Sometimes words get hijacked and get new meanings and understandings associated with them. This has certainly become the case for many educational words and phrases. Standards for example. In education standards has become a dirty word because it has been hijacked and become synonymous with meaningless tests, scripted curriculum, and the stripping of creativity. But, if we take a step outside of the system and remember what standards really are…it isn’t such a bad little word after all. The problem with hijacked words is that the true meaning is often forgotten, and with it a little bit of truth and importance once associated with it. We are so eager to dismiss the hijacked word as “bad” that, lumped with it, we dismiss the original idea.
In this morning’s #edchat, the topic was: Is the idea of digital native a myth? Do most kids already have the skills & knowledge 2 master tech 4 learning?
The conversation quickly turned to one of labeling kids and the belief that Digital Native is a myth because many adults are more tech savvy than their students. There was a lot of discussion about kids needing to learn the technology, that they aren’t naturally gifted at using it.
It was at this point that I realized that Digital Native has become a hijacked word. The idea of Digital Natives started with an article written by Marc Prensky. You can read the article in its entirety here. In the article, Marc is painting a picture about the differences in the students we teach. They think differently, view the world differently, and learn differently. He says:
“It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of
their interaction with it, today‟s students think and process information fundamentally
differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most
educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain
structures, “ says Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in
the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed –
and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is
literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed. I will
get to how they have changed in a minute.
What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for
Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is
Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of
computers, video games and the Internet.
So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital
world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many
or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital
The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all
immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain,
to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant
accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather
than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program
itself will teach us to use it. Today‟s older folk were “socialized” differently from their
kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later
in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.”
Here is what Marc isn’t saying: Kids born today come out of the womb knowing how to use all technology and use it well. Even though Marc doesn’t say this, judging by today’s #edchat this is what many educators believe the term means.
Being a Digital Native has more to do with worldview than anything else. If you are born in a time where GPS technology is built into every device you are going to think about reading a map differently than someone who grew up without GPS. If you are born in a time where the printing press is gaining speed and books are ubiquitous, you are going to think about where information comes from differently than someone who grew up with oral tradition only. Every generation has its technology “natives” and “immigrants”. When I am around 8 year olds who are talking about Skyping each other after school I am an immigrant. Not because I don’t know how to use Skype, not because they are better at utilizing it than I am. I am an immigrant because I didn’t grow up with that technology as part of my world. When I was a kid the best I could hope for was a cordless phone I could take into my room. As far as the 8-year-old Skype user is concerned, Skype has always existed as part of their world. That changes their worldview. That changes the way they think about communicating. Compared to the 58-year-old I am a native. I have never known a world without color TV, remote controls, video games, or the home computer. That is different from the world they grew up in. It affects the way we view the world, the way we collect information, the way that we approach a problem.
I believe what Prensky was getting at was a matter of worldview. I do not think he intended to suggest that students naturally understood how to use all technology, or that they could naturally use it well. The point is that the technology blends into the background for them. My students really don’t “get” how COOL cell phone technology is. I am still amazed that I can pull out my phone and call anyone in the world no matter where I am. My students don’t remember the days of the brick with poor reception, impossibly expensive cell bills, and that the first cellular phones weren’t actually all that convenient. For them this technology blends into the environment. It is a given. This doesn’t mean that they will pick up every cell phone and know exactly how to use it. It means that when they approach learning and thinking, they do so with the worldview that we are connected at any time and in any place.
Consider this example: I was born in 1982. Home computers were, at best, novelties. The first computer I remember playing on was the Commodore 64. We used it to play a Top Gun video game with “amazing graphics!” I thought it was REALLY cool that we had to use a joy stick. We had a computer lab at school with Apple iie’s in it. We played Number Crunchers and Oregon Trail. The computer was for entertainment purposes. It wasn’t until I was in 6th grade that I typed a “published” piece of work on a computer. Everything was hand written first…in our neatest handwriting. To this day if I am writing something important, I hand-write it first. I have notebooks full of blog post drafts, grant proposals, reports, etc. all written out long hand. It isn’t because I don’t know how to use a computer, it isn’t because I’m not tech savvy. It isn’t even because I really like extra work. It all comes down to the worldview I grew up with. You write first, then you publish. (My accent is showing.) My students think it is ridiculous to write something before typing it. They often ask why I would do that. Because I’m not a native.
One last example: I grew up with cameras that used film. Film was expensive to buy and process. We had to take time getting a picture just right before taking it because we didn’t want to waste film. My students have NO concept of this at all. They take thousands of pictures, post them digitally and never worry about wasting film or money on bad pictures. Even though I use a digital camera, know how to use the digital camera, know that I can take as many pictures as I want with it- I am still careful about trying to get a picture just right on the first try. I still think I need to have every picture I take printed. Different world views. For one of us the digital camera is native…I am the immigrant with an accent.
I think the idea of Digital Natives is important and has roots that need to be remembered. When we look at students and call them Digital Natives, it isn’t because they know instinctively how to use every piece of technology. We call them Digital Natives because it reminds us that they are approaching learning with a different worldview. They are approaching learning with a belief that technology is ubiquitous. When we remember this definition of Digital Natives we will understand that technology and proper use has to be learned. We will also understand that giving a Digital Native a 10-year-old textbook isn’t going to work. Technology is part of their landscape and we are asking them to learn in a way that doesn’t mesh with that worldview. That is what Digital Native is really about.