The Digital-Native Debate

A report argues that those born after 1984 aren’t inherently better versed in technology. The author who coined the term “digital native” disagrees.

August 9, 2017
 
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The term “digital native” has long been the subject of debate in academic circles. A new report bolsters earlier research arguing that some digital natives -- those born after 1984 and who have grown up with technology -- are not fundamentally different than their older counterparts.

In “The Myths of the Digital Native and the Multitasker,” Paul A. Kirschner, distinguished professor at Open University of the Netherlands, and Pedro De Bruyckere, educational scientist at Arteveldehogeschool in Belgium, assert that digital natives aren’t inherently better equipped to learn new technologies than “digital immigrants” born before 1984. They cite several examples suggesting that multitasking -- a skill often ascribed to digital natives -- can do more harm than good, even for younger people accustomed to frequent overstimulation from multiple sources.

The paper recommends that instructors move past any belief that their students’ abilities to use technologies outpace their own, and that educators teaching the next generation of instructors show how to work collaboratively with students when it comes to technology.

Two professors cheered that conclusion, even as they took issue with the premise. Wendy Drexler, assistant professor of educational technology at Johns Hopkins University, said the binary discussion of whether digital natives exist or not holds little value.

“The concept of digital natives and multitasking could be a little bit of a red herring or at best a distraction from the [bigger] question that we need to be asking: How might the role of teaching and teaching practice change in an era when information is available instantaneously, but increasingly difficult to evaluate?”

Katie Davis, assistant professor of digital youth and co-founder of the Digital Youth Lab at the University of Washington, said although young people generally are intimately familiar with technology at an early age, they don’t possess the discernment skills they’ll have in adulthood.

“You’re not born knowing how to know that this particular news article is fake, this particular article is trustworthy,” Davis said. “Those types of learning experiences are super important.”

Davis has observed negative consequences of the distinction: older educators in the digital-immigrant category sometimes assume their students possess technical abilities they’ll never match. That feeling has receded somewhat in recent years, she said, but it hasn’t entirely gone away.

“It has been argued … that maybe we’ll just wait this out, and once the older teachers retire, the new younger teachers will be used to technology so there won’t be any more problems,” Davis said. “You can’t just wait it out. You have to be pretty proactive.”

She recommends professional development for instructors, librarians and others geared toward introducing them to rapidly evolving technology.

From Kirschner and De Bruyckere’s perspective, proactive steps include modulating digital technology use in classroom settings and exposing instructors more frequently to technologies they’re not fluent using.

Likewise, Drexler said, there is a need for professors to be taught how to apply the digital tools they use in their personal lives in their classrooms and course work.

Not Going Away

Marc Prensky, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Global Future Education Foundation and Institute, coined the term “digital native” in a 2001 article. He remains agitated that a phrase he first invoked so many years ago continues to draw criticism, especially because he believes nuanced distinctions exist between the attitudes of different generations.

“It’s a metaphor for people moving into a new culture and a new society and things changing,” Prensky told “Inside Digital Learning.” “The reason it’s lasted 20 years is because it’s a powerful metaphor and it’s worked.”

The Kirschner/De Bruyckere report, he argues, was written from an assumption that current approaches to education will still be relevant in the coming years. Prensky believes new educational models should focus on encouraging collaboration, instead of simply communicating content they can receive from other sources.

“The new paradigm is empowering and coaching kids along the lines that they want, not along the lines that you set up for them,” said Prensky, the author of several books on education. “The areas that they find valuable are not the areas that you find valuable.”

Even though he stands by his term as a description of an inherent disparity between generations with vastly different experiences, he hopes future discussions ask tougher questions.

“The fact that people are still debating [digital native] is fine,” Prensky said. “The fact that they’re debating the original article written 20 years ago instead of using the metaphor in current terms -- that’s what’s not good.”

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