The Myth of Digital Natives

baby with computer

When I was fairly new to working in higher education, there was a lot of buzz about the students we were getting being "digital natives."  This was around 2001 and educator Marc Prensky had coined the term in an essay.

The claim was that these digital natives had a kind of innate facility with technology because they were born into it. This was also extended to them having increased abilities to do things like multitask.

Prensky took it further by saying that educators needed to change their ways to deal with this tech-savvy generation.

But new research (see below) indicates that this digital native theory is false. 

A digital native who is information-skilled simply just because they never knew a world that was not digital doesn't exist. This is also true in that any special abilities of students in this generation to multitask is also untrue. In fact, designing learning with this assumption hurts rather than helps learning.

We were naive to think that someone could pick up digital skills intuitively. But this may also be a dangerous fallacy that risks leaving young people lacking certain skills that were assumed to be known or so were not taught or emphasized.

I was never a proponent of this digital natives  - and digital immigrants - because I viewed "tech-savvy" as a very superficial kind of knowledge. I found most students in this group to be users of technology, but using a computer or cellphone doesn't impart understanding.

In 2007, I wrote about earlier research that was pointing towards this idea being false. Now, it seem definitive that all of this generational separation is a fallacy. It turns out that none of us is good at multitasking. We do it out of necessity, but something always suffers. Some studies have shown that a driver using a cellphone is the equivalent of a drunk driver.

Millennials - the group often labeled as being natives - don’t necessarily use technology more often and are no better at using basic computer programs than older generations.  Researchers also found that besides educators Millennials also have bought into the myth. Twice as many of them self-identify themselves as digitally proficient as actually would be assessed at that level.

The only aspect of all this that makes sense is that those people born into a technology are less likely to hesitate to use it or fear it. Clearly, a toddler today who is playing with a smartphone at age two and using apps will have no problems using it in other more serious ways in kindergarten. If these young people are better at using a totally new technology than a 70 year old person, I will consider that more about an aging brain than a birth year.

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