Are 'digital natives' a myth?

Are 'digital natives' a myth?

29 Jan 2009

scanlonDr Christopher Scanlon
Email: c.scanlon@latrobe.edu.au

First published in The Australian 21 January 2009

An audio version (MP3 8.2MB) of this opinion piece read by Dr Christopher Scanlon is also available.


Over the past decade or so, an exotic tribe has begun appearing in the nations schools, TAFEs and universities. The young woman using her iPhone to update her Wordpress blog, for example, is one. So too is that quiet young man using the library catalogue to update his Facebook profile. And that young woman using the computer lab to log on to Second Life? Shes one too.


Fortunately, thanks to the work of Harvard law professors John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, we now have a name for these types. Theyre all Digital Natives. In their book Born Digital, which claims to offer a sociological portrait of this new tribe, Palfrey and Gasser define Digital Natives as anyone born after 1980. Digital Natives have grown up in a world saturated with digital technology. They are always connected. Even when theyre asleep, their inboxes are filling up with replies.


Digital Natives are not only connected. Palfrey and Gasser also claim theyre creative. They while away their days and nights making movies and online videos, creating mash-ups, and posting pictures on Facebook and Flickr.


Digital Natives creativity stems from their effortless mastery of technology. To them, Second Life is second nature. As Palfrey and Gasser explain, Digital Natives can learn how to use a new software program in a snap. They seemingly can take, upload, and edit pictures to share with friends online in their sleep.


Digital Natives pose particular challenges to existing approaches to education. For this networked generation, Google and Wikipedia have replaced libraries. Where their older peers struggle to read off screens, Digital Natives prefer it. And the idea of sitting through face-to-face lectures strikes them as bizarre. Why not just podcast it? Better still, why not a vodcast?


While Palfrey and Gasser focus mainly on the regulation of the digital worlds inhabited by Digital Natives, some early reports claimed that their exposure to technology had actually altered their brains. In a paper written in 2001, for example, Marc Prensky claimed it is very likely that our students brains have physically changed. At the very least, he argued that todays students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.


Although they may not go so far as to claim that students brains have physically changed, some university administrators are convinced by the Digital Natives story. Anxious to attract and engage students, theyre scratching their heads as to how to reform the curriculum to cater to these students by tapping into their supposed affinity with technology.


But theres reason to be skeptical about how tech-savvy students really are. My skepticism is based on my experience teaching second and third year journalism students how to make websites and use software to layout magazines.


Aside from the odd mature-age student, most of my students were born well after 1980. They've grown up surrounded by technology and theyre enrolled in a field which is being revolutionised by new media technologies. Aside from a weekly lecture, most of the instruction happens in front of computers. In short, Ive had the perfect opportunity to work with Digital Natives in their natural habitat.


You might expect that my workshops are teeming with Digital Natives. But in my experience, Digital Natives are the exception rather than the rule.


While most of my students are familiar with email, mobile phones and word processors and are deft hands at updating their Facebook profile during class while Im explaining the finer points of web design very few have blogs. Neither do they seem to use Flickr. Fewer still are out there making digital movies or creating mash-ups. And only a tiny minority have ever made a website or have used other high-end design software.


Many are still learning how to construct effective web searches using Google. They also tend to prefer asking me questions rather than searching for the answers on Google as reports about Digital Natives suggest. In fact, from my experience working with students, a fair proportion approach computers tentatively and find them just as frustrating as many older Digital Immigrants.


In noting my students technological limitations, I am not meaning to criticise or fault them. On the contrary, their skill levels are entirely normal. As students, theyre still in the process of learning how to use technology effectively. Thats why theyre at university in the first place. While they begin my class knowing little about the internet beyond Hotmail, Facebook and chat, most leave having made a simple, yet functional website.


My students are not out of the ordinary. Students at the University of Western Sydney, for example, recently signed a petition against a move to replace almost half the face-to-face teaching in one particular unit with podcasts. While the University claimed the protesting students were in the minority, its hardly what youd expect from Digital Natives.


Despite the hype about Digital Natives technological skills, the reality is that most students dont come to class with technological knowledge pre-installed.


The question is, why is there such a divergence between claims about Digital Natives and the realities of the classroom? The answer is partly a matter of class, commercial interest and confusion.


Its partly a matter of class because there are some students who perfectly fit the mould of Digital Natives. For example, its not surprising that two Harvard law professors were among the first to write about such students. After all, students arriving at Harvard are more likely to have come from the kind of privileged backgrounds where computers are enmeshed into their daily lives from a young age. For such people, using computers for self-expression and self-exploration is both encouraged and expected. To this extent, there is a grain of truth to stories about Digital Natives.


However, these real-life Digital Natives are not the norm. Many other students from less privileged backgrounds dont enjoy the same high levels of access to technology. When they do use computers, they are used for relatively low-skill activities such as email, chat and entertainment as opposed to making movies or writing songs.


The Digital Natives story is also partly driven by commercial interest. Its worth noting that Marc Prensky, who was one of the first to popularise the idea of the Digital Native, is also the CEO and founder of Games2Train, a company that specialises in creating computer learning games.


While this isnt to say that Mr Prensky has nothing of worth to say about todays students, it does qualify his claims. After all, creating anxieties about the effectiveness of current approaches to teaching and offering a solution in this case, game-based learning aimed at Digital Natives is clearly in Mr Prenskys business interests.


Confusion also plays a part. Its telling that most of the accounts of Digital Natives come, not from natives themselves, but from middle-aged people observing young adults using computers. The phrase Digital Natives is itself telling insofar as it suggests an anthropologist observing a new and exotic tribe from afar. Such people see twenty-something students switching between email and mobile phones and mistake this for a general ease with technology.


But anyone who has a little more experience knows that using Facebook or Blogger is only marginally more difficult than creating an email account. It simply requires opening an account and populating a template with content. Similarly, finding and downloading movies and music (legally or not) is like downloading any other file.


Those writing about Digital Natives confuse the ability to navigate around pre-made online environments or download content from the net for a general ease with technology. From my experiences in the computer lab, once students stray outside of the safe confines of pre-built, pre-configured online environments provided by the likes of Hotmail or Facebook, they often turn out to be just as lost as the rest of us.


And therein lies a problem for academic administrators who are tempted to radically reform the curriculum to better meet the needs of Digital Natives. The risk is that they are setting students up to fail by presuming that their students have innate skills which they dont in fact possess. Far from helping so-called Digital Natives, we may be creating large numbers of Digital Refugees: people who are lost when it comes using technology simply because nobody ever sat down and showed them how to use technology or use it effectively.


Theres no doubt that students come to the classroom with a different skill-set and different attitudes than their parents. And theres no question that educators should seek to harness and build on those skills. At the same time, exaggerated, pop-sociological accounts of students abilities do little to enable young people to develop and practice these skills.


If we are to equip students to navigate around a digital world, education ought to be based on assessing students individual strengths and weaknesses, rather than glib generalisations that mistake using Facebook for technological savvy.

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