Friday, March 15, 2013

The Myth of Digital Natives

Year two of the 1:1 iPad initiative in my school is progressing, and as time has passed, I've been realizing that a fundamental assumption I was making was completely wrong.

In 2001, Marc Prensky wrote that, "our students today are all "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet." (You can read his work at: http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/prensky%20-%20digital%20natives,%20digital%20immigrants%20-%20part1.pdf) I read this at the time and thought he was correct in his description of the "digital native," and I accepted that I was a "digital immigrant."  However time and experience has helped me to realize the error of his and my assumptions.

I agree with Prensky that there is a difference between the students today and the teachers who teach them in terms of levels of comfort with the technology. My students are fearless with their handling of devices. (Often too fearless, as evidenced by the rising number of cracked, chipped and spider webbed screens in my classroom...) However, there is a difference in being fearless with handling and being fearless with using! They are not native speakers of the technology they hold. Here's why I think so:

1) A digital native would instinctively utilize digital tools. When I ask my students to articulate their understanding of a topic and give them a free choice of how to do it, they automatically gravitate toward something that they draw, hand write or compose on paper. They do not gravitate toward anything on the iPad.  They have to be anywhere from encouraged to required to leave the comfort of paper and writing implements to make use of the digital tool they hold in their hand.  Their default is analog, not digital.

2) A digital native who spoke the language of computers and the internet would be able to do more than a rudimentary search for a topic in a search engine. They would be able to ask sophisticated questions in a way that would actually use the search engine to find answers to their questions without me having to teach them how to use the tool. Yes, they all go to Google to do research, and they prefer that to researching in books. But, all the ways to refine a digital search continue to elude my students at the deep, native level, and instead this trait exists on a superficial level.

3) A digital native would be able to creatively take advantage of digital tools available to them. They would be able to generate ideas in a digital format and see them through to completion without the instructor having to model the use of the format, the composition and the creation. This I have to do every time we do a project in my class. Any app we use must be explained and demonstrated by me before my students will make use of it in an independent fashion. And even then, they will only use the tool in the way in which I showed it to them; they neither take risks with it nor do they innovate with the tool to combine it with other tools.

I have stopped giving my students a wide open range to express themselves while using the iPad. The results are disappointing.  The students say it is overwhelming, they don't know how to use the iPad and its many apps to articulate their understanding, and they need me to show them how, tell them what to do, and translate their paper desires into a digital format.

Perhaps, now that my district has pushed iPads down to middle school and will expand into the elementary schools in the coming year, when a student who is currently in kindergarten arrives in my classroom having had this device as a part of his or her educational life, I will not have to lead them in the use of technology, and they will begin to resemble the digital native Prensky described.

This is all not to say that the iPad isn't working well, for in many ways it is, it is just to say that we teachers can't assume that our students are going to be any more knowledgeable, creative and comfortable with digital learning tools than we are.  At this point, I may be older than my students, but I remain a level above them when it comes to knowing how effectively to use technology to learn.  And that means that sadly, Mr. Prensky was wrong.

1 comment:

  1. I think you might like this article "Digital Natives: Ten Years After" by Apostolos Koutropoulos of the University of Massachusetts. He basically debunks the digital natives idea. Good reading!

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