Home > Uncategorized > A Recent Study Shows Our ideas About “Digital Natives” Are Wrong… We Should Heed Their Findings Now

A Recent Study Shows Our ideas About “Digital Natives” Are Wrong… We Should Heed Their Findings Now

In 2001, Mark Prensky wrote a paper that contended the world was divided into two groups: “digital natives”, who were born after 1984, and ‘digital immigrants”, those born earlier. Mr. Presnsky contended that the “digital natives” who were far more adept at the use of technology having been raised in a digital world, thought and acted differently from the “digital immigrants”, many of whom were uncomfortable with technology. This idea had intuitive appeal to “digital immigrants” who often relied on their children and grandchildren to explain the newest technologies and lost to them in video games that enthralled them. But, as Paul Ratner reports in a Big Think post early this month, Mark Prensky’s intuitively appealing notion about digital natives was wrong:

Authors Paul A. Kirschner from the Open University of the Netherlands in Heerlen and Belgian Pedro De Bruyckere say no …distinction (between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”) really exists. They cite a growing number of international studies that show how students born after 1984 do not have any deeper knowledge of technology. The knowledge they have is often limited and consists of having basic office suite skills, emailing, text messaging, Facebooking and surfing the Internet. And the tech they use for learning and socialization is also not very expansive. They do not necessarily recognize the advanced functionality of the applications they use and need to be significantly trained to use the technology properly for learning and problem-solving. When using technology for learning, the “natives” mainly resort to passively consuming information.

The paper’s authors also conclude that there is little scientific proof that digital natives can successfully do many things at once in a way that’s different from previous generations. For example, reading text messages during lecture would have the cognitive cost of not being fully focused on the class. Similarly, a 2010 study cited by the researchers found that high-intensity Facebook users were not able to master content well and had significantly lower GPAs.

Prensky’s 2001 study asserted that given the purported differences between “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, teachers and schools would need to change their approach. But the authors of the study cited by Ratner draw a completely different conclusion. If we assume “digital natives” possess inherent knowledge about technology “might take away the support they actually need to develop necessary digital skills“. In addition to under-emphasizing digital skills the authors of the study also advocate “teaching the importance of focus and eliminating the negative effects of multitasking.” 

As a “digital immigrant” who is a self-taught technologist with six grandchildren, I think that the findings of Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere ring true. My grandchildren, each of whom is a “digital native”, know a lot about the apps on my new smart phone and seem far more agile in texting than I am, but they do not necessarily use their phones, pads, and laptops to seek out deep understanding of materials. Fortunately, their parents see the value of reading to them, the importance of limiting “screen time”, and the value of serving as “Google” sources when their children need information. Most importantly, they help them understand which internet sources are reliable. Here’s hoping that all parents are as diligent and that teachers also appreciate the limited “technological expertise” the “digital natives” possess. 

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  1. Elyssa Gersen-Thurman
    August 8, 2017 at 10:32 am

    I just attended a two day training on working with young adults (ages 18-24) and learned the same thing. What was more concerning is that our trainer cited studies indicating that digital natives lack crucial workplace knowledge like using Microsoft Office, Excel, PowerPoint, etc. (or the Google equivalent). Most companies and non-profits use data collection systems like Salesforce that require staff to do a lot of detailed data entry, which our recent YA summer interns found exhausting. The good news is that your grandson’s middle school teaches digital technology so he is learning this by doing projects and enjoys it.

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