The digital native problem

Labels get in the way of fully understanding people

Innovation ANESUIn a recent Twitter chat #vted we were discussing digital citizenship and the confounded label “digital native” came up.  Labels typically get in the way of fully understanding people, and these terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” smack of ageism and false assumptions.  Coined by Marc Prensky over 14 years ago, it was meant to prompt educators to think differently about teaching and learning.  The digital tools now available to learners allow us to go far beyond the walls of the classroom; one of my history teachers is blogging with students in Bhutan this week, for example, mutually solving problems through the lenses of their own culture.  When I was in ninth grade, we had a dusty old textbook that managed to make even Ancient Rome boring.  The world has indeed changed and teaching and learning need to change with the times.

So, what’s my problem?

The terms have taken on new meaning over the year, and often are used as a short-hand way of saying that people born before 1980 just don’t ‘get it’ when it comes to using technology well.  Some assume that because students today grew up with computers and cell phones they have some innate ability to use the tools well.

Not so.

They may be highly skilled at texting or Snapchatting, but unless someone teaches them to use the power of the machines well, the interactions are typically fairly shallow.  The ‘digital immigrants’ ’ understanding of skills in communication, collaboration, problem solving, numeracy, digital citizenship, etc. are vital to encourage deeper thinking and learning.
The broad terms also suggest that all learners have the same opportunities.  Consider these data from

The term "digital natives" is problematic

Although access has improved in the last four years, children who live in poverty are less likely to have access to devices and to Internet access. This is yet another example of a digital divide, a term we should be more concerned with.

It also seems to suggest that because all students have technology skills, teachers don’t need to bother too much with things they don’t intuitively understand. It subtly shifts responsibility to learners.

Actually, the opposite is needed.

All teachers need to be teachers of Internet safety. All teachers need to be helping learners harness the power of technology to engage students in authentic tasks, solving real-world problems. Digital Natives and Immigrants can become Digital Partners.


Lauren Parren

Innovation Coach in rural VT school district . Personalizing learning . PBL. Rowland Fellow. Mother, wife, gardener, book club enthusiast.

18 thoughts on “The digital native problem

    May 11, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Thanks Lauren! Well said and relevant to recent discussions in my district

    May 11, 2015 at 10:53 am

    Lauren –

    Thanks so much eloquently stating things that many of us have felt and thought for meany years.

  • May 11, 2015 at 11:07 am

    I really agree with your second point – that students need to learn how to use their devices to grow their knowledge. The danger of “digital natives” is that it assumes fluency on multiple levels. It is similar to being able to speak a second language conversationally versus being able to read and write at a high level in that language. Just because I can talk with a friend in Spanish doesn’t mean that I can write an essay in the language. That would require a lot of further education on my part. In the same way, just because a young learner can make a Vine doesn’t mean that she can show what she knows about a particular topic through video. When we make the “digital natives” assumption, we rob students of the opportunity to really learn to use technology to further their education.

    May 11, 2015 at 12:44 pm

    I’m not sure I agree with your assessment of the term ‘digital natives.’ Leaving the implied ageism aside for a moment, I think the term is more representative of a group of people who were born when digital devices were already commonplace and therefore raised and taught to be comfortable and inquisitive in the presence of this technology (and not afraid that they will instantly break it). In the case of many (not all) Americans born after 1980, technology in the form of computers was brought to them in places of learning, whereas folks born before 1980 who were interested needed to go find access to computers. Whether or not a digital native owns a device cannot be a defining characteristic of the group because they can still get access at most schools.

    People born before the advent of new technologies tend to take a different approach to them. As Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And for many people, especially those older than 35 (again based on 1980), the magic of modern technology is scary. Just as the steam engine, the automobile, and the airplane were powerful and mysterious machines, so are iPads and computers.

    That being said I fully agree with you that the idea that ‘students of the digital native group do not need further instruction’ is a sadly pervasive idea. Our students need digital citizenship and internet safety courses just as much as they need to be taught how to obey traffic laws, bike safety, and how to interact with strangers.

    Also, I’m not sure how the year 1980 was agreed upon. The only date the Prensky mentions in either part 1 or part 2 of his article is 1974 – the year of Pong.

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