Archive | January, 2013

So, am I a digital native?

30 Jan

As a mature undergraduate student and (fairly recently converted) technology enthusiast, I find myself wondering whether I fall into Prensky’s (2001) ‘digital immigrant’ category of grown-up professionals for whom technology is essentially a second language, or ‘digital native’ category of young students fluent in its complex syntax. I love technology, although I found this love late on, and am still learning. I see its potential to change the ways in which we approach problems, connect with others, and generate and share ideas: I have just started an E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC to develop these skills.  I remember the internet being new and wondering what on earth anybody would use it for. Now I use it every day. I tweet, I message, I search and I tag. I also read books, including books about technology, and I listen, in person, to other people telling me things they know. All of these things work, in the right context. I get excited about new technologies, sometimes purely for their own sake. But I don’t intrinsically understand how they work. Nor do I see why new approaches should automatically replace old ones. So, am I a digital immigrant or a digital native?

The idea of the digital native, by now widely critiqued by academics, teachers and learning technologists alike, appears to rest on the assumption that there exists some watershed between ‘new’ and ‘old’; and that we all fall to one side or the other of it. But viewed from a social determinist perspective (Dahlberg, 2004), Web 2.0 was simply another step, albeit a large and highly significant one, in the incremental development of communications technology which started with the telegram. Attention to the social context of the digital native also highlights another set of issues. No student comes to rely upon new technologies without consistent, ready access to them: and in no society is access to expensive devices equal. Individual preferences and social influences shape people’s choices of devices and platforms, in which situations to use them, and whether to use them at all. The availability of a technology does not imply a whole cohort of society will inevitably become familiar with it, or choose to use it. Poorly-informed use of technology in teaching and learning then, in a desperate attempt to capture the imagination of the mythical digital native, risks alienating students who feel the particular tool is irrelevant to the subject. Perhaps more worryingly, it also risks leaving behind the already disadvantaged who potentially stand to benefit the most from education.

I learned to use the internet to email, shop, research, and communicate from the age of about fourteen onwards. If I had started aged five, or fifty, I would still have had to learn. When I encounter a new tool, program or platform I need to learn how it works. I have been aware of technology becoming increasingly intuitive: this was, and is, a gradual process which reflects the achievements of the developers rather than my implicit understanding. My point is that we are all, in one way or another, digital immigrants. We are not born knowing how digital technology works, but grow accustomed to it as it adapts to us. As Dalhberg (2004) argues, attention to the social, historical, individual and technological elements of innovation is the only way to understand how techology has been shaped by us, just as we learn to adapt to it. The utopian ideal of the digital native is, then, a convenient way to avoid thinking too hard about how we might adapt technologies to serve educational purposes: this most certainly is not what our students need.

Dahlberg, L (2004). Internet Research Tracings: Towards Non-Reductionist Methodology. Journal of Computer Mediated Communication, 9/3.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9/5.,%20digital%20immigrants%20-%20part1.pdf