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.