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Virtually no digital natives

Siddhartha Raja's picture

Education needs to prepare young people for technological progress, not leave them be. A child entering school this year (2015) will start working in around 2030 and retiring in 2070. They will need to be prepared to connect with the opportunities that technology presents—better paying jobs, access to global knowledge, frictionless markets. They will need technical skill, flexibility, and creativity like never before.

It is unclear if our educational systems are geared up to deliver such skills, or even technological skills that are essential today. Indeed, as one recent study has shown, children often learn more about computers at home than they do at school. This echoes research from the 1990s, which found that in some cases, children in California may learn more about computers from each other than from adults. 

Learning by doing?
Vint Cerf, one of the Internet’s founding fathers and now at Google, points out that there were never any schools for webmasters in the 1990s. Yet, as the Internet grew rapidly, a whole cohort of webmasters grew into this position. Many of them went on to start their own websites and became the first generation of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Such stories make it tempting to fall for the narrative of the digital native. This term was coined in the early 2000s in the context of educators’ inability to adapt to their students’— the digital natives’—familiarity with and use of technology. Indeed, a survey in the U.S. by the Pew Research Center finds that “92% of teens report going online daily,” aided by their smartphones.  It is natural to think that this is a generation of digital natives that is ready for the future.

But taking the digital native narrative too seriously risks equating the ability to consume media with the ability to participate in the digital economy. There is a huge gap between a child playing with a smartphone and a young adult who is capable of manipulating that technology to make an income, or to create a business. This gap will translate over time to young people being more likely to be consumers rather than producers or co-creators of technology.

More equal than others
Moreover, digital natives are a highly select group—typically male, relatively well-to-do, and literate. A child living in the developing world has a lower chance of being exposed to as wide a range of technological tools or media. The odds worsen if it is a girl, or from a poor family, or has a disability.

These are not new patterns. The digital divide has existed for decades, and risks worsening as technological evolution speeds up. It is easy to forget that the first ‘computers’ were women who solved complex mathematics in parallel to resolve complex ballistics problems during the Second World War. By the time webmasters were ascendant, the group associated with the Internet and computing were represented more by Bill Gates, Michael Dell, and Tim Berners-Lee than Ada Lovelace or Grace Hopper. Assuming digital natives will naturally emerge everywhere risks the tremendous yet fragile inclusion that information technology could bring.

And even among this smaller group, presuming that consumption of technology equals skill of use is problematic. One survey of college students at a major university in Chicago found that 30 percent did not know what a cookie was. A third could not “properly identify the purpose of the bcc function in an email.”

If this seems marginal, one might consider how Internet users might find information on say health or public services online. A survey of teenage Americans found that eight in ten users have used the Internet to seek out health information. Google was the preferred starting point for searches, which means that not only should a teenager understand where to search and how to structure the search, but also which of the search results are trustworthy. 

One cannot simply assume such understanding to be automatic, and absent librarians or adults (who might also not be expert users), it becomes imperative that these digital skills are learnt.

It is critical that public policy evolves in sync with technology’s advances. The delivery of education can itself change through the use of technology. Schools can play a big role in connecting young people to the Internet, especially in the developing world. But critically, these systems will need to ensure that young students and workers are prepared to capture the benefits that smarter machines and connectivity will bring. Accepting this responsibility, and not assuming that young people everywhere are naturally able to access and participate in the digital economy, will be a critical first step.

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