Digital natives / digital learners: #throwbackthursday

ais confIn this #throwbackthurday post I’m revisiting some of the ideas surrounding digital learners and digital natives. According to Prensky (2001, cited in Wikipedia):

A digital native is a person who was born during or after the general introduction of digital technologies and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, has a greater understanding of its concepts. Alternatively, this term can describe people born during or after 1960s, as the Digital Age began at that time; but in most cases, the term focuses on people who grew up with the technology that became prevalent in the latter part of the 20th century and continues to evolve today. Other discourse identifies a digital native as a person who understands the value of digital technology and uses this to seek out opportunities for implementing it with a view to make an impact. … [on the other hand] A digital immigrant is an individual who was born before the existence of digital technology and adopted it to some extent later in life.

Although generally seen as a useful way to categorise digital consumers, Prensky was widely criticised as being simplistic and somewhat biased towards youth. For example, Koutropoulos (2011) in an article titled Digital Natives: Ten Years After, argued that the “the digital native became a rallying cry for change in education, (expensive) technological infusion at all levels of education, and broad changes in institutions” (p.525). He suggested that the idea of digital natives may be flawed as research often was based on skewed samples, with not all who could be classed as “digital natives” having access to the technologies, as well as the terminology suggesting a skewed power dynamic. He asked whether we need to change the nature of education or simply re-focus on the individual learner’s needs and styles? Koutropoulos also noted that, although one of the underpinnings of being a digital native is the idea of multitasking and trial and error, he pointed out that this approach to learning has always been evident, citing the work of Jean Piaget who found this consistently in his studies with children.

Other key points he made were that it appeared location, socio-economic status and access to technology were factors in the take up and use of technology in education, not necessarily whether you are a digital native or not, and that it should not be assumed that all who fit within this grouping are as skilled or connected online as the term implies. Finally, he suggested that instead of focusing on the technological aspects, we need to be “… focusing on proper pedagogy and exposing our students to information retrieval and critical analysis skills that are both in the digital and analogue realms” (p.532). No argument there as, I believe, it has long been recognised that technolgy is one of a wide range of tools for learning – not an end in itself.

Despite these reservations, however, the ideas presented by Prensky are compelling and a good catalyst to think about future learners and what that means for museum education and visitation in general:

Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. … A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century. Today’s students – K through college – represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology. They have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age.

Having attended the Australian Independent Schools ICT Integration Conference 2014 yesterday and meeting many digital natives for myself – switched on young people using technology to fuel their passion for learning – Prensky’s ideas are even more relevant in 2014. (For more about the conference check out the hashtag #aisitic2014 and this blog post).



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