Technology and the Generation Gap – Challenging the Notions of Digital Native and Digital Immigrant

In our most recent class we discussed the generational and social changes that could lie ahead for those of us in education, and the implications of those changes.

After feeling slightly triggered by the ease of which our class could come up with stereotypes for millennials , I decided to dig into our perceived differences when it comes to technology proficiency and what that means for education (our differences when it comes to avocado toast will have to wait for another blog).

I say perceived differences because it seems to me that some commonly held ideas regarding the correlation between those who most regularly use technology and their deep understanding of it may not necessarily be based in fact.

In Prensky’s 2001 Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants he asserted that people fall into categories of either digital natives or digital immigrants based upon when they are born. Generations born pre 1980 defined as “Digital Immigrants” and those following as “Digital Natives”.

“The model was aimed at an educational audience, and asserted that early exposure to technology fundamentally changes the way people learn. The implication was that digital immigrants could never be naturally fluent in their digital abilities, that digital natives were automatically gifted, and that educators need to adapt the way they teach depending on which of these groups they are teaching. “

-Alison Kaye (for the University of York’s Becoming a Digital Citizen: an Introduction to the Digital Society)

I’ll be honest when I read Prensky’s original work I was almost convinced he had sound logic. If I weren’t a teacher, (one who frequently uses technology in her classroom) I would perhaps hold the belief that because my students have also have been raised in a media rich culture and immersed in technology all their lives, they MUST be highly skilled at utilizing it. However this has not been my experience. Students can certainly interact with and navigate technology. They are always eager to create and collaborate, or socialize using a new platform. I do not know though, that this always amounts to what Prensky described as “Native” since I feel my students are not always critically interacting with technology. Nor for that matter – do I (even in all my millennial glory).

I really wish I could word the following better than Allison Kaye, but alas I cannot:

Viewing exposure to digital technology as synonymous with mastery of those digital tools can lead educators, policy-makers, businesses, and even citizens themselves to underestimate the support, education and practice required to develop the critical capabilities that constitute skillful digital citizens.

For many children and young people, the use of technology is less expansive and empowering than the rhetoric of the digital native would lead us to believe (Selwyn, 2009, p.372), tending towards passive and uncritical consumption rather than active and collaborative content creation. The abilities to use technologies in professional and academic contexts, to be critical with information and technology, to manage and synthesise information from a wide range of sources, and to be safe and ethical online are not innate abilities automatically bestowed upon anyone who happens to have been born after 1980. These practices require a deeper understanding and a critical approach to technology and information. Being immersed in the digital world cannot, in itself, build these capabilities.”

So, with that in mind: Do schools really need to change? What sort of education or education system will be needed to adequately prepare students for the world ahead?

Like everything in education, I believe the answer to this question is complicated. Yes, I think schools should change. But I am also of the personal opinion that schools exist for more than readying the workforce of the future.

I believe as an educator I have an equal responsibility to teach students to be citizens, in addition to workers.

So while a complete curricular overhaul with a focus on STEAM, and Coding and Computer Graphics may be far in the future – I do not believe that the skills students need to critically “manage and synthesize information” are any less 21st Century Skills than the former.

While I did find one of the drivers of change in 2020 Future Work Skills, Our “Globally Interconnected World” very intriguing, and the skills that accompany that driver of change (Virtual Collaboration, New Media Literacy) undeniably important – I could not help but focus on the other skills laid out in that document. Are things like, Computational Thinking, Social Intelligence, or Cross Cultural Competency all that new and novel?

I won’t pretend to know what type of educational system we will need in the future. But it is my humble opinion that for the present we can continue to teach these valuable skills in new contexts, through new lenses and with more innovative ways of approaching traditional content.

Check out this video I found interesting on the above topic, what are your thoughts on Soft skills and “Vintage Innovation”?


3 thoughts on “Technology and the Generation Gap – Challenging the Notions of Digital Native and Digital Immigrant”

  1. I too struggle with whether or not schools need to change. It’s not a simple yes or no answer…and every school and classroom is different, might I add. Thanks for your insight!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I never really understood the digital native / immigrant scenario (even in my post millennium era haha) , maybe because I have kinda been there from the start and have always tried to keep my self current and looking for best practice with technology (among other education areas). I think schools need to change quite a bit and become more personal for the learner. They need to be able to learn at they pace and find out how they learn best. Also important to expose students to a multitude of opportunities to find out what they have a passion for. Some students it might take longer some shorter but we should provide opportunities to find out what they love and to love themselves and others. Teachers are even more important as we build relationships to help coach and mentor students to explore themselves and their world. Not sure the current way we do things allows for this.

    Liked by 1 person

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