Friday, April 23, 2010

Are "digital natives" really more tech savvy than "digital immigrants"?

A few years ago, when I first heard the term "digital native" it seemed to make a lot of sense. Most of the students I teach can't remember a time before the internet and have grown up in a time where any question they want to ask can be searched for on Wikipedia or YouTube. Many of them have probably never written a letter - they communicate using email, SMS and Facebook. They are engaged with digital media for a large part of their day, watching TV and films, listening to music, playing computer games and creating their own animations, music and videos to share with their friends. Most of the students I teach seem confident in using a whole range of technologies and they learn how to use anything new very quickly.

However what I am coming to realise more and more these days is that although our students are very confident in what they are doing and how they are using technology, there are very big gaps when they engage in research or inquiry. They struggle to find relevant material and can often be overwhelmed by what they find on the internet. They often don't read the information on websites critically and tend to believe anything they come across. They skim across pages and often end up with a fairly superficial knowledge of what they have read. Many of them rely on the top hits in Google, believing they are the most reliable sources of information - very few of them have any knowledge at all of how websites get to the top of the list. They are great at regurgitating the information they find, but they are not good at synthesising it or recontextualising it.

The digital immigrants, on the other hand, appear to be more critical about what they are reading online. When they search, they are doing it more competently and are questioning the reliability of the information they find and judging its value. They are also less likely to share information that may later come back and "haunt" them, such as inappropriate photos and messages. They seem to have more understanding about staying safe online and can often communicate more effectively and appropriately. I'm wondering if perhaps that is actually because the digital immigrants have had to actually master the "old" communication skills first?

As teachers I think we need to move on from this digital native and digital immigrant argument. We have the experience of the higher-order thinking skills that can foster in our students the skills and understanding that enable them to be critical and creative users of technology. We need to show them how to collaborate and communicate while staying safe online. We need teach them how to tell the difference between when technology is appropriate and helpful and also when it is not.

Photo Credit: Phone by PhotographyByPaul


  1. It's a broad generalization, but I think it really depends on the individual. I think that those who come to technology later tend to be somewhat more discerning in their choices. I (admittedly, I'm probably more native than immigrant at 24) am better at computers than 99% of my students. However, I do have one student who is a very skilled programmer and hacker though. At the same time, my 18 month old is better with an iPod Touch than many of my colleagues. What I think we need to focus on is finding a way to impart what we understand about caution and wise decision making online and apply it to students' innate ability.

  2. I think that it has more to do with a lack of being taught those skills at all. In a lot of cases teachers assume that because kids are so inundated with technology that they will naturally know how to perform a search, how to read for information, what is not safe to post. These are skills I remember being purposefully taught in my first school. I moved across the state and the students I was surrounded by then did not have these skills. I looked like a genius because I knew how to use a glossary and how to read for information. What really needs to happen is a purposeful, intentional teaching of these skills. The only difference might be in the tool used to teach the skill.