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Being a Digital Native Isn’t Enough

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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I never realized how hard it would be to limit my toddler’s screen time. Despite my efforts, he has developed a proficiency with my iPhone that is, as far as I can tell, standard for his peers. He has even taken to calling it “my phone” and is flummoxed when the old solar calculator that was given to him as a plaything does not do what it is “supposed” to do (i.e., play music, play games, make calls, etc.). Whether it is through a phone, a tablet, a laptop, or a television, kids can do so many things with technology–and it is intuitive and easy to navigate. One of our friend’s children even tried swiping at a magazine page, and was frustrated when it did not turn electronically.

The split between what Marc Prensky called “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” in his landmark 2001 article has grown wider every year of this century. Unlike the teachers and parents who have watched technology slowly phased into modern culture over the past three decades, today’s students have been immersed in the digital era since birth. People joke about their children being able to program their computers for them (the old joke of children programming a VCR is now obsolete) and this facility with technology allows digital natives to engage in the world in a completely different way than many of us were able to in our youth. While many of us can bemoan this change in childhood and look back longingly on the time when baseball and outdoor activities were more prevalent than video games, the reality is that technology is here to stay and children are its consumers as much as adults, for better or for worse.

Since children these days are classified as being native to all things digital, one would think they should be able to master the operation of anything with an “on” button. This mistakenly groups all technology, including video games and online search engines, in the same category. Just because a child jumps at the opportunity to program a TV to record his or her favorite shows does not mean that he or she will approach a classroom learning tool with the same zeal. In our experience, if students are not able to find answers to an Internet search in the first few results pages, they say “I can’t find it,” instead of adjusting their search, or reexamining the results in depth.

We, as “digital immigrants,” remember writing research papers by reading through piles of journals, books, and archives of periodicals. When we approach online research, we realize how revolutionary the Internet is because we know what it was like before. We then apply those research techniques to online search engines, and find our tasks much easier to complete. Our students have no frame of reference of a “pre-Internet” world. They are accustomed to working with intuitive electronics that provide instant gratification, and when they are not able to be “done” quickly, they tend to become discouraged. As teachers, it is important that we realize that we appreciate the convenience of the Internet because we see it through a different lens than our students.

For a recent project in our 8th grade classroom, we used an online presentation tool that, while it had admirable educational potential, was not able to be navigated in an intuitive manner. It allowed for students to create multimedia presentations about a variety of topics pertaining to U.S. Reconstruction. Students could then verbally comment on their peers’ work, allowing them to learn about each different aspect of Reconstruction. We thought that since our students were digital natives, this would be no problem, and they would be able to figure it out. Oh, were we mistaken. After quelling the near mutiny that ensued, quieting the chorus of “I don’t get it” and “mine doesn’t work,” and helping to calm down our students, we realized that we had misunderstood the concept of digital natives. All technology was not created equal for access by these students, and their proficiency is often predicated by the amount of patience and determination required to complete a given task. What this facility with technology in digital natives belies is an ability to approach new classroom learning tools with the same tenacity that they put towards more gratifying technological pursuits.

In The Global Achievement Gap, Tony Wagner (2008) quotes Mike Summers from Dell Computers as noting, “There is so much information available that it is almost too much, and if people aren’t prepared to process the information effectively it almost freezes them in their steps” (p. 36). This is the position in which our students find themselves; research, by nature, requires students to sift through data, taking time to process what is and is not relevant. Digging through this myriad of information requires different technological facility than working with simple, intuitive technology. This often lowers their sense of self efficacy when approaching a challenging technological and/or research based task.

This is not to say that being classified as a digital native does not have its benefits in the classroom. Many students today– those who have access to these technologies–can edit professional-appearing homemade movies on iMovie, improving the quality of their work beyond anything that was close to being possible a few years ago. Most will probably know which app to use to keep track of their homework assignments, and even how to make flash card-like study aids to help them when they study. This does not mean, however, that they will spend the time necessary to figure out how to use a challenging website, or will approach queries from a stance of inquiry.

This leaves us with the question of how to inspire students to look through Internet search results with tenacity, to approach new technologies that may require more problem-solving skills, and to address tasks that are not as instantaneously gratifying as playing video games. It is our role as teachers to help students develop the skills to problem solve independently and collaboratively use 21st-century skills while not relying on technology to do all of the thinking for them. Just because these students are digital natives, does not mean that they do not need guidance to navigate the digital world–both in terms of learning how to discern important and relevant information from a large swath of data, and also to be able to inquire and solve problems that take time, thought, and energy.

References cited:

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, MCB University Press, Vol. 9 (No. 5)

Wagner, T. (2008). The global achievement gap. New York, NY: Basic Books.

About the Author:

Jody Passanisi is in her tenth year teaching and currently teaches eighth grade U.S. at an independent school in the Los Angeles area. She has a degree in psychology from San Francisco State University, an M.A. in religious studies from the Graduate Theological Union, and an M.S. in education from Mount St. Mary's College. She has been actively involved in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, both as a fellow and a mentor teacher.

Shara Peters is in her fourth year teaching and currently teaches middle school at an independent school in the Orange County, CA area. She has a degree in Jewish studies from California State University, Long Beach, was a fellow in the DeLeT program at Hebrew Union College where she received her teaching credential, and earned an M.A.T from American Jewish University. Jody and Shara’s writing has been featured on Scientific American, Education Week Teacher, and MiddleWeb. Follow on Twitter @21centuryteachr.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 11 Comments

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  1. 1. r.maurizzi 8:21 am 08/28/2012

    from their point of view, something that’s not immediately usable is simply broken. It makes sense to teach them that some things can’t be made “immediate”… but it also make sense to simply fix what can be fixed: for us it may be “good enough” because it’s far better to what we were used to, for them it’s a useless waste of time.

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  2. 2. Glendon Mellow 10:25 am 08/28/2012

    Excellent points – user-friendly technology makes iPhones easy but that’s lose to being an ergonomic interface and less of a technological one.

    I do quibble with the idea that video games are instantly gratifying. Some, like Angry Birds scratch that itch. But many video games, even for children (thinking of some the Lego movie games or Little Big Planet) reward depth, creativity and have deep learning through trial and error. And they are massive sellers because of how they engage children long term.

    Years ago, when the x-Men cartoon is on, the creators discussed doing a season-long storyline, something not typically found on kids action cartoons. One writer suggested that if kids can follow a 20-50 hour narrative in a video game (or I would add, read a chapter book) the. A story a few hours Lon is no problem.

    When they’re engaged, children are capable of longer attention spams and greater creativity. So the challenge becomes, how to make the search engine or training in unwieldy tech engaging?

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  3. 3. Glendon Mellow 10:26 am 08/28/2012

    *spans, not spams. Dang iPhone.


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  4. 4. Derick in TO 10:51 am 08/28/2012

    The technology has changed, but the most important role for teachers hasn’t: teaching kids to learn. Kids who know how to learn, and value learning, won’t give up because the tool is hard to use. They’ll use technology to figure out how to use technology: read help files, search online for tutorials, FAQs and instructional YouTube videos, IM someone who might be more knowledgeable on the topic, etc.

    Good teachers don’t impart facts. Good teachers impart learning skills and show students the value of mastering them. Then the students will find the facts for themselves, regardless of technology.

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  5. 5. jctyler 11:00 am 08/28/2012

    I notice more and more often that I can do more with my electronic equipment than most of the people below 30 I work with. I find solutions where they give up if there is no app for it. I have a mobile primarily for calls, they need a mobile to tell them how to boil water. Digital natives are not necessarily digitally intelligent as most of those I know can’t use their digits anymore. Ask them to hang a painting on the wall and they check if their mobile has a hammer app. If they know what a hammer is and how to hold it. My bet: the next big software is “how to use your hands to do things”, chapter one: what is wood and how to use a hammer, chapter two: what is a nail and what is it good for. Digital natives? You mean the facebook generation? About as handy as facebook’s stock value.

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  6. 6. jctyler 12:26 pm 08/28/2012

    sorry, I forgot: what I notice more and more is that young people the more they live in/with their digital gadgets the more they lose connection to the physical world. Coming late, no problem, not knowing things, no problem, no manners, no problem. Twittering during dinners, checking messages during job interviews, I’ve seen idiots twitter as guests on talk-shows. Can’t write without a spell-checker. Lost in blabla world. Somebody who has two hundred apps on his mobile “thinks” he has a life. Get real.

    I should have known when I read the first sentence: “I never realized how hard it would be to limit my toddler’s screen time.” You can’t even limit your toddler’s screen time? Are you even capable of limiting YOUR screen time?

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  7. 7. fredrated 1:12 pm 08/28/2012

    I completely agree with jctyler. Perhaps impractical today, but personally I think kids shouldn’t be allowed to use computers or other computing ‘devices’ until they are 5 years old. They need to grapple with the real world first: collect tadpoles, throw rocks, kick the ball, climb trees, wrestle, swim, hike, play on swing sets, build things, knock them down etc. etc., i.e., learn about the physical world before being sucked into the faux digital world. Teach them to be smart and understand the physical world as much as possible and learning the digital world later will be trivial.

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  8. 8. Glendon Mellow 1:16 pm 08/28/2012

    I disagree fredrated – the real world remains more alluring to most kids I know. But digital devices are great for those moments like an extra-long wait in a doctor’s office. Most children I know given the choice of video games or bike rides will choose the bike ride hands down.

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  9. 9. jasongoldman 1:39 pm 08/28/2012

    “Many students today– those who have access to these technologies–can edit professional-appearing homemade movies on iMovie, improving the quality of their work beyond anything that was close to being possible a few years ago. Most will probably know which app to use to keep track of their homework assignments, and even how to make flash card-like study aids to help them when they study. This does not mean, however, that they will spend the time necessary to figure out how to use a challenging website, or will approach queries from a stance of inquiry.”

    This is the problem with consumer tech culture, isn’t it? If it doesn’t work, ask a Genius. And if the Genius can’t help you, then the problem is with the tech, not with you. I’m not convinced this is a problem of digital nativity, but rather one of consumer laziness. It’s a model that, I’d wager, is perpetuated at home.

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  10. 10. jctyler 2:18 pm 08/28/2012

    fredrated: yes, fully agree, and it’s those kids that will make researchers, not some idiot kid who sits in front of a children’s tv prog or learn how to call his dad on his mum’s phone at age 2 to amuse the gallery.

    glendon: I rather disagree. Learning to wait is a great educational exercise, learning to shut up and sit still also, not to mention saying hello and being polite, none of which any kid will learn from any digital device whatsoever. And a kid that is not given a digital device will not miss it at all until the age of five, and not terribly until the age of 8 or 9 when peer pressure and city life demand a basic mobile and computer. But while I equally disagree with the authoritarian crap that makes the bestseller lists today and the pseudo-liberal anti-authoritarian freaks, yes, it’s quite difficult to raise kids these days in urban jungles and criminally stupid TV progs without letting them access at least some digital equipment.

    I simply think it’s today’s parents who were already badly raised by – our generation. We allowed bad manners and lousy tv and concrete jungles to replace an average, but solid education.

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  11. 11. OwenB 5:17 pm 08/28/2012

    Prensky’s “digital natives/immigrants” is already considered seriously over simplistic and flawed (he doesn’t cite any evidence, for a start). People have been writing alarmed reports about students’ attention spans for ever (and currently overlook the fact that they can ‘attend’ to games and digital devices for hours, so it can’t be attention spans per se that are the problem…). Students (and toddlers) know what they know, but you can’t safely predict this based on age. I’ve taught bright 18 year olds with hundreds of Facebook ‘friends’ but who don’t know how to link to a video from their own profile page. But yes,current and future students will need critical critical digital literacy skills in order to evaluate and manage their information flows. Keri Facer’s Learning Futures book and Steve Wheeler’s blog are excellent sources on this

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