Via the New York Times “Idea of the Day” blog we discover this pointer to a recent article in The Economist highlighting skeptics of the whole “Digital Native” idea, in short the idea that the generation who came of age surrounded by digital tools are fundamentally different than older generations in the way they think, learn, communicate, and express themselves.
The idea makes sense, of course, given that we recognize the massive cultural and cognitive shift that took place with the advent of widespread alphabetic literacy (which–let’s be honest–didn’t happen that long ago in human history: maybe a few hundred years). However, the available empirical evidence just doesn’t support the notion of a generation of digital natives who all share levels of expertise and proficiency that other generations lack. See, for instance, the following article from last month’s Sociological Inquiry by Eszter Hargittai: “Digital Na(t)ives? Variation in Internet Skills and Uses among Members of the ‘Net Generation’.” Hargittai concludes that “even when controlling for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.”
My concern is that by embracing the ill-defined notion of “digital natives,” those who teach this generation (and subsequent generations) will assume levels of expertise and experience–among all of their students–that simply don’t exist in such an evenly distributed way. As a result, opportunities for teaching critical skills will be lost. Also, by overlooking the factors that can hinder a young person’s digital proficiency–which are largely the same factors that hinder traditional literacy–we overlook the inequities our students face in their upbringing, their education, their communities. As a result, we overlook opportunities for correcting those inequities. And finally, feeding our students the myth of “digital natives” gives them a false sense of confidence about their use and understanding of their digital environment.
Try a simple experiment. Ask your students these two questions: “1. How does the Google search engine work? 2. Who owns the exclusive rights to the pictures you’ve uploaded to Facebook?” My guess (and I could be wrong) is that a statistically insignificant percentage of your students will know the right answer.
What do you think?