Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Digital natives? Nah, I don’t think so . . .

If you have been anywhere near educational technology in recent years, chances are you've heard the term "Digital Natives." If you look up that term in Wikipedia (and really, what other source of information would contain such a term?), you'll see references to Marc Prensky. According to this idea, if you were born before a certain time, you are a "digital immigrant," being a foreigner to the digital age. If you were born after a certain time, you are a "digital native" or native to the digital age.

Semantically, the term "immigrant" is politically charged, but aside from that, I have some problems with this theory.

I have been working with kids & computers for several years now, and I think people sometimes confuse competence for comfort. While most kids have a comfort level working on the computer, it is amazing to see how much they don't know about using either hardware or software. This has led me to think that perhaps they aren't "native" thinkers when it comes to the technology. Kids have also been traveling in cars since birth, but does that make them automatic drivers just because they've grown up with them?

What about their "presentation" preferences? Do they like more visuals and more interactive activities? Sure, but is this new? I remember the days of the manually advanced filmstrip, then the days of the reel to reel, and then (WOO-HOO!) the VCR. I hated the manual filmstrip! It's probably akin to the way kids now view an old school overhead projector compared to a computer projector. This preference for motion and graphics has little to do with when a person was born (in my opinion) and more to do with the fact that our brain (regardless of year of birth) is designed as a very efficient image processor.
Perhaps the biggest indictment of the "digital" native theory has to do with the aptly-termed digital divide. A student with little exposure to technology is not going to be born digital, regardless of his/her birth year. I recently watched a student who had never handled an iPod try to figure out the click wheel. He did not look any different in his handling of the device than an adult who has never handled an iPod. Do kids born in third world countries have some sort of inherent understanding of digital devices simply based upon when they were born? Absolutely not.

Some recent posts from people like David Thornburg, Jamie McKenzie, & Matt Croslin flesh out some solid arguments for why the "digital native" term is both misleading and a misnomer.  If we must label generations, we should perhaps advocate terminology like "millennials" which is more indicative of era than ability and eschew terms that are deceptive and fallacious.  End rant.