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.

31 Replies to “The Fallacy of Digital Natives”

  1. Dan, I’m not knowledgeable in this area – is there any evidence whatsoever that the “digital natives” experience any different neurological development or anything like that? What I mean really is – Is there any “brain science” evidence whatsoever for the digital native myth, or is the entire trope based on anecdotal observation?

      1. The Shallows, by Nicholas Carr, has a number of studies outlining how web usage from an early age changes the way the brain develops. I’d highly recommend reading based on your great post above.

  2. I am SO glad to see a rebuttal to Prensky’s age-phobic nonsense. Since when can’t intelligent adults learn? “Digital Natives” is a myth born of anecdotes and opinion; there’s no science backing up brain differences. So are there “Pencil Natives” who came after the era of slates and chalkboards?

  3. Dan, as senior citizen and as someone who is very comfortable with the digital world, your perspective feels right. I read your point of view to not undercut the value of technology in learning but to try and establish a reasoned framework for the conversation.

    I have come to believe through my life experiences (personal and career) that long term sustainable success comes from intrinsic motivation. Specifically, if children want to learn or uncover that they need to learn, that lays the foundation for success. For many people, the non-judgmental feedback and interactivity in digitally presented information support many learners in a very effective and positive way. It also allows for the transfer of responsibility to own ones learning to the learner. I think these powerful attributes provide the foundation for using technology in learning, regardless of age.

  4. Great post and I completely agree. I use technology far more than either of my children who are ‘digital natives’ and have been brought up in a very switched on digital household. Love the pencil analogy, it reminded me of Pencils Across The Curriculum – A Fairy Story written back in 1990!! http://ictpd.net/bj/publish/pencils.htm

  5. How about “book natives”? http://derekbruff.org/?p=229

    Call me “faith-based,” but I think the idea that one’s experiences influence how one thinks, learns, and expects to learn makes a lot of sense. The divide may not be cleanly cut between generations, but our students’ experiences using digital technologies do indeed affect how they learn. My experiences using digital technologies do, too.

  6. Dan,

    As a current public educator, I am so glad to read this analysis that goes beyond the “digital native vs. immigrant” approach. Having had the internet in my home since high school, and being in college during the invention of Facebook, I find my cohort bridges this overly-simplistic, imaginary divide. I am proficient with technology because I am a life-long learner who is willing always to explore new web 2.0 tools and find ways to incorporate technology in my own teaching and learning. Many of my friends or those in my age cohort do not use technology to the degree or proficiency that I do, and yet many of my older colleagues use it to a greater degree. Using age as a divider is a distraction.

    Additionally, I find myself increasingly amazed at some of the simply technological skills and knowledge that my current high school students lack. I find myself explaining what the “CC” line is on an email and why one would use it. I teach them about the privacy features on Facebook, and I guide them through the world of blogging and commenting. None of these skills seems to be particularly intuitive or innate to today’s learners. Nor do many of them seem aware of the many online resources at their disposal (i.e. Bubbl.us, diigo, Jing, etc.).

    Thanks for this insightful analysis as it brings some clarity to the discussion of digital proficiency.

    1. Brianna,
      I appreciate your comment on this. As an educator, I find my experience to be the same as yours. And consider this: I, too, was in college during the invention of Facebook which puts me in your cohort. However, the college was a Master’s Edu program 30 years after my bachelors. Our digital experience cohorts can be very diverse age-wise. Yes, trying to delineate by age is a distraction and disservice to helping people, all along the digital continuum, become life-long learners.

  7. Dan,

    Love this. I agree it is a myth, and as long as it is myth, teachers will think they don’t have to explicitly teach and model online skills and efficiencies. The myth does kids a disservice.

  8. Of course one’s experiences influence how one thinks, learns, and expects to learn. That’s the basis of much of the social sciences. But they do not do so in the simple-minded, uni-causal, whole generations way Prensky and other claim without solid evidence, while ignoring the vast amount of research in, among others, sociology that shows the far more significant issue of how material conditions of existence shape our dispositions. Or maybe people are now living in a classless utopia and nobody has told me where it is.

  9. What’s more interesting to me is how we blankly greet technology as always improving our lives and not necessarily question what we are losing as well. A generational difference is that when something has gone then how do younger people know what was before, what ‘anchors’ me as a 45 year old digital native is an ability to judge each new development against my knowledge of previous technologies over 25 years and not 6 month cycles. This certainly illustrates how technology today is often tied with a requirement to purchase consumer items and not necessarily be about solving user centric needs.

  10. I think there is a huge problem when people confuse correlation with causation. Besides, to claim an evolutionary argument that the brain is different with younger generations could only be valid if we were looking at differences over a longer period of time.

  11. Yes i was under this mistaken impression as well. So imagine my head scratching when as an Associate Professor at the Masters of Digital Media program (an elite cross over creative and technical program targeted at this new generation) this theory was proved not wrong. This is an extra effort on my part beyond my role in IBM powering Social Media Adoption and the elective I’m offering is called Social Media Foundations – Applications of social media for learning and work and it has been very well received so far. In the very first class I realized (to my complete surprise) that my expectations of our small sampling of the rising connected youth culture knew very little about emerging social technologies or why they matter.
    I asked two questions at the end of our first three hour overview of the state of social media in learning and work. These questions were:
    1) I assume that all of you live and work with social media everyday, is this true? (The unanimous answer NO!)
    2) Have any of you considered the role of social media in the workplace, for learning or business? Near unanimous NO! (Students will have seen social tools used in various marketing programs and realize business is using social media for their work, but they don’t exactly understand how or why).

    We assume that our youth are almost naturally social media aware, that they ‘get’ social media because they are active new media participants and that they can easily adapt to this medium as a common communications channel. We also assume (regardless of age, background or expertise) that people who use social media in their everyday lives, understand the business value/opportunity in leveraging social media. My own hands-on evidence suggests that both of these assumptions are critical misunderstandings of new media and business today. Though there is seemingly no limit to the energy with which the new generation is seizing the opportunity to leverage new media, they still need guidance as to how and why this new enabler can shape their work in the enterprise. The good news here is that we are helping as many people can to catch up and I still hold out great hope for the potential changes ahead lead by the surge in youthful connectedness in the enterprise.

    1. Hey @Chuck – I liken it (at times) to automobiles and driving. Just because they turn 16 and *can* drive, doesn’t mean a) they want to or b) have the experience to actually drive.

      We (the adults) can help our Millennials (and soon Gen Z) on the how of driving, but it’s equally important to help them with the why.

      Thanks for dropping by.

  12. One thing I’ve had to adjust in the classroom is that my middle school students lack many basic technological skills, even in a Macbook-equipped 1-to-1 environment. We do a lot of work learning the skills necessary to create things, along with technological problem solving. The problem-solving piece may be hardest, because most students shut down when the technology doesn’t do exactly as they want it to.

  13. Dan:
    I read these words that Steve Hargadon wrote back in 2008 and they have stuck with me and have gained meaning as I’ve worked with both “natives” and “immigrants” in the waning years. Steve was describing many of the kids I’ve worked with over the past decade:

    “They may be “digital natives,” but their knowledge is surface level, and they desperately need training in real thinking skills. More than any other generation, they live lives that are largely separated from the adults around them, talking and texting on cell phones, and connecting online. We may be afraid to enter that world, but enter it we must, for they often swim in uncharted waters without the benefit of adult guidance. To do so we may need to change our conceptions of teaching, and better now than later.”

  14. Thank you, Mr. Pontefract. I have never agreed with the idea of the Digital Natives, to which people respond to me by sadly shaking their heads because I just don’t “get it.” As a teacher-librarian who interacts with students and their digital needs on a daily basis, I see exactly how un-savvy this net generation can be. I am not crazy! Thanks!

  15. Great article! It gives an exclent overview on the debates around digital natives and the aplication of technology on education. My point of view is that the comunication has achived a degree of importance in our society that it is changing the way people interact with each other and with the world. I really belive that education has to follow theses changes and adapt itself. However, older people (baby boomers or generation X) are already part od theses changes. We must understand the way digital natives behave, but we can’t do a dramatic cut between them and the ones labeled digital immigrants.

    I’m not a natural english speaker, so sorry for my full of mistakes text.

  16. Hi Dan. I think it’s helpful to question the digital natives construct, especially since for research purposes at least, it’s virtually impossible to create a meaningful operational definition of a “generation”. You might also be interested in the research being done here in Canada on Digital Learners http://digitallearners.ca/ as well as the Net Gen Skeptic blog which gathers and comments on articles related to this topic http://www.netgenskeptic.com/ .

  17. I call them “Digital Tourists” and did so in a blog post:
    Despite these statistics, I am convinced that many students are not digital “natives, ” they are digital “tourists.” Really bad tourists. I’m talking the “standing in line to see the Mona Lisa on the busiest day of the year and then leaving the Louvre once they saw it” kind of tourist. The “only want to eat at McDonalds in a foreign country because I don’t like food I don’t recognize” kind of tourist. The “I have no idea what kind of money this is” kind of tourist. In other words, bad tourists.

    This past year was a eye-opening experience with my bad tourists. There was a 1:1 integration of student to netbooks in the English and select social studies classrooms. Initially, members of my department and I were nervous about how we would need to keep up with what we imagined would be an onslaught of tech-savvy teens. We prepared ourselves by practicing various software platforms that we thought would be used successfully. We played with Google Docs, Edmodo, Edublog, WordPress, Blogger, PBWorks, Twitter, and Quizlet. We reviewed presentation software: Prezi, Animoto, Glogster, Voice Thread. We made decisions as to how to integrate these platforms gradually and at various grade levels to help us transition students to a paperless classroom. We imagined our classrooms would be full of students investigating and testing which software would best suit their needs. We were ready for the digital natives to collaborate and teach us about this “undiscovered country” of educational opportunites.

    Instead what we discovered was that many of our students were reluctant to try new platforms that differed even slightly in organization or layout. A login in a different location was perplexing; an embed code or link could not be located. We found our students were not naturally tech-savvy, save the requisite number of computer geeks per class. They did not want to move out of their comfort zone in technology, partly because they knew that work was involved, but, in fairness, partly because they were intimidated.

    In retrospect, I don’t blame them entirely for their hesitations in traveling through unfamiliar digital territory. Because of their proficiency with social media, there is an expectation that all students attending school today, at any grade level, are endowed by their creator with a new strain of technology enhanced DNA. Because they can operate a joy stick or the Wii remote with grace and ease, they are expected to come pre-familiarized with keyboard commands that would make them more productive (“What do you mean ‘Paste Special’? What’s unformatted text, anyway?”) Our anticipation that our students are capable with all things digital has led a combined sense of frustration.
    (full post: http://wp.me/p1FPEO-DO)

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