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Commentary invited by editors of Scientific American

Being a Digital Native Isn't Enough

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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.

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

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