October 17, 2011

The Fallacy of Digital Natives

I have a problem with both the term digital native and how it has been manufactured into one of society’s greatest myths. I also believe there is an improved way in which we should be articulating the use of technology in the learning continuum.

Learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides.

But first, let’s dig into the background and the fallacy.

There are two main culprits to the propagation of both the term and the associated myth; Marc Prensky and Don Tapscott. (and I like Don.)

In 2001, Prensky published a paper in the periodical On The Horizon entitled, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants“. Through the first half of the article, Prensky paints the picture of Millennials (Digital Natives) being hard-wired differently from birth automatically leading to a digitally enhanced learning style. The non-Millennials, (Digital Immigrants) are therefore luddites incapable of learning and/or teaching and/or living like said Digital Native.


The second half of the article, however, has always been a solid piece of synthesis to me. In it, Prensky suggests the teaching profession needs to overhaul both its methodology and content. Where he misses the mark is when positing the recalibration is necessary due to the lack of technical prowess via Digital Immigrants and the new technically literate DNA of Digital Natives. It’s because society as a whole is becoming more digital, more connected, more participative and more collaborative. It’s for all walks of life.

Learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides.

Let’s turn our attention to my fellow Canadian, Don Tapscott. In a 2008 follow-up to his 1997 book “Growing Up Digital“, Tapscott penned “Grown Up Digital” where he continued to dig a ditch between the generations and their digital capabilities.

“Sure, you’re as cyber-sophisticated as the next person – you shop online, use Wikipedia, and do the BlackBerry prayer throughout the day. But young people have a natural affinity for technology that seems uncanny. They instinctively turn first to the net to communicate, understand, learn, find and do many things.”


The so-called Net Generation (as Tapscott describes them) may in fact be somewhat technology savvier than their GenX or Baby Boomer ancestors, but it doesn’t mean a) they actually prefer learning in an all-digital way or b) that older users aren’t using technology to augment their learning styles the same way in which Millennials are. Sure, there may be a larger percentage of Millennials that tap into technology first compared to their elders, but oversimplifying the division of generations to suggest one prefers an all-technology learning style whilst the others use it when necessary is preposterous.

Learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides.

And now, we have credible research to back up my argument.

In 2008, authors Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin published “The digital natives’ debate: a critical review of the evidence” in the British Journal of Educational Technology. The overarching thesis in this seminal research seeks out to debunk the claim that Millennials “are said to have been immersed in technology all their lives, imbuing them with sophisticated technical skills and learning preferences for which traditional education is unprepared.”

Their conclusion? Quite simply, although Millennials (like other generations) are now surrounded by technology, the use of technology for learning or competence gain purposes is not uniform. “There is no evidence of widespread and universal disaffection, or of a distinctly different learning style the like of which has never been seen before.”

In the summer of 2011, Open University UK released the results of >research that further debunks the claims of Prensky and Tapscott and thus extending my hypothesis.

“It concludes that while there are clear differences between older people and younger in their use of technology, there’s no evidence of a clear break between two separate populations.”

Regardless of age, people learn in multifaceted ways with technology and without.

Over at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, their opinion on the matter is also clear cut:

“Those who were not “born digital” can be just as connected, if not more so, than their younger counterparts.”

And finally, Siva Vaidhyanathan published a 2008 article entitled “Generational Myth” in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Associate Professor Vaidhyanathan of the University of Virginia asserts “there is no such thing as a digital generation.” He believes every class, every group of people, and every generation has an appropriate bell curve of individuals with low, medium and high levels of technology know-how. His specific hang-up, however, is with the misclassification of generations and the association of purported technology prowess.

He opines:

“We should drop our simplistic attachments to generations so we can generate an accurate and subtle account of the needs of young people – and all people, for that matter.”

Learning and technology has nothing to do with generational divides.

UPDATEThe Digital Learning Quadrants” post that provides an alternative to the terms above is now up.

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