Point/Counterpoint: Is the digital native a myth?

In Learning & Leading (ISTE’s magazine) this month – Point/Counterpoint: Is the digital native a myth? featuring ME in a “debate” with Marc Prensky, the most famous source of the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant”.

I argue that indeed, both these terms are myths, and damaging ones at that. Marc counters. But considering that neither of us actually saw the other person’s argument, the “point/counterpoint” isn’t really there. It would have been interesting to have more back and forth, but that’s the limit of print, I guess.

Here’s how I kicked it off –

Digital native and digital immigrant are catchy phrases, no doubt. The slogans capture the ease with which young people accept technology that baffles many adults. But the observation that children appear more comfortable with digital devices offers little insight into how computing can actually transform the learning process. Catchy phrases should never be confused with guiding principles for education.

If the intent behind the cliché was to inspire adults to develop new fluencies and respect the competence of young people, the result has been the opposite. These terms imply a generational divide that has resulted in educators throwing in the towel.

Read the rest, and Marc Prensky’s counterpoint!


4 Replies to “Point/Counterpoint: Is the digital native a myth?”

  1. A digital native is someone who has no recollection of life before personal computers or other common tech devices. They know what they know but there is no guarantee that they know anything specific and no guarantee that they know more in total then someone who remembers life before personal digital devices. The most knowledgable are likely to be digital immigrants who where there at the beginning and have been learning non stop since. I had my 1st personal computer in 1979 and am now working on my 10th. It is the rare digital native that knows more than I do. Keeping up does take effort and a willingness to learn new things. I blog at http://DrDougGreen.Com and use Twitter as @DrDougGreen.

  2. I find it interesting that Prensky acknowledges the criticism that some educators use the digital immigrant distinctions as justification for their inaction; however, I am disappointed that he did not speak more to the serious problem of educators assuming digital natives are competent users of technology. I was actually very excited to see your Point/Counterpoint in my Learning & Leading with Technology as I was in the middle of writing a literature review on developing student leaders in one-to-one settings. While Prensky defends his metaphor, I fear he misses the point that such labels are counterproductive to developing and fostering the skills necessary for integrating technology in educational settings.

  3. If there are digital natives, then there are math natives, language natives, art natives and science natives. Exposure to technology does not always correspond with ease of use, just as pure exposure to math, art, science or language will not necessarily translate to understanding of concepts included in them.

    I came to this conclusion because I am too old to be considered a digital native, but I can quickly understand new concepts of technology when I am introduced to them. My children are not as quick to ‘get it’ as I am.

  4. I agree that Prensky’s distinction is not helpful in today’s setting. It may have been helpful to get higher-level administrators over the hump to take technology in education seriously, but beyond this, the metaphor creates an us-them dynamic that is counterproductive. I don’t see these metaphors as catch-phrases, though. I see them as metaphors that are slightly off. Let’s modify the metaphor slightly.

    Technology is continuously changing. New uses are coming out on a daily basis. The landscape is changing. If we look at these changes as a landscape or a frontier (rather than an enclosed space like a country or a state), then we are not immigrants or natives of one place, but instead we are digital nomads. We are tribal- iPhone tribes and Android tribes, Twitter tribes, gApps tribes, blogger tribes. We are hunters- we find tools and adapt tools to solve problems. We are gatherers- we bookmark, we aggregate, we download. The items and skills that we acquire ultimately make us more flexible and better prepared to handle today’s challenges. As nomads our tribes sometimes join together and break apart. Our hunting is sometimes fruitful. And, we gather what we need (and sometimes more– although carrying more than what is needed is laborious and counterproductive).

    If we change the metaphor from a digital native / digital immigrant split to a tribal, nomadic metaphor, the focus changes slightly. We and our students suddenly have new literacies that must be acquired and managed effectively. How do we navigate this frontier safely? Which tribes are the most beneficial to travel in? How do you keep peace and productively negotiate with members of other tribes? How do you hunt efficiently? How do you protect the items that you hunted once you have them? Do you share? How do you assess the quality of the different items that you are hunting?

    With this metaphor, the focus is not on using video games to teach in the classroom. It is bigger than that. Instead, it is more holistic. It focuses on how we are going to help our students learn how to navigate this changing frontier. It is crucial that these skills be taught explicitly to students so that as new technologies develop and new opportunities arise, they are able to make the best use of the tools available to them to solve problems. And, these skills need to be embedded in the activities in the classroom so that students can see how those skills can be beneficial in different settings.

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