/Immigrants to Digital Wisdom.

    Yes, many of our older students lack essential tech skills. But, what do you expect them to be able to do if all they have previously engaged in is FB or chat? We know that parents are role models. Parents who read are encouraging their children to read. How many parents are actively tinkering with technology and actively showing their kids how they are learning to use it? I know I do and all my kids are digitally wise :-)

    I spend most of my time as an educator de-programming students who have been taught to essentially ‘wait’ for the teacher. It is hard to change the kids mindset but given time, many students can learn to be self directed learners. My message is simple no one can know it all and no one has ever trained me to use any of the software or tech tools that I use. I trained me – so you can train you!

    I frequently use new software with the students and we learn to use it together. Reading the instructions, following a tutorial, searching through forums and looking for tutorials on You Tube are useful strategies that get results. The teacher must try to do whatever task that is set for the students – actively demonstrating the problem solving strategies that they are using to achieve the goal. Teachers can’t step back and expect it to ‘just happen’.

    Like I am always saying to everyone at school ‘It’s a computer – not a magic wand’.

    1. HI Jane,

      Thanks for the considered comment. I’m not sure what part of the post you disagree with… most of the examples you used seem to be on the same wavelength as my thinking. You seem to agree with me that our students lack tech skills, that they often lack initiative to get started (in any deeper kind of way) and that kids often learn by seeing good examples set for them by older, hopefully wiser, adults. I think we are on the same page here!

      The point is that kids, by and large, don’t have some innate “nativeness” that helps them be masters of technology. Being at ease with technology is not the same thing as being good with it, and not all kids are goods with it. Some are, and some aren’t, but I’m more convinced than ever that the “some kids” who are good at technology, who pick it up quickly and easily and are comfortable exploring it, are not like that because of their age but rather because of a personality type. People (not just kids) who have this personality type that values exploration, curiosity and wonder are likely to be the real tech-tinkerers. Conversely, people who aren’t are not. And I’m certain that this has nothing to do with age.

      Sounds like you lead your students well in regard to their engagement with technology… sadly, many teachers do not.

      I set a task recently for my year 11 students to select a piece of software that they have never seen before (I gave them a suggested list of open source and web 2 applications in case they couldn’t think of anything themselves) and to create a training manual (either as a written document or a series of screencasts) for it. Their choices of software, despite being completely open ended, were all taken from the list I supplied, and the depth of exploration was relatively superficial. This despite the fact that they said they enjoyed doing the task, and that they said they learned a lot from it. I really have doubts that our “natives” are good at taking things deep without prodding from the teacher… and if the teacher doesn’t know much about this stuff then the chances are the kids will fail to really push their thinking.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment… I’m glad you took the time to write it.

      Chris

    2. PS: I met Prensky recently, and he was still banging on about this natives/immigrants thing. I’ve read the Digital Wisdom paper, but am still largely unimpressed with it. Too many sweeping statements about kids being more clued in to technology just because they are kids.

      At the conference a few weeks ago, Prensky got a group of about 10 kids up on stage to interview them about their engagement with technology. I’m not sure exactly what this was supposed to prove… there was one student (a boy, predictably) who was a bit of a geek, totally into games and the web; there was a couple of female students who were very nonplussed about technology, one of them even said they really didn’t like using computers at all; the remaining kids were at varying stages of interest/engagement with tech, most gave examples of using it regularly for games, chat, IM, etc, but none seems to me to have any really deep connection to it.

      If the point of the student forum was to make the point that kids have an innate “digital nativeness”, then I don’t think this example hit the mark. I’m sure the kids that were chosen to be part of this panel were selected based on their level of computer use and knowledge, but they certainly didn’t fit the pattern of “natives”.

      And I’ll say it again like I said in the post, the danger in believing that kids DO have this nativeness is that school build all sorts of other beliefs around it. If you think a group of people is already innately good at something, you won’t spend as much time or energy actively teaching those skills… you just assume they can already do it, and the fact is that many of them can’t.

  33. Since we are still talking about this post (wow, nearly 60 comments!) I thought I’d pass on this little exchange…

    After the recent Leading a Digital School conference in QLD, where Marc Prensky was the keynote speaker, I got this email from him… (his comments were based on a couple of tweets I made during his presentation, one about the fact that while the information was ok, I felt that the message was about 10 years old)

    Marc wrote…

    From: Marc [prensky@attglobal.net]
    Sent: Thursday, 10 September 2009 11:45 AM
    To: Chris.Betcher
    Subject: Follow-up

    Hi Chris.
    Good meeting you at IWB.
    Since, judging from your tweets, you were clearly not happy with my presentation, I’d be very interested in hearing what you would have told the audience.
    Perhaps you are so far ahead, that you are always looking for something new and different. There is plenty, but much of the old stuff hasn’t gotten through yet, and it is more fundamental than the current bleeding edge.
    Whatever the case, I welcome your thoughts. Please give my regards to the people at PLC.
    Best,
    Marc

    My reply to Prensky was as follows…

    Hi Marc,
    Thanks for taking the time to write. I’m not sure that saying “I’m clearly not happy with your presentation” is really an accurate summation of the tweetstream. I don’t think the tweets I made weren’t overly negative or critical of your presentation although obviously I did think that the message was getting a little dated for this particular crowd. The actual content was fine, I have no issue with the basic message your were giving, I just thought it wasn’t particularly challenging… your basic message as I understood it was that, a) schools need to change and change can be scary, and b) kids today are a bit different from the generations before them. For this particular audience I just would have thought these two assumptions would be a given… On a positive note, I did rather like your nouns/verbs metaphor, and found that quite a helpful distinction for teachers grappling with this stuff.
    I’m hardly going to tell you what you should present… I’m sure you can make that judgment for yourself. I do think that your presentation made a number of sweeping generalizations that didn’t always hold up to scrutiny, and I was a little surprised you were still milking the old immigrants/natives argument quite so much… I guess I see that as a fairly flawed metaphor for a whole lot of reasons, and I don’t really think that such polarised thinking is a good thing. Working with kids every day I see so many exceptions to the “rule”, in both directions. I actually blogged about it a while back at http://betch.edublogs.org/2009/01/06/the-myth-of-the-digital-native/ if you’re interested.
    I also did leave a short AudioBoo at the end of Day 1, which you can check out at http://audioboo.fm/boos/60209-iwbnet09-leading-a-digital-school. I just re-listened to what I said at the time, and I think perhaps you’re being a little sensitive… I don’t think it makes me out to have a negative view of your presentation, or to indicate that I wasn’t happy with it, but rather just that I didn’t feel challenged by it. Perhaps it’s just your reputation as a “thought leader” in this space that made me expect to hear something different. Either way, it was fine. Don’t worry about it.
    Anyway, it was good to meet you. I would have enjoyed the chance to have a bit more of a personal chat with you at the BBQ but I guess you were busy. I think I would have enjoyed the opportunity to really dig into some of your ideas and explore them a bit further.
    I’ll pass on your regards to Bill.
    Chris

    Sounds like he was a bit miffed at people (including me) not thinking his presentation was as good as he thought it was. I would have enjoyed the chance to chat more with him about this stuff, in fact, at the welcome BBQ I invited him to join myself and a group of other educators for a social chat but he declined. I have also not heard back from him in response to the email above, so I guess he’s not interested in having a discussion about it. Seems to me if you want to make sweeping statements that are demonstrably wrong on so many levels them you ought to be willing to engage in conversation about it.

    But apparently not.

  34. This was an amazing article. I must admit that I have “stereotyped” kids and assume that they are Digital Natives and know so much more than they actually do. In fact, as I learn more via online classes, workshops, etc., I realize that I actually know more about certain uses of technology than most of my 7th graders do. I realize that knowing how to text does not necessarily translate to computer/technology expertise. I have been teaching for 24 years and my goal is to become a Digital Native….just love that term:)

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  36. How easy it is to make assumptions about people, young and old. Maybe this is an eye opener to the fact that pre-assessing is needed with our students just to see what technology tools they really have in their learning tool box. Educators need to be able to model the use of each tool several times and solicit a student who also has demonstrated proficiency to be the second ‘go to’ person. Students should anticipate having to use many technological tools at some point during the school year.

  37. Excellent post! Thank you so much for taking the time to write it. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in wondering about the “digital natives” group. It was very informative to read in so many comments that many of us have found the “digital native” as a category for this generation to be inaccurate. With my kids and teachers, I’d group them more as the “digital explorers” and “digital non-explorers”.
    We try to help the “non-explorers” learn the tools they need, and more importantly, try to help them become braver about and more interested in “exploring” (even when exploring just means checking what’s below File on the Menu Bar. Some of my incoming 6th graders had no idea what Menu Bar was yet they all had computers at home.) Our IT team has adopted the motto of “Patience, practice, progress” with the non-explorers – If we’re patient with them, talking them through how to do something one or more practice tries, eventually there is progress (most of the time).

That's all well and good, but what do YOU think?