The Digital Native Myth

I love getting together with people that think like I do. So that is probably why I like the annual TxDLA conference. I just got back with a load of new information to process. I was also thrilled to see that many people are getting tired of some of my least favorite Ed Tech buzzwords: “digital native” and “digital immigrant.”

It seems like whenever I bring up the term digital native or digital immigrant, I get at least a few (if not more) stories from teachers that can’t seem to find many of these “digital natives” out there. Those of us that are ready to let the students loose in the digital world that they are supposedly native to are getting blank stares from said students. I polled my wife’s 9th grade class last year and found that most of them had no idea what a blog was. Really – no clue. Do you know why? They don’t own a computer at home. Over 80% of them didn’t. There is this thing called the digital divide that is very real and very ignored.

Chris Duke sent me a link to an excellent blog post he wrote called “Millenials” are NOT different learners!! I think he makes an excellent point:

“Millenials have the opportunity to learn with grander and newer technologies than the those available to their teachers when their teachers were in secondary or undergraduate education.”

So, in other words, learning is the same – its just that society has changed and given our natural desire to learn new directions to grow that were not available just a decade ago. We’re tapping in to stuff that we always wanted, but just didn’t have the technology to do.

Just because someone was born a certain year does not mean they will have access to a computer and therefore become a native. I know that there are those that grow up with a computer at home and they technically are a digital native. But there is also this implication that they are automatically more tech-savy than any given digital immigrant on any given day. This is just not true. Think about all of the people that you know who are true early adopters. I am thinking of some now… and no natives are coming to mind. I am usually the one convincing my 20 year old sister-in-law that she needs to sign up for a new website. Not the other way around.

I do recognize that there are differences with every generation. Always has been, always will be. We need to know what these differences are. But won’t focusing so much unnecessary attention on the differences just serve to drive a larger wedge between “us” and “them”? There are also huge similarities. We should stop acting like younger generations are an entirely different species than us. Recognize the differences, but learn to focus on the positive stuff that is there.

I originally posted this on the TxDLA 2008 blog and edited it to repost here. On my original post, Rick Tanski left a comment that had some great links on this subject:

Here are also some past EduGeek Journal posts on this issue:

Also, if you are interested, here is the link to the original Digital Native Myth post for context.

Matt Crosslin
Matt is currently the Learning Innovation Coordinator with the UT Arlington LINK Research Lab. His research focuses on Learning Theory, Innovation, and learner empowerment. Matt holds a Ph.D. in Learning Technologies from the University of North Texas, a Master of Education in Educational Technology from UT Brownsville, and a Bachelors of Science in Education from Baylor University. His research interests include instructional design, learning pathways, sociocultural theory, heutagogy, virtual reality, and open networked learning. He has a background in instructional design and teaching at both the secondary and university levels and has been an active blogger and conference presenter. He also enjoys networking and collaborative efforts involving faculty, students, administration, and anyone involved in the education process.

4 thoughts on “The Digital Native Myth

  1. Who came up with this ‘Gen’ concept anyway? I was attending a conference last year where a speaker with expertise in Millenials was going to demonstrate for us how Millenials would perform predicted behaviors before our very eyes. He had a group of young people come for this demonstration and constantly referred to them as Millenials as if they were some other species. It’s bad enough that ‘Millenial’ sounds like a small furry rodent – but he really didnt need to keep referring to these young people as that. It was without question offensive and almost dehumanizing. I think the whole business of labeling generations is divisive. I would much rather talk in terms of social circumstance that individuals may face rather than making sweeping generalizations about the individuals themselves. I just dont think people are that different from generation to generation.

  2. Matt Crosslin

    I’ve seen many presentations just like that, and it’s really funny when the students up there don’t respond like they are ‘supposed’ to.

    I think some of the slight differences that we see from generation to generation is due to society advancing. In other words, if you could create some alternate realty where people born in the 50s were raised around the level of technology we have today, you would see them developing the exact same characteristics as Millennials. It sounds pretty obvious when you spell it out that way, but I don’t think that people get that millennials are just doing what any human of any generation would do with the opportunities that they are given. The underlying human characteristics that make them do those things are the same.

  3. The idea that Generational Studies is either outdated or irrelevant is a false notion. Generational Studies is about the understanding of peer networks by peers, period. I will concede, wholeheartedly in fact, that one Generation claiming to be an expert on another Generation is absurd, as it takes one to know one. But what I find offensive is that the study of one group is a broad generalization while the study of another is not.

  4. Matt Crosslin

    Bret – thanks for the comment. Just to point out, I wasn’t meaning to imply that Generational Studies are outdated – in fact, I did say “We need to know what these differences are.” This post was just to point out some disagreements that I had with the concept of ‘digital native.’ Even the person that coined that term has pretty much now abandoned it :)

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