Over the last few years, as I've been working with secondary (K-12) age students, I have noticed the skills and abilities that they are able to display, and have wondered about the actual meaning of the term "digital native". According to a Work Design Magazine article:

"Digital Natives have an inherent understanding of digital technologies, as they’ve been integrated into their lives since early childhood. They are part of a tech-savvy generation at the forefront of technological progress and want to be connected when they wish, from anywhere. "

An inherent understanding? Although I agree with most of the article, as a teacher of technology for about a decade, I feel that this statement needs a bit more explanation as my experience is a little different.

I must add, that my experiences centre around secondary students, the younger end of the under 25s that are currently classed as digital natives. Still, from what society seems to think of them, they should be more tech savvy than any other generation. Maybe I have higher expectations, but coming from an educators point of view, it's just not the case. A considerable number students I have come across, struggle, not just with understand the concepts of the digital age, the social and information aspects, but also struggle to deal with the technical and practical sides of things. I must say that I side more with the following statement:

'Indeed, although many of today’s teens are immersed in social media, that doesn’t mean "that they inherently have the knowledge or skills to make the most of their online experiences," '

The quote is taken from 'Digital Natives, Yet Strangers to the Web' from The Atlantic, written by Alia Wong, in which she quotes Danah Boyd from her 2014 book 'It's Complicated: The Secret Lives of Networked Teens'. Boyd who is a social media scholar and youth researcher working at Microsoft Research, should know what she's talking about, and hits the nail on the head

It was Marc Prensky who first coined the phrase in question and discussed it in his article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants and the follow up article, subtitled 'Do They Really Think Differently?' about 15 years ago. However, he didn't intend it to imply that those born into the Internet age had innate abilities to use, understand and create digital media and all it stood for, just by being surrounded by it, as if through osmosis. Just like a native of a country still has to study to understand, read and write in their native language, the language of the modern digital age, with all its intricacies and it's fast pace changes, still has to be learnt, and appropriate behaviours practised.

Unfortunately, by the time many of the younger ones have started to learn about it in school, it's too late. They're already on Instagram, snapchat, or Twitter, instagramming, snapchatting or tweeting they're little hearts out (Facebook is apparently too old school for many of the youngsters, these days!). And unfortunately, the minimum age of use for these sites (13), doesn't seem to be adhered to. In one of my previous blog posts, I mentioned how a student of mine had Instagrammed an 'interesting' picture of me without my knowledge. He was a year 7 student. 11 years old. Two years too young to even have an instagram account. Although, many of his friends, also under age, had restricted accounts, he didn't. I wonder how many others, despite the amount of videos you show them, or lessons you teach them, still don't quite get it.

But they're digital natives! They should get it, already, right?

They should already know how to surf the net, and write a word document, and copy and paste and right click, and open that iPad app to record notation, and upload to their Google Drive, and make sure all their work is in folders just like on their PC at home. They should know how to pick a good password with at least 8 characters both uppercase and lowercase, with a number and a special character, and remember it. ... They should know all this, because... because, they're digital natives. Right?

But they don't, unless they are taught!

And the number of times I have heard from parents, "My kid is a whiz on computers. She/he is always showing me how to do stuff. So I'm sure he/she will be great at ICT/Computer Science". Unless, that thing you child is showing you is how to mail merge, or write code to generate the fibonacci series in python, I'm afraid I'll have to check myself.

Those in the education sector can be just as misinformed, all the way from trainee teachers to Ofsted inspectors, carrying similar notions of what the students should automatically know.

In my experience, simply being born in an age where computers are all around won't guarantee the proficiency needed to excel in class or society with those tools. Everything needs to be learnt either through a teacher or independently. It's the independent learning that's key, here! With all the resources available online, you can pretty much teach yourself anything, and the role of the teacher is now changing (or should be, but that's a discussion for another day). For young people to be able to teach themselves at home in their own time, they need to be able to find, understand and follow the materials they find online. Once they can do that, then, an only then, they can pretty much do anything. However, they need to learn how to do that too. Yes, even being able to follow and learn from a tutorial video, needs to be learned.

This is why the abolition of the ICT GCSE in the UK is such a contentious issue. It seems like those that made the decision to scrap it are misunderstanding the ability of these Digital Natives. Where are they going to learn these skills? Computer Science, as important a subject as it is, is not the right vehicle to teach this. It's overkill. It's like being forced to learn how to use an industrial jackhammer, when all you want to do is a bit of gardening.

The problem is not only a practical one, but is also a philosophical and social one, because the generation under discussion are being expected to know and understand the implication of the tools at their disposal, and understand consequences of misuse at such a young age.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say with this article is, don't assume a level of inherent knowledge or skill from our current generation, just because of the tools at their disposal. Also, unless the right level of education is given, or the wrong assumptions laid to rest, prepare for things to go a bit pear shaped more often than they should.

I urge you to read Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, and the follow up article (linked above), both by Prensky, who was evidently years and years ahead of his time. Give the Atlantic article a read, too. It suggests a curriculum, aimed at addressing the very issue described here. And if you're interested in reading more, check out one of Prensky's more recent articles 'The World Needs a New Curriculum'. Having left the issue of digital natives far behind, he is now suggesting a TOTAL change of curriculum. I'd like to say, that this is, again, way ahead of its time (which in practical terms, it is) but is actually something that desperately needs more discussion right now.

A few other articles, which may be of interest are below too, just in case you're not a teacher and have time to enjoy reading, or you are a teacher, but you're on holiday (and not planning).

Thoughts in the comment box below, please. Thanks.

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