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Debunking the myth of the digital native


An enthusiastic of Prensky a year ago and happy to buy into such labels having lived with them in advertising and marketing where extensive qualitative research labels consumers with all kinds of spurious, though fact based terms and categories to help sell products and services. However, with the concept of ‘Digital Natives’ ;’Generation Y’ et al we fall into the trap of wanting to believe we’re living through a revolution, content to listen to the hyperbole, without doing our own research or looking at that done by others, anything less is hear say, journalistic or fiction. We are not entering a ‘Brave New World’ of Alpha, Beta and Gammas.

The true picture, as we must all suspect, is far more complex than Prensky wishes us to believe and is moving faster, sometimes in unexpected ways, than a study carried out in 2006 can tell us.

Five years ago MySpace was still dominant over Facebook and whilst mobile phones are almost universal the SmartPhone was not; this alone could be realising the desires of the 2010 student undergraduate cohort to access the internet anytime, anywhere, and so to network, as well as reading and writing blogs.

Prensky made a general assumption, that this and many subsequent reports have replaced with scientific studies that show a more complex picture that debunk Prensky’s assumptions and notions.

Prensky suggests that the ‘digital native’ and corollary the ‘digital immigrant’ are universal then they are not.

He suggests that the experience of these technologies are universal, when they are not and so a cohort of students will share ‘sophisticated knowledge’ when they do not and that they will have a similar ‘understanding’ of these technologies, let alone a desire to use them for studying, when they do not.

My view is that if people acted on Prensky’s notions then too great a part of a student cohort would be disenfranchised, just as anyone would if they had an access issue. Research such as this, particularly more qualitative research carried out frequently, if not annually, given the rate of change, is required. Universities are selling something of far greater than Kellogg’s Cornflakes or Walnut Whips, so ought to apply some of the levels of research done by advertisers.

The authors’ conclusion regarding Prensky could not be more clear:

‘The widespread revision of curricula to accommodate the so-called Digital Natives does not seem warranted and, moreover, it would be difficult to start “Adapting materials to the language of Digital Natives” (Prensky, 2001a; p. 4) when they so obviously speak with a variety of tongues. (page 10)

What are the authors’ reasons for saying this?

Evidence based research.

‘The investigation reported in this paper would have benefited from more in depth, qualitative investigation of both students’ and teachers’ perspectives on technology from a broader range of universities which reflect the diversity of Australian higher education’.

How strong do you consider their evidence to be?

Convincing, with extensive qualitative research now required. Any technological integration should be pedagogically driven.

It should be proactive.

Universities should look to the evidence about what technologies students have access to and what their preferences are.

‘Rather than making assumptions about what students like – and are like – universities and their staff must look to the evidence to inform both policy and practice’. (page 11)

More research is needed to determine the specific circumstances under which students would like their ‘living technologies’ to be adapted as ‘learning technologies’.

The key desires of this 2006 student cohort was:

  • Access
  • Convenience
  • Connectedness

They also desired:

  • Blogs
  • Instant messaging
  • Texting
  • Social networking
  • RSS feeds
  • Downloading MP3s

Which I believe will be satisfied by the current and new generation of SmartPhone i.e. we’re going mobile, though I doubt this will mean we are all suddenly jumping ship and calling this m-learning rather than e-learning.

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