Another Misread of the “Digital Native” Idea

I’ve been wanting to write a long blog post on the idea of the “digital native” for a while now. This short post will have to do for now…

A new study from the Open University that “explodes” the “myth of the ‘digital native'” has two big problems. One is that all the participants are Open University students. Since the Open University is an online institution, that means the sample is at least a little biased toward those comfortable enough with technology to attend an online institution.

The bigger problem, however, is this: The study misses what I see as the key element in the idea of the “digital native,” that those who spend their formative years using technology come to think at least a little bit differently.  Might a 20-year-old think about privacy differently than a 45-year-old because of the younger person’s use of Facebook?  Might a 20-year-old expect a different kind of feedback on his or her work than a 45-year-old because of the younger person’s video game playing experience?

The Open University study found no gap between younger and older students in the use of technology or in attitudes about technology. But the study didn’t seem to examine how younger and older students might tend to have different ways of thinking because of their differing experiences with technology. The questions they asked about approaches to studying might have gone in this direction, but it’s not clear from this article. The study certainly seemed to focus on students’ use of and attitudes toward technology.

This is a common belief about the idea of the “digital native,” that it’s about younger students’ comfort with technology, skill with technology, or attitudes about technology. Those elements are in Marc Prensky’s original use of the “digital native” term, but there’s also this piece about coming to think differently about the world because of technology use. That, to me, is the most interesting part of the hypothesis and the one most relevant to teaching. But it’s the piece that many people overlook in their attempts to debunk the “digital native” idea.

For a few more examples of how “digital natives” might think just a bit differently, see my tongue-in-cheek “review” of the book as a device.

Image: “Baby Sees the iPad Magic,” Steve Paine, Flickr (CC). Hat tip to Mike Caulfield for the article on the Open University story.

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