Retrospective: A proposal about digital natives (4.12.2007)

Editorial: We’re getting near the end of this week’s look back at articles from the past here at CO9s. I’ll have two more tomorrow and one more Saturday. Why twelve? Why, because 12 is an integer of the form 3 \times 2^n, of course. Didn’t you know those are the best kinds of numbers?

One of the things I want to accomplish on this blog is question assumptions, especially where those assumptions have an impact on students and how we teach them. For me, there’s no bigger source of unquestioned assumptions than the current movement built around the digital native hypothesis — the notion that children today are native to the digital world and come pre-loaded with technological skills that we “digital immigrants” have to acquire. These assumptions simply don’t square in any way with what I’ve experienced as a teacher, and the extent to which these assumptions are driving pedagogical programs in this country is alarming and dangerous.

In this article, I lay out a sort of research program to delineate and open up for questioning just exactly what it is these people are assuming. Now all that’s needed is for somebody to come along and start collecting data — and see where the truth is. 

A proposal about digital natives

Originally posted: April 12, 2007


 The video below, via Wes Fryer, gives a pretty good synopsis of the entire notion of “digital natives” and how they should be taught — if you drink the kool-aid believe the arguments of people who believe in digital natives. It’s 7:40 long, so take a deep breath and make some popcorn:

Sorry, but I’m just not buying it. This is just the same old closed-system, content-free, jargon-filled cheerleading that the the entire digital native crowd has been throwing around for years. When the citations for the claims you make — such as the common proposition that students today “learn digitally” — boil down to slogans on t-shirts, out-of-context quotes from a single unnamed high school student, and the single word “richness” from Bill Gates, then you can’t expect your ideas to be taken seriously.

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that “digital nativist” thinking about education is more of a belief system, or wishful thinking, than it is the result of serious inquiry about learning. Let me propose this instead. Let’s have a serious, well-designed scientific study to investigate each of the following claims:

  • Schoolchildren today are immersed in technology. The assumption is that this means ALL schoolchildren. But is that true? Or is it just the ones at the top of the socioeconomic ladder? Just the ones in urban and suburban areas? Just the ones in a particular geographic location?
  • Schoolchildren are expert in using technology to process information in meaningful and nonroutine ways. This is the hidden assumption behind a lot of digital nativist thinking — something to the effect of “Many people use cell phones today; therefore people know how to use cell phones really well” or even “therefore people know how to use cell phones in nonroutine ways”. it’s not at all clear that this is so. I use the telephone every day; but it does not follow that I know how to do anything more than just punch some buttons and talk into the receiver.
  • Children today learn digitally. First of all, we have to define what this means. That will be challenging enough. Then, assuming we can come up with an objective working definition of “learning digitally”, let’s test this hypothesis through rigorous psychological experimentation. It’s been done before.
  • Children today learn digitally because they are immersed in technology. Even if the first two claims are in fact true — which is not at all certain — the main claim of the digital native crowd is this implication, that their learning style is due to their supposed immersion in technology. It seems that the digital nativists accept the truth of the hypothesis (”Children are immersed in technology”, which is not certain for all students) to imply expert-level use of that technology (even less certain) and then to imply that students learn via technology (still less certain).
  • The use of technology engages students. What do we mean by “the use of” technology? And how do we measure “engagement”? It seems that “engagement”, for now, just means happy feelings. Is it supposed to mean anything beyond subjective emotion?
  • Teaching will be more effective if we use technology. How do we measure this? By measuring the level of students’ happy feelings? By making sure they’re “engaged” and not “enraged”? Or shall we do it against a backdrop of real learning outcomes that can be objectively measured?

I’m getting tired of the jargon and the evangelizing. If my students really are digital natives and learn digitally, let’s put some data on the table and prove it.


Filed under Education, Educational technology, Teaching, Technology

3 responses to “Retrospective: A proposal about digital natives (4.12.2007)

  1. Pingback: A test for tech literacy « Casting Out Nines

  2. Matt Scully

    I agree with your questions. There is quite a bit of information we don’t know about how technology impacts our students, our teaching, etc.
    Here is my theory based on reading Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, Thomas Friedman, Ian Jukes, etc.
    Productivity comes when new technology is combined with a new way of new way of doing business. (example – steam engine vs electric engine – had to rebuild factories – make them long and low versus tall and thin for steam) If we continue to do what we have always done and simply overlay new tech tools, there will be no significant impact. We need to consider changing the education institutions (cross curricular, interdisciplinary, collaborative) including how we teach to take advantage of new technologies. Classrooms needs to become student centered, engaging environments where the students are active participants instead of recipients. Technologies like google docs, wikis, social networking sites, etc will allow us to provide this environment (eventually) without making a completely insane amount of work to keep up.
    this is an incomplete answer at best but interested in what you think

  3. I guess my first thought would be, exactly how do we know that the “student centered” and “engaging” schools you describe are going to be an improvement over our current system and not a disastrous fishing expedition.

    And secondly, technology has not fundamentally changed the way schools “do business” since the time of the Roman Empire, so why should technology suddenly drive these sea changes in education now?