Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The Myth of the Digital Native

My library has a cool digital media lab where people can record, edit, and create just about anything.  When I gave a tour of the library to a group of students and their parents, I wasn't shocked when the children took to the software immediately.  The term digital native suggests that people born after the introduction of digital technologies are more likely to understand the concepts behind those technologies.  While the children instantaneously began playing around with the software, they did not have the faintest idea what they were doing.  Their parents, however, were ready to claim them computer geniuses.

Time and again I hear adults exclaim that children inherently know how to operate computers - that it's somehow written in their DNA instead of a learned skill.  Many adults write themselves off as unable to learn how to use computers because of their age and/or memory, disheartened by the youth they see grasp it so easily.

Because digital literacy is a huge part of what libraries do, busting the myth of the digital native is the first step librarians can take in helping everyone (children and adults) learn the computer skills they need to survive in the 21st century.  As a librarian and a parent, I can tell you as a fact that children are not hardwired to become digitally literate.  And here's why:

Today's youth are entertained by their parents' cell phones.  I'm certainly guilty of handing over my iPhone to my 2 year old so she can draw, play puzzles, or even attempt to shoot an Angry Bird.  When she first took the phone out of my hand she certainly didn't know how to access the phone, open applications, and play games.  Instead, she carefully observed my interactions with the phone and continued to learn about the device through a series of trial and error.  Although the methods and tactics of a two-year old are much different from the learning methods of adults, the truth remains that the two-year old still had to learn how to use the device.

Much like my two year old, the eleven and twelve year old girls who experimented in the media lab used the trial and error method to learn the applications.  Participatory learning is one of the key learning methods of Generation Z, somewhat of a foreign concept to the traditional classroom learners of the Baby Boomer Generation, Generation X, and even the Millenials.  Given the informal nature of participatory learning and the trial and error method, it's understandable why most adults mistake learning for intuition or knowledge already possessed.

There is no doubt that technology has shaped Generation Z (and some Millenials) in ways that have not fully been realized but, referring back to the definition of digital native, to say they are more apt to understand the concepts behind technology is certainly stretching it.  What is it, then, that perpetuates the myth of the digital native?

The traditional learning methods, such as the classroom model that most of us grew up with, instilled a certain amount of fear regarding how we learn.  I don't know about you, but the classes I took involving any technology were taught on a step by step basis allowing very little wiggle room for experimentation and free play.  As a result, the fear of breaking a device (or even the internet) can become an insurmountable obstacle in learning new technologies.  Fear is the one thing that children just do not have.  My two-year old does not care if she accidentally purchases an app for $10.99, but adults know that some actions have consequences and that prohibits learning.  Because Generation Z is still in its childhood, it's difficult to say if they will develop the same learning fears that adults have today; I imagine with enough life experience under their belt, we will see a change in their methods.

The person who coined the term "digital native" did so in his 2001 article On the Horizon.  Before the onslaught of iPhones and YouTube, Marc Prensky used the terms digital natives and digital immigrants to describe how younger generations learned.  Having been in highschool at the time of his writing, I think Mr. Prensky had a little foresight about the future of technology and the way it shapes the younger generations.  His oversight, however, is the way it shapes the older generations as well - people he calls digital immigrants.

The point of the article, as I see it, is a plea for educators to be aware of the gap in learning styles - not necessarily just the gap in technological knowledge.  Technology has had a progression over hundreds of years and the quality of life that technology gives us changes from era to era, forcing each new generation to be a digital native of its relevant technologies.  So at what point do the digital natives become digital immigrants?  Suffice it to say we are all digital immigrants learning the relevant technologies of the next generation that follows us.  At some point, our young Gen Z will become adults and soon be just as out of touch with the generations that follow - just as our parents don't understand us, and their parents didn't understand them, etc..

As much as things change, they really do stay the same.