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Digital Literacy

Revisiting the Digital Native Hypothesis

Michael Trucano's picture
ertrt
some people claim that we're artificial constructs

It is conventional wisdom in many quarters -- indeed, for some people it approaches the level of 'incontrovertible fact' -- that young people are 'digital natives', possessed of some sort of innate ability to understand and utilize digital devices and applications merely because of their youth, because they have 'grown up surrounded by technology', in ways that older folks can't -- and perhaps never will. Anecdotes from amazed and proud parents and grandparents detailing how adept little Johnny (or Gianni, or Krishna, or Yidan, or Fatima, or Omar, or Maria) is at manipulating his (or her) parents' mobile phone or tablet "even though s/he doesn't even know how to read yet!" are commonly heard in conversations around the world.

In a very influential essay that appeared about 15 years ago ("Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" [pdf]), Mark Prensky coined the term 'digital natives', asserting that "students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet" and that, as a result, "today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors". In contrast, "[t]hose of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants." While Prensky's views on this topic have evolved over the years and become more nuanced (those interested in his particular views may wish to visit his web site), this original definition and delineation of what it means to be a digital native and a digital immigrant remains quite potent for many people.

At the same time, and for over a decade, this assertion has come under consistent challenge and criticism from many academics, who contest various aspects of the 'digital natives myth', as well as the policy and design implications that often flow from them. The observable differences at the heart of the digital native narrative relate more to culture, or to geography, to socio-economic status or even just to personal preferences than they do to age, critics argue. No doubt some of these folks may glance at this post and ask: 'Digital natives', haven't we moved on from that stuff? When it comes to related academic discourse, the answer to this question is probably a qualified 'yes, at least in some circles'.

That said, in my experience, the digital natives hypothesis remains alive and well in many educational policymaking circles (as it does with many parents -- and grandparents, and marketers, and with many kids themselves), especially in places around the world that are just now beginning to roll-out or consider the use of educational technologies at a wide scale. Indeed, while meeting with education ministries on three different continents over the course of the last month, I've had very senior education officials in three different governments explain to me how the concept of 'digital natives' was central for their vision for education going forward. These recent conversations -- and many others -- prompted me to write this quick blog post (as well as one that will follow).