Shh I’m hunting (for) Digital Natives

“Technology has become as ubiquitous as the air we breathe, so we are no longer conscious of its presence.”
Godfrey Reggio

Elmer Fudd holding finger to lips while hunting
Elmer Fudd holding finger to lips while hunting

Anyone that has worked in educational technology knows that there is often a lot of pushback when you try and introduce new technology to the classroom.  In some cases, pushback and questioning are good. It is always beneficial to think critically about all aspects of education after all the goal is to provide the best educational experience we can.

However, I have repeatedly encountered pushback from faculty that is not about whether a piece of technology is beneficial to teaching.  In these cases, the faculty says things like “I don’t want to use this (technology) because my students understand it better than I do.” This attitude comes directly out of the idea of the Digital Native.

Marc Prensky coined the term Digital Natives in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants in 2001. Since then the idea of the Digital Native has been an almost a central theme in education spawning terms like Homo zappiëns and iGeneration and the notion that we need to redesign education because of the new abilities and skills these “new” humans have.

This belief in “new” humans has directly led to the fear that students know more about technology than their teachers.  I’m a biologist, and I have some questions about Digital Natives and their new skills and abilities.  Where did these new abilities come from are they magical?  I’ve even had people tell me it is the processes of evolution.

The idea of evolution and Digital Natives generates a teachable moment.  First, evolution is a slow process substantial changes are the result of many small changes over lots of generations.  Two, evolution is selective it is a process that plays on the parents.  For the appearance of Digital Natives to have been evolution, the parents would have to be Digital Natives, and being a Digital Natives would have had to confer an advantage in reproduction. There are several other points I can make, but I think it is safe to say that these new skills are not the product of evolution.

There is another possibility for the creation of Digital Natives the development of the brain.  A lot of neural development occurs in young children and according to some physiological studies continues at a high degree until around 25.  So maybe exposure to lots of technology from a young age leads to a difference in how the brain learns to work.  Fortunately for us, researchers have started looking at Digital Natives and their skills.

The research into Digital Natives is uncovering the same thing that I have experienced in my work.  The research results and my experience show that as far as having lots of computer/technologies skills and the ability to multi-task Digital Natives don’t exist.  One of my favorite comments about digital natives comes from a review paper The myths of the digital natives and the multitasker by Paul Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere “Many teachers, educational administrators, and politicians/policymakers believe in the existence of yeti-like creatures populating present-day schools namely digital natives and human multitaskers.”

A yeti holding a smartphone
A yeti holding a smartphone

In addition to a catchy phrase, the editorials section of Nature references it as “The digital native is a myth, it claims: a yeti with a smartphone,” Kirschner and Bruyckere make some crucial points.  First, when Prensky first coined the term Digital Natives, this was not based on any controlled research merely an observation about children born after the widespread adoption of mobile devices and how they interacted with them.  Because of these observations, he proposed several skills and abilities that these individuals would have as they grew up.

We are now collecting information about the Digital Natives, and the research is showing that while these students use a lot of mobile technology for communication and socializing, they don’t have a deep understanding of the technology.  I have often served as escalated tech support (especially for things I have built or helped to develop), many of the students I have worked with are from the generation of Digital Natives. Since so many people talked about the Digital Natives I think to some degree I even believed in the Digital Native.

When helping students, I quickly discovered that many of these students could not do any form of troubleshooting on their own.  If the button didn’t seem to do what they wanted, the students didn’t know what to do next. In one of the programs which involved fully online students, I would always start my troubleshooting with the question “What operating system are you using?”  Some of the answers I got were “I don’t know the computer says Toshiba.”, “I think I’m using Firefox.”, “how would I tell?” and these were not one-offs I got these answers a lot.

Beyond in-depth technical knowledge, Kirschner and Bruyckere also discuss the student’s ability to utilize the internet.  Looking at the papers Information behavior of the researcher of the future: Work Package II and The Google generation: The information behavior of the researcher of the future the researchers conclude that students of the Digital Native generation have pore information retrieval skills.  Specifically, the students have limited ability to deeply dive into information and often fail in critical thinking and evaluation of the information they do retrieve.

One of the most significant points of the internet and Web 2.0 and beyond was that we had reached a point where we were not just consumers of information but creators as well.  While there still needs to be more research, it also appears that Digital Natives are mostly passive consumers of information and not the general creators we assumed they would be.

All this information suggests that the idea that we should be scared to incorporate technology into our classrooms because the students know tech better than we do is a fallacy.  Closely related to this, the idea that we need to redefine and redesign the classroom because it is no longer suited to the skills and abilities of our students is also a fallacy.

As I have said, technology can be a huge benefit to the classroom.  Technology can be a massive equalizer in education.  However, we need to incorporate technology into the classroom based on educational pedagogy and as the solution to actual, not yeti-like, problems.  I do think we need to make some changes to education based on our modern technological world.  We should be teaching our students how to determine the value and validity of information sources on the internet.  If they are going to live in a technological world, we should teach them problem-solving skills, so they know what to do when the button does not do what they want.  We should be teaching communication skills, so they can make sure their thoughts and ideas get communicated.  Specifically, we should use good educational practices when we design our courses and programs, not yeti footprints.


Thanks for Listing to my Musings

The teaching Cyborg

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s