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Digital Natives

I first heard the phrase “digital natives” at the New Media Consortium’s 2007 Regional Conference. I enjoyed the conference a great deal and found the majority of the sessions enlightening. However, there was one session in particular which fell way, way below the mark. I can sum up this presentation as follows:

Kids today sure do like that new digital technology. They’re Digital Natives from Digiland! All us old folks can ever hope to do is be Immigrants to Digiland. Even so, we’d best savvy up right quick to this here new-fangled stuff, or we will fail to engage these Digital Natives in the educational process.

I wish I could say I’m going over the top here, but that was pretty much the gist and tenor of the presentation. I was frankly disgusted, even outraged.

Since then, I’ve started to notice the phrase “digital natives” cropping up with greater frequency, and I think that’s a shame. It strikes me as a worthless, indeed a disabling notion.

So I was really turned on by Siva Vaidhyanathan’s article in the recent Chronicle, “Generation Myth.” In my humble opinion, Siva knocks it out of the park. He argues that the the notion of “digital natives” is pure bunk, but he goes farther than that and argues that generations themselves are bunk. I absolutely agree with the first argument, and I’m inclined to think he’s right about the second, but in any case it’s fascinating and provocative stuff. I’d say it’s must reading for anyone interested in technology, education or generational politics.

Siva’s article caught the attention of the good folks at Digital Campus, who devote the better part of their current episode to a discussion of digital natives. Although they take Siva’s article as a jumping-off point, and don’t really rebut it, I guess they didn’t buy it either, because they continued to refer to “digital natives” throughout their discussion.

I cringed each time.

Two of the participants offered a metaphor which I found quite helpful. Consider the automobile. Consider the generation that grew up with the automobile, and subsequent generations. Chances are these folks know how to drive. They may be able to fix a flat or change a spark plug. But most of them do not understand the intimate workings of the internal combustion engine. For most problems, they will need to defer to an expert, a mechanic. This is true even for professional drivers, people who make their living behind the wheel of a car. And most folks certainly wouldn’t know how to design a car, much less build one from scratch.

I like this metaphor because it captures some nuances that seem to be glossed over when people speak of “digital natives.” Sure, younger people probably have a greater facility with some of the easiest digital technology. But that’s really a superficial distinction. I suspect that the percentage of people with true skillz and deep knowledge of digital stuff increases as the age of the sample decreases. But such experts are still a distinct minority. In my experience, most people are still somewhat befuddled by technology whatever their age.

The term “digital natives” is harmful because it suggests a level of competence that simply isn’t there for the vast majority. It suggests a monolithic, mythic quality to the up and coming young folks. It also carries the connotation, as noted by the misguided speaker at the NMC conference, that older folks are “non-natives” who can never expect to gain the level of competency and comfort with digital technology to which young people are supposedly born. These notions do not serve us well.

I suppose I might be sensitized to this because I work at a a “majority minority” institution — a place where the majority of students are from racial and ethnic minority groups. Our student body is also largely economically disadvantaged. I think it’s especially misleading to speak of “digital natives” in this context. Siva cites Eszter Hargittai:

[W]omen, students of Hispanic origin, African-American students, and students whose parents have lower levels of education tend to have less mastery of the inner workings of digital technology than other groups do.

But regardless of the race or gender or socio-economic standing of the group in question, I don’t find the term “digital natives” helpful at all.

Published inGeekyThe Ed Biz


  1. T T

    As a lurker to your blog, I can’t let this go without comment. I would agree with you. Actually there is a term called abstraction, as technology increases so does abstraction, the user knows less about how things work. For example, you and I are old school web users, we both know some html, new students, everything is wysiwyg and they don’t know how it works.. there is less concern with the inner workings of the technology. I think the idea of the digital natives does relate to one thing, in that there is an expectation of an easier way to do things… When you ask students to do something the “hard” way.. or tech free way, there is the sigh and the middle school eye roll and throat clearing. There is an expectation of a technology shortcut.. If technology is not as available, perhaps with lower socioeconomic groups, that may not be the norm. With students studying to be teachers, what I am shocked by is the lack of connection between every day tech us and thinking of using it in creative ways with kids. I worry the term digital native has come to expect technology to be available to shortcut a task, and to not be be critical of its use and what it offers, could this be related to the abstraction?

    Btw.. The original article is where the term was coined.
    igital Natives, Digital Immigrants

    By Marc Prensky

    From On the Horizon (MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001)
    © 2001 Marc Prensky
    (email me and I can send you the pdf)

    This was in the Chronicle a few weeks ago, it might interest you in your higher ed role


  2. Siva Vaidhyanathan Siva Vaidhyanathan

    Thanks so much for your nice words about my article. And thanks for keeping the conversation going.


  3. This goes along with recent news that European videogame makers gave up on hiring video gamers to construct the games themselves. They found out that no matter how l33t a young gamer you are, this does not automatically translate into you being adept at or even being able to learn the architecture of software and 3D spaces. An expert user does not an expert engineer make.

    D and I were talking about the dual concepts of generations and demographics recently. Other than for studying population dynamics and general marketing sampling, these aren’t very useful concepts, i.e. they tag/categorize population chunks but offer nothing more than superficial descriptors of them. For instance, the radio or TV industry may find such pigeonholed psychology useful to pitch commercials, new music and new shows but that’s about it.

    In most expert users of technology today, I think what we’re seeing is a great example of Clarke’s third law: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

  4. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    There is a strong influence involved here of New “paradigms”
    seeking to justify an observably False position.
    Two examples:
    emails from office people, seemingly professionally qualified,
    repeatedly repeating a simple misspelling…you see
    that the consultant is meeting the client at the “client sight”…
    and to point out the error to the office woman is taken as an
    attack upon her. ..didn’t she mean the “client site”? meaning the
    location, the place of business?…what did she think was being referred to
    by the use of “client sight”? She doesn’t, and didn’t, know–and doesn’t
    (2) The hilarious video of an interviewer at a major University
    graduation, at the engineering school, no less–talking to cap-and-gown-ers, some with various “honors”
    ribbons and sashes, about how to make this battery and two wires
    light up this small lightbulb. The oh-so imperious woman cannot
    figure it out, and dismisses the interviewer with, “well, after all
    I’m a Civil Engineer, so that’s not my specialty”.
    These cyber-pushers partially intend to create a generation
    of highly ILLITERATE technology slaves, even less competent
    for survival than our own spoiled-TV-generation.

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