There are no digital natives.

There, I said it. I feel better. Not that I haven’t said it before. In fact, it’s been a battle I’ve been having for nearly a decade since the term first appeared in Marc Prensky’s 1991 piece Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, which makes an interesting theoretical argument about modern students.

(One that has been dis-proven to be an accurate portrayal of college students and their studying/learning habits. The reasons are great, but the “dis-proven” nature of the argument doesn’t mean that the general theory of modern education is wrong. In fact, both can – and in this case, do – exist. I have built much of my teaching scholarship on this.)

Unfortunately, this idea – and make no mistake, this is simply a theoretical construct – was taken as reality by those in the consulting world, those who believe a 6-page paper could be translated into sellable activities.

So here were are.

In 2010. I am barraged by people who claim some magic technological savvy bestowed upon a generation of children who, because they grew up surrounded by digital technologies, somehow magically understand how all of these things work.

As if simply being immersed is enough.


There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says "Morning, boys. How’s the water?"

And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes "What the hell is water?"

Commencement speech at Kenyon College, delivered by David Foster Wallace on May 21, 2005


If there are digital natives, then surely there must be other ‘natives’.

English natives? They, after all, grew up in a world surrounded by words and talk. They are immersed in it. Yet we assume these English natives know nothing of literature or writing and make them take classes, learning the histories and nuances of the language. (In fact, those who are not native at times have an advantage because they start with a clean slate.)

Science natives? They, after all, grew up in a world surrounded by the mysteries and wonders of science. They have never known a world where biology and physics and chemistry surround them. Yet we assume these Science natives know nothing of the underlying forces that drive our bodies, our planet and our universe.

It’s as if being a native, then, may not be as important it seems.


As a point of full disclosure: while I haven’t set out to write and research about digital natives, my career and background has put me on a collision course with those who push this agenda. Of those whom I’ve met, I can’t recall one who I felt was in this for the wrong reason.

Which doesn’t mean I don’t think they are wrong, at least with a broad brush. I’m sure, given enough time, we would find many of our disagreements definitional, not practical.


I’ve am currently surround by several thick binders of research (others, not mine) that suggest that the assumptions we make about the modern student are in fact wildly wrong in this way.

These children have grown up with digital technologies, but in a very limited way. They know a few things quite deeply, but they – as we did at their age – have no great appreciation of the subtleties of the tools. The expanse and use of the tools. The possibilities for tools that don’t yet exist.

They can push buttons, but they can’t make them.


Here is a little story from my own experience, a rhetorical tool that I normally find useless. But it’s my blog so I’ll write in these posts what I like.

I have taught a class, Introduction to Social Media, for the past three years. In the class, we begin by reading Vannevar Bush, JCL Licklider, Robert Taylor. The founding fathers, of a sort, of the digital, networked age. We move through readings like the cluetrain manifesto, a book about how the Web overlaid on the Internet changed everything.

We use very simple software tools to build a WordPress website complete with individualized themes and widgets. We launch Google apps like the Reader.

In other words, we build with modern tools while examining in some measure where and why these tools exist. The goal: create a comfort level with modern technology and a broad understanding of how types of tools may be applied.

When I pitched this class (first at Northern Kentucky University and now at Ball State University), the initial reaction is always the same: these kids already know much of this.

But three years into a class build around launching a blog and a social network, then deploying existing software tools (e.g. RSS feeds, podcasts, Flickr galleries, search) to tell stories, I can tell you that almost none of them do know it.

Like the rest of us, they struggle. I have to consistently remind them that they will not break the Internet by pushing a button. That anything they screw up, we can fix.

That it’s okay to do things that the buttons you are supposed to push don’t allow you to do.


And that last point – that these children don’t realize that just because a piece of software doesn’t allow you to do it, doesn’t mean it can’t (and shouldn’t) be done – is the one that is the most frightening.

My generation – the first of the so-called Digital Natives – had computers that did nothing. We hacked and kludged our way through the devices, learning to code using the tools the Digital Pioneers (like the metaphors!) created for us. This machine is simply a tool, a digital hammer, that I will use how I want.

Not for the modern student. Today’s children see this box and the software as the masters. The tools that are created dictate how and what they do.

And that is not native.

  • Jenny

    Such an interesting perspective. I marvel at my nieces, 2, 5 and 7, who have no clue that LCD screens on cameras were not always there. You take a photo of them, then they immediately want to see it. I use a digital camera, but I do miss the mystery of film. You HAD to be more skilled at taking photos because you couldn't just delete and do over. I once met a photographer who refused to use digital and limited himself to one roll of film. Instead of 100 just-ok photos, he'd have a dozen or so really good ones because he had to use skill, not take, delete and try again. My nephew is skilled at video games, but it's when he figures out on his own that he can hook unit a to unit b and the result would be x that his true skill emerges. I've tried multiple times to teach my parents the benefits of GoogleDocs and think it would be easier to organize holiday/family lists with it, but they still want to use Word and send it to me via email (when they could be skipping that step).

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  • I gave you a pingback, but thought I'd leave a real comment here too since I liked this so much. I'm working on an MA in Media Studies and we've been talking about this condition a bit this past semester. The big problem, I think, comes down to teaching kids what to do with the tools they know how to use. You address this in the last couple of paragraphs. It's scary to have kids who don't know they can create stuff! It's important to teach them that these are tools, and from a young age.

    In many ways I think we have more options than we did even 5 years ago. We don't have to teach how to use a mouse and the desktop and how to type (well, typing skills could probably improve for most kids)… we should be teaching them how to get something out of those tools. Thanks for this post, it was fun to think about.

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  • Hey Joel:

    I actually saw that a few days ago 🙂 Glad you liked this. I'm working it out, but it's been a fight I've had in academia for the past few years. Some folks ascribe a certain “knowledge” to kids because it's easier than learning it themselves.

    That isn't a criticism. Lord knows I do that ALL the time. (Ask any graphic designer who knows me — they'll tell you. All the time.) But it's an attitude that all educators must fight.

  • This is the eternal battle. Of course, I wouldn't say you HAD to be more skilled. That ascribes a talent to a piece of technology. In fact, you could take as many pictures as you want. And professionals would do that.

    There is nothing keeping your photographer friend from limiting himself to 100 pictures with a digital camera. 🙂

    The fact is: it's a skill. The tools allow us to more easily take good pictures, but that doesn't mean we can all be professionally photographers because it's not just about making the picture look good.

  • You know, I taught my first undergrad web design course last Fall as an adjunct. I was surprised by just how little most of my students knew about the underpinnings of the web. Most didn't really think about social media at all — I only graduated with my BA in '06, but even the group of kids from my graduating class considered what they were doing online. The students I had didn't pay much attention to it all. They just created.

    And so, as a green prof., I found I had to do even more legwork just to get them up to speed with what I thought would be common knowledge to a college student.

    In any case, this has sparked some other thoughts that I think I'm going to explore. Thanks for instigating!

  • Here's an unfinished reading list about the history of the web:

    and you're welcome to check out my social media class wiki:

    The more, the merrier.

  • Awesome. Happy to see good 'ol Henry Jenkins on that list.

  • Well Henry is a friend from my days at Wired and MIT. He's a character in our book + I was briefly his editor when I was at Technology Review. He's awesome-sauce for sure.

  • You're my new hero. I think it's been said he's “the new McLuhan”? Hah. In Media Studies circles he's certainly achieved nearly god-like status. I'm a fan in any case.

  • Well that was much easier than I thought 🙂 Henry is one of the nicest guys I've ever met + he's certainly a big brain on new media.

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  • Candice Kramer

    Right on. No different from those who are ‘automotive natives’ who turn the key and expect the thing to go, having no idea how or why it works, or what to do when it doesn’t. Yay!

  • Mathieu Plourde

    Interesting that I stumble upon this today, since I’m starting to teach my first course ever on social media for educators. I totally agree. Consuming digital media doesn’t make you a native. It makes you a consumer.

    Have a look at my site, I think we could collaborate somehow.

    Mathieu Plourde, University of Delaware

  • Brad,

    I’ve been arguing about the same misconceptions in my role as an Ed Tech Specialist for the last five years. Students don’t simply learn to be effective and efficient users of technology simply because they have access. No one learns to read simply because they live in a world where books exist — they need instruction. I’ve watched students enter our 1:1 program at G6 and in G8 still not know how several of the programs on their computers work. I think we have gotten better at teaching them skills and they take to them quickly, but by no means do they naturally know and understand the proper and appropriate use of technology. Thanks for this post!
    TS Bray

  • Thanks for reading and replying. I’ve been involved with technology + publishing professionally (in some form) since 1995, and in all my years I’ve yet to meet somebody who really understood technology on a deep level just by virtue of age.

  • Hello Mathieu:

    I actually do most of my teaching and educational writing at (and I tweet under @bsu_brad). I teach 2 versions of social media: a survey course ( and a community-building course ( I have several friends who teach these types of courses as well. I’d love to chat with you.

  • Thanks for reading. Just as an FYI: most of my education related writing happens at I’m a professor at Ball State so I try to keep my world’s somewhat separate. However, my mouth really can’t be contained in just one place 🙂 I’ve been talking about this issue for years, and the more I do the more I meet like-minded people 🙂

    Keep on, keeping on.

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