Who’s Afraid of the Digital Native?

Exploring the divide between the digital literate and the not so literate, and the impact that this has on 21 century learning design, the conclusion is, that there is no such thing as a ‘digital native’, and use of and experiences with ICT vary widely across all generations.

Bennett and Maton (2010) discuss the impact of researchers early in the 21 Century, who coined the term ‘Digital Native’, used to describe the new generation of tech savvy young people who had been immersed in a digital/technology based world from early childhood (Prensky 2001). There appeared to be a digital divide between this ‘Net Generation’ and the digital immigrants who included teachers and those making decisions for their education. If true, there was indeed an urgent need for educators to bridge that divide so that the learning needs of these ‘Digital Natives’ could be effectively met in our schools.

The concern is, how can educational institutions cater for this new generation of tech savvy learners who appear to behave, think and learn differently to all those who have come before them. The panic is a result of the fear that there is an insurmountable gap between them and the less technologically literate older generation.

However, this was based more on claims made by researchers such as Prensky (2001) and Tapscott (1998) rather than evidence. In fact, more recent research shows flaws in this argument that there is an identifiable generation of highly adept technology users. Therefore, a more sophisticated understanding of our students’ experience with technology needed to be gained. Observe the fear in the faces of a typical Year 11 Biology class, when they are asked to create a shared Word document using Office 365, and paste the url on a Padlet site that had been emailed to their school Outlook account!

True, the fact that technology is changing so rapidly that various groups in our society are being left behind has raised many concerns and a sense of urgency to effectively address the resulting societal changes with new approaches and practices.

Bennet and Maton (2010) focussed on the idea that members of the so called ‘Digital Native’ generation had a broad range of digital experiences that were determined by socioeconomic factors and household attitudes towards use of ICT. Kennedy et al (2010) identified four different groups of students and young adults based on their use of ICT: Power Users, (14%) use a wide range of technologies frequently; Ordinary Users, (27%) who are regular users of standard web and mobile technologies, but tend not to engage in Web 2.0 activities, web publishing and file sharing; Irregular Users, (14%) engage less frequently and are moderate users of web and mobile technologies but low users of all other technologies; and finally, Basic Users, (45%) who are characterised by extremely infrequent use of new and emerging technologies.

When considering our students, it is crucial that we also take into account the ‘capital’ that each individual brings to the classroom. What are their experiences, skills and specific knowledge? What do they consider to be important, what attitudes do they have towards ICT and learning?

Research by Prensky (2009) suggests that this tech savvy group does not necessarily exclude older people, and that it is probably more to do with use of and exposure to new technologies. Not enough evidence that there is a clear divide between the so called Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants that would require radical change to our educational systems. However, this doesn’t mean that education doesn’t need to change or adapt to accommodate and develop skills in technology use.

How do we effectively integrate these new technologies to support learning? How do we integrate skills and interests developed through technology use into academic contexts? It is important that technology is not simply used in a limited way, information seeking strategies, when synthesis and critical evaluation are desirable skills. Information gained from everyday situations may not easily translate to academic situations. There is a need to move beyond the divide between ‘everyday’ and ‘education’, to allow informal learning to have value in formal learning situations.

So, if there is no such thing as a ‘digital native’, how do we erase the idea from the thinking of our educators, so they can just get on with it and avoid the excuse that it is all too hard to bridge the ‘gap’? Bennett and Maton (2010) suggest that there are two factors that have resulted in the Digital Debate not being subjected to the academic rigour that it truly deserves.

Firstly, every generation suffers from historical amnesia, similar claims were made in the 1960’s about young people standing in two different worlds characterised by changes in media and music which were inconsistent with the approach made toward education by the schools. Fears of ‘too much’ information being shared via social media, and bullying finding new vehicles through the use of social media and mobile technologies, negates the reality that these situations have always existed, albeit in a different form.

Second, the ‘Certainty-Complacency Spiral’ has been created by researchers and authors who have in the past been so certain of the digital divide, it has led to a distinct lack of rigorous questioning of their findings. This has resulted in an intellectual complacency, where only now are researches being able to look beyond it. An example of this in Biology was during early research on genetics, when the areas of code between genes on a chromosome were deemed with certainty to be ‘Junk DNA’. As a result, it wasn’t until the 90’s that scientists began to look at these areas closely and realised that a great deal had been missed to that date.

We love to label our generations! Babyboomers, X gen, Y gen and now the ‘Net Gen, status society; service society; post industrial society; post modern society etc. Remember back in the 1960’s when changes to popular music and media resulted in a feared divide between adolescents and the older generations? What is the next mountain for our society?

Bennett, S., & Maton, K. (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate:Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 321-331.

Bourdieu, P. (1990). The Logic of Practice. Polity. Cambridge.

Kennedy, G., Bennett, S, Gray, K, Waycott, J, Judd, T, Bishop, A, . . . Chang, R. (2009). Educating the Net Generation – A Handbook of findings for practice and policy. Retrieved from Australian Learning and Teaching Council: http://www.netgen.unimelb.edu.au/downloads/handbook/NetGenHandbookAll.pdf

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, digital immigrants. On The Horizon, pp. 1-6.

Prensky, M. (2009). H. sapiens digital: from digital immigrants and digital natives to digital wisdom. Retrieved from Innovative Journal of Online Education: http://www.innovateonline.info/

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. McGraw Hill, New York.


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