A theory on “digital natives”

One often hears that today’s young people find computers and the internet to be totally natural and easy to use — i.e., that they are “digital natives.” I’m going to say that that’s false, at least of college students.

Some pieces of anecdotal evidence:

  • Getting college students to check their e-mail regularly is often a challenge.
  • College students frequently display a lack of understanding of how basic computer programs work (using manual headings in a word processor, creating manual footnotes, etc.).
  • College students only rarely take advantage of Google or Wikipedia to answer small factual questions for themselves. (If they do look something up, they make a point of mentioning that they have done so, indicating that it’s not taken for granted.)
  • Supplemental online discussions (i.e., within course-management software) are generally no better than in-class discussions.
  • If students give presentations requiring the use of computers, snafus generally abound, even for simple tasks such as opening files.

In short, I’m inclined to suspect that young people do not have a special aptitude or bond with computers and, therefore, that any educational strategy that relies heavily on computer technology is not making education automatically richer or more “relevant” — indeed, for many students, it’s adding an obstacle or impediment to learning.

20 thoughts on “A theory on “digital natives”

  1. My three-year old son was looking at videos of whales on an ipad yesterday. Without any assistance at all, he closed youtube, opened up netflix, and started watching Wonder Pets. A small task, perhaps, but one that I know is beyond the capability of my mother.

    What the hell is a “manual” footnote, by the way? One entered by hand, instead of with the automatic footnote feature?

  2. In my experience, one’s “digital aptitude” has more to do with interest than with age. My mother, for example, has no problem navigating the strange worlds of Etsy and Pinterest.

  3. Where I teach, email has been essentially replaced by social networking sites (Facebook, Google+, Twitter) as the means of reliable communication.

    The school’s email is still the channel for “official” communication, but as you say, it’s tricky to get students to check it since few of their other substantive communications happen via email.

  4. I remember having to do online discussions on Blackboard. Everyone I knew hated them because we didn’t understand why we’re doing it. It didn’t seem to add anything to the class that we couldn’t do in in-class discussion, and it was generally a topic we never wanted to discuss anyway. So everyone posted the minimum (one thread, one response) and nothing was discussed.

    I don’t know how you’re doing it, but we always saw it as extra busy work.

  5. Surely.
    But then again, I.T. is the department where the notion that the church “thinks in centuries” tends to manifest itself most reliably…

  6. I think we’ve got two separate issues here – actually knowing how technology works (that is, people who know about technology qua technology) and knowing how to use technology to make learning and researching easier.

    Sure, my two-year old knows how to work an iPad, too, but I have also never seen on-line discussion boards work to actually promote “digital discussion” when used in a classroom. I think that we need to look at technology less as a thing that every student just gets now, and think instead of a subset of students who gravitate toward this “digital” set of skills. We also have students who gravitate toward visual art, and other students who are really into building stuff with their hands. Some students understand programming languages, or think it’s important to figure out how to set up their templates in MS Word. These students might put the time in to make a killer powerpoint presentation because they like doing that. They might like on-line discussions better, because it’s on their turf. But that’s only a small group of students. For students who love the social aspect of school, social media will be great, but not for learning about the content of courses (it’s great for learning about how other people imagine themselves to be, but that’s not on the test).

    Then there’s the students who use technology because it helps make school easier, but that’s about it. I’m in this group. I don’t know how things really work. I just know enough to search for things, download what I need, etc. But here’s the thing – when it comes to education, technology gives you some shortcuts (not as many hours randomly searching in the stacks, for example) but it doesn’t magically make learning fun. Technology makes searching for information easier, but it doesn’t make you *want* to search for information. We teachers tend to buy into the idea that all kids are like this, but that’s because we’re like this, and we just assume people should be like us.

  7. “Digital natives” may be expected to have the same range of aptitudes in the realm of digital technologies that “analog natives” have in the realm of analog technologies. And far more familiarity-bred contempt for their native technologies than those of us who have had to acquire them secondarily! Something I’ve recently realized working with non-native-speaker doctoral students: “native speaker” by no means implies a given level of proficiency. The fact that I’m a native speaker of English, as a linguistic technology, is not directly related to my level of proficiency, and even art, in its use.

  8. Pedagogically, then, the question for teaching “digital natives” is shifting the base technologies into a familiar medium, and leveraging familiarity to teach useful skills. The question is one of giving them skills they will be inclined to use, rather than teaching unfamiliar tools that require intentional effort for the student to encounter them in “normal life.” Lowering the bar of “import cost” into the routine.

    I think the root confusion of nativity and proficiency exists because we’ve been mistaking for “digital natives” a few generations of early-adopters and people who have acquired proficiency in a new medium. And we’re them! But the generations in which a medium develops are not native to it. They’ve helped form the pidgin. The real natives speak Tok Pisin without having worked on it.

  9. As others have, wisely, mentioned a lot of this has to do with aptitude. Some people are naturals when it comes to technology, others not so much. Growing up in a technologically saturated environment does help, sort of like growing up around books helps readers.

    In our classes when I lecture I use my iPad2 with a VGA adapter and the students take notes in a course notebook. No one is allowed to use their phones or laptops. Then, usually every other class period, when we do interaction or group exercises they can do whatever. When I’ve tried to simulate some of this via an internet, even BlackBoard, interface the results are less convincing. (Which I think says a lot about these “online” degrees that are proliferating.)

    Of course getting papers from students, well that is a new level of purgatory…but hasn’t it always been that way? I’ve linked in tons of videos and links to formatting helps and still get (from masters students) terribly formatted papers. Though I don’t have as bad a time getting email replies as others, I rarely send students and email (and don’t believe facebook is helpful for society.) There are some students that are highly adept, possibly “native” at electronics, but there are just as many who can’t work their way into Finder on a Mac.

  10. I accept papers by email, and write comments in them using whatever is native to the format in which they are submitted (so openoffice’s comment feature for word/oo docs, or pdf comments for pdfs, etc). Inevitably, when I send the commented-on papers back, I get a torrent of emails from people who don’t know how to view the comments.

    I have been asked such things as: how do I rotate a PDF?

  11. Perhaps people are thinking this, but I have not seen it said explicitly.

    In my experience, administrators and “technology education experts” want to plan or reinvent curricula as if all young students were “native and fluent” in how to use computer technology. But it is not true, as many of us have noted. Very few of my students have displayed what I would consider to be basic competencies in computer technology, perhaps because they are not motivated and not merely because they lack the knowledge, yet in my curricula I face a lot of pressure to include technologies that I know students either do not use or do not know how to use well.

  12. I would second most of what you say, and add the following:
    -a good pedagogical principle is to introduce students to things that are useful and/or they need to know (footnotes for one, but also useful new technology like blogs and wikis) as and when they are relevant to the task in hand: I think this is part of our educational mandate.
    -a great deal of these quasi-sociological “all young people are cyber-geniuses” is just marketing (a bit like marketing childhood in fashion).
    -Some of it is also based in laziness (“I’ll give them the old test because they’ll all download things from the internet if I give them an online test”).

  13. A related point to the theory of digital natives, I would think, is the supposed necessity of various new, branded technologies for learning. Here, we find Apple as a prime example, as their influence starts much younger than college. Observe their decades-long insistence that “computers in schools” is simply the only way kids can learn effectively. Initially, the argument seems to have been, “How will the kids learn to operate in the new digital world without these purchases?” Now, it may have shifted to, “How do you expect the digital natives to learn anything without further purchases?” A few weeks ago I read that a local high school has concluded that all students need Ipads (note–not “tablets”, but Ipads). Education is a business, and schools (at all levels) are a great place to build brand loyalty–whether they realize they are being used this way or not.

  14. Knowing how to use styles to format headings, paragraphs, quotations etc. in Word is knowing how to use “digital” technology to work efficiently with the material of “analogue” literacy. It’s also a bit like knowing how to program, or at least like knowing how to structure a program (I think an inability to do the one thing would tend to correlate strongly with an inability to do the other).

    “Digital natives” are mostly fluent in something else which is neither of these two things: a grammar of interaction, maybe, and the folk ontology that comes along with it. They’re not preternaturally technologically aware: digital media aren’t technology to them, but a variety of common-or-garden worldly stuff.

    They don’t have to care about how that stuff works, since its workings are seldom exposed to them, and they don’t have to worry about what it’s for (or how to do useful things with it) since what it’s for is, mostly, playing with itself.

    I ask friends with iPads what they’re for, what exactly it is you can do with them; their answers tend to sound to me like “you can use an iPad to play on your iPad”. Compare the primary school teacher who, two decades ago, told her class that she didn’t have a television. The astonished response: “but – what do you watch???”.

  15. It’s quite possible that the smart techie teens will all be playing with RepRaps and 3d printers, doing stuff that looks utterly nerdy and pointless to everyone around them, while their more socially well-adjusted peers mooch about bullying each other on Facebook and playing Angry Birds on their phones.

  16. Is there perhaps another dimension that is overlooked? Let me suggest this, which came to me as I read today’s article on Khan Academy in the Chronicle of Higher Education. While I love what Khan Academy offers, the suggestion that we use that model to replace the traditional lecture vastly misjudges the principle educational problem in my classroom: lack of motivation. Most of my students do everything they can to avoid as much work as possible, and thus any pedagogical model that relies heavily on self-motivation would succeed in maybe 15% of my students. Yet for the most part those students would succeed to varying degrees almost no matter the education model. My point is that the focus on educational technology overshadows the larger problems that are almost never related to or addressed by technology.

  17. I agree with the author. “Young people are digital natives” is a myth as much as “old people are stubborn” or “religious people are moralists”. Simply being exposed to digital technology doesn’t imply any stronger thinking or learning abilities.

    I would consider myself as a “digital native”, but I have been exposed to computers ever since I was seven years old (1995). I think it also correlates with one’s own interests: there are lots of online tutorials on how to do a million things with the computer. If you still haven’t learned how to use headings in Word, it’s nowadays more about indifference – assuming that you have access to computers and the internet and actually require the skill in your studies.

    There’s also lots of empty hype among educators: wiki this, discussion board that. The technical tools and tasks seem to replace the able teacher who is present, ready to answer questions and willing to participate in a dialogue with the students. Instead of such teachers we get monologues held by people who are too busy to even come up with some new methods than those exhausting Powerpoints that activate the learning of no-one.

    The college student ends his lament. :D

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