On Our Children & Adolescents Being Digital Natives

The following quote is a comment to this story about funding cuts to the California public library system. I’ve been thinking lately about what it means to be a digital native because our school system has been using that term recently. I like what this guy has to say, and wonder if K-12 school districts might change their approach to libraries and research and computer instruction if they understood this writer’s concerns. My experience as a parent and my observations of our school system tell me these concerns are real:

OK, the idea that kids these days are “digital natives” is a nice, self-serving fairy tale. It makes tech-lovers feel good, because they feel like they are at the front of a curve. It makes educators feel good, because then they don’t have to teach a complicated and multi-level sets of skills and knowledges that they don’t have a strong grasp on themselves. It makes government types feel good because they don’t need to devote resources to it. It makes the kids feel special, and kids need that. The problem is, of course, that it’s pretty much false — saying kids are “digital natives” because they can text, send email, and use facebook (all services provided by profit-driven companies, who love this false paradigm as well), is like claiming that kids these days are all automotive engineers because they have driver’s licenses.

I teach freshmen. Most of them have the barest idea of how to use the Internet except for simple, pre-packaged tasks. They have little concept of wider issues, like selecting a tool outside of their very limited set of daily resources, dealing with privacy (which they care very much about, but don’t have the understanding to guess how to deal with it), or asking questions about the purpose of the technology. And these are the reasonably well-off kids who have had access to the web for most of their lives. Students from less advantaged backgrounds have greater hurdles.

So, yeah, forget this idea of “digital natives.” Now, a library could help them get closer to that ideal, but we are busy closing the libraries because the “digital natives” don’t need them. And who, I wonder, benefits from a large mass of people who can’t do anything except what the tools they are sold let them?

(posted by GenjiandProust at 6:16 AM on 2/12)

What are your thoughts about the term digital native? Is it useful? Is it an accurate description of adolescents these days? Schools seem to draw conclusions based upon this assumption. Have you seen those sorts of conclusions in your school system? What do you think of them? Are you concerned about these assumptions and what they will leave out of your children’s education?

My thanks to Alan Jacobs for drawing my attention to this comment and the original post.

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2 Responses to On Our Children & Adolescents Being Digital Natives

  1. As a digital “immigrant,” I’ve only thought of these two terms as describing the amount of *comfort* using the technology, not the *competence* in using it.

    I’m old enough to have had parents who approached the telephone as immigrants, where I was the native. For my folks, calling Grandma was a big deal surrounded by all sorts of angst. In contrast, my brothers and I never thought twice about picking up the phone but we still had to learn how to use it.

    Yes, both immigrants and natives have to learn how to use technology, and all that it affords us, but the immigrant even more so. Fear gets in the way of learning. E.g., my wife (and she wouldn’t mind me saying so) has is nervous around technology and it ‘s only when she has mastered some piece of it is she comfortable using it, but rarely completely.

    To our credit, immigrants have an advantage over natives—context. We are more apt to see and understand the downside, but also the upside, faster than the native.

    Bottom line: immigrants want to know where to click, natives just start clicking.

    • Jennifer Merck says:

      Great thoughts, Brad. Thanks. I think the danger comes when a teacher (or a school district) assumes competence, not just comfort. That’s an important distinction. I’ve heard it numerous times lately from teachers and administrators. It’s as if there immigrant status makes them assume that these clicking geniuses must know what they’re doing.

      Yes, we need to teacher differently to digital natives and digital immigrants. But let us not assume that digital natives need no instruction in the effective ways to use technology.


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