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
 

CC BY-SA 4.0 The Myth of the Digital Native by Chris Betcher is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

90 Replies to “The Myth of the Digital Native”

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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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  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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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