Saturday, February 6, 2010

Teaching "Digital Natives"

There is no question that students today are different than they were 10 years ago. As any classroom teacher can attest, it is rare to find paper notes on the floor of the classroom at the end of the day. Instead, it has become commonplace to witness students text-messaging the person sitting next to them, their friend in the class down the hall or perhaps the boyfriend in the other high school across town. Prensky has termed these learners “Digital Natives” in reference to the fact that they are the first generation born and raised in a completely digital world. Many of my students have never seen a rotary dial phone and give me absolutely horrified looks when I tell them I grew up with a black and white TV without cable or a remote. To them, the concept of life without the internet is alien. In turn, they share many characteristics that also seem foreign to me. They spend more than double the time with technology than they do reading books, and are more comfortable sending texts or instant messages than emailing or calling on the phone (Palfrey & Gasser). They routinely multi-task, are constantly connected and have many real and virtual friends- some of whom they've never met in person (Palfrey & Gasser).
But I often wonder - are these ‘Digital Natives’ that fundamentally different from me, and do they actually learn differently than I did when I was their age? If so, what are the best ways to engage and teach ‘Digital Natives’? What are some of the barriers that teachers are facing when teaching their students today, and how do we overcome them?

In Danah Boyd’s presentation on “Teenagers who are living and learning with Social Media”, she states that teens have the same basic interests as previous generations. Hanging out with friends, flirting, gossiping and joking around are the underlying dynamics of teen culture and this has not changed from generation to generation. What has changed is the advent of new technologies that change the methods and visibility of their socializing. Teens would still prefer to hand out with their friends in person, but if their class schedules don’t match or they lack mobility, it has become advantageous to meet and chat online instead (Boyd). Naturally, the online socializing that students do outside the classroom has implications on the social environment in the school. But does their use of technology actually change the way that these students learn?

Some, like Prensky would suggest that “today’s students have not changed incrementally, [but] a big discontinuity has taken place”. So much so, that their brains’ thinking patterns have actually changed. Whether or not digital learning has actually changed the brains’ processes has yet to be established. However, there are many psychologists, neuroscientists and educational theorists trying to determine how learning in a digital environment compares to ‘traditional’ learning and whether Digital Natives absorb and retain information the same way (Palfrey & Gasser). Even if we are unable to ascertain if the brain itself is changing in the digital world, we need to accept that the mode of socializing and learning is changing. “In order for schools to adapt to the habits of Digital Natives and how they are processing information, educators need to accept that the mode of learning is changing rapidly in a digital age. Before answering the questions about how precisely to use technology in schools, we must understand these changes." (Palfrey & Gasser). Once this is better understood, we can overcome the first barrier to teaching Digital Natives and it will become easier to adapt educational pedagogies.

The second barrier to teaching Digital Natives exists in the digital divide that is forming, not only in availability of funding for new technologies in schools, but also in providing the necessary tech literacy skills. Funding to provide new technology to schools varies so widely between the provinces and the disparity between schools even within the same district can also be surprisingly different. Secondly, very little professional development has taken place for teachers to become comfortable with new technologies. Many administrators are installing smart boards and projectors in classrooms without giving the teachers any support in how to actually use them effectively in their teaching. As a result, many teachers find them to be 'gadgets' instead of tools that can actually help them and their students. This is resulting in a second type of digital divide that is forming between students who have been taught critical thinking skills and information literacy and those who have not. We cannot assume that all Digital Natives are tech-savvy just because they have access to technology and grew up with exposure to it. This barrier can only be resolved with adequate funding and adequate professional development for teachers in all schools, in all provinces.

A third barrier that exists in teaching Digital Natives is labeling them as such. On one hand, “labels in education may facilitate understanding in generalized conversations providing all participants understand the terms” (Harewood). In labeling this group as ‘Digital Natives' it forces current educators to examine the way in which they communicate and learn. By labeling a group as ‘Digital’, it could serve as a blatant and useful reminder to teachers that we are indeed dealing with a different ‘model’ of student and that as a result, teaching methods need to evolve as well. On the other hand, I feel that this label is more harmful than beneficial. The pitfall of labeling any group is the assumptions that ALL students this age become plagued with. One of the myths identified in Christine Greenhow's article "Who Are Today's Learners?” was that every digital native student is extremely techno-savvy. It has been shown that this assumption is not necessarily true. Danah Boyd agrees, saying that by labeling our students as ‘Digital Natives’ “we project a lot of assumptions onto them that they must be experts because they’re using technology all the time”. As educators, we can’t assume that they are inherently better with technology, just because they’ve been exposed to it all their lives. As adults and educators, we simply have far more information, experience and sociality behind us than our students, and we also “have a critical thinking around technology that [our students] don’t necessarily have” (Boyd). Our role as educators is to help empower our students “to do what they’re already doing and make sense of it in a broader world” (Boyd). If we continue to label our students as ‘Digital Natives’ and ourselves as “Digital Immigrants, we overemphasize the differences between groups, and in the process exaggerate the divides that exist between us. “The more that we assume it’s ‘us’ and ‘them’, ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’, the more we create these generational divides that cost us every day.” (Boyd.)

So what can we do to overcome these barriers and teach our students better? First and foremost, we need to forget any assumptions that we may have about our students’ being tech-savvy just because they’ve grown up surrounded by technology and the internet. Second, we should be providing the scaffolding to help young people develop critical thinking and information literacy skills with technology (Boyd). Finally, as commented on NetFamilyNews Blog we should also recognize that “it’s new technology but the same old concepts of ethics and responsibility” apply (Collier). We need to teach our students safe online behaviour and emphasis the importance of creating an online identity that reflects who they truly are and leave positive digital footprints (Palfrey & Gasser).


Boyd, Danah. (May 12, 2009).Living and Learning with Social Media. YouTube. Retrieved from:

Collier, Anne. (December 3, 2009). Not Just Digital Natives & Immigrants! Retrieved from:

Greenhow, Christine. (September/October 2008). Who Are Today’s Learners? Learning & Leading with Technology. 36 (4), 10-11.

Harewood, Mark. (February 1, 2010). Information Tech for Learning: Digital Natives Discussion Question One [Msg 2]. Message Posted to:

Palfrey, John. Gasser, Urs. (2008). Digital Natives. New York, NY: Basic Books.

Prensky, Marc. (October 2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. 9 (5), 1-6.

Image Credit:
Fetus talking on cell phone. Retrieved from:


Joanne de Groot said...

Thanks, Jackie. You make some excellent points. I agree that just because our students use technology, it doesn't always mean they use it well (or better) than they did before. I also agree that the labels we often use (thanks to Prensky) do little to bring people together but continue to emphasize the us vs. them mentality that teachers really should be trying to minimize.

Cynthia Peterson said...

Jackie, you did an excellent job of explaining the various barriers that may prevent educators from teaching our 21st century students as they should be taught. You quote Danah Boyd: we should be providing the scaffolding to help young people develop critical thinking and information literacy skills with technology. I agree that this absolutely critical.
Thanks for such a clear and thoughtful post on this topic!