Digital Natives, Digital Assumptions?

Back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the term “digital natives,” referring to people for whom certain technologies (such as mp3s and internet tools) existed when they were born. Prensky argued that digital natives actually think differently due to frequent exposure to digital tools, and thus radically different educational approaches must be considered for this generation.


It is possible, however, to incorrectly infer that simply because someone is of a certain age that s/he is somewhat expert at gadgets and software, or that s/he will naturally imagine efficient uses of new gadgets and software. Dr Chris Jones of The Open University has been principal investigator of “The Net Generation Encountering eLearning at University Project” which looks at the ways “NetGen students” (born after 1983) approach elearning. Preliminary findings indicate that, for example, more than 4 out of 5 surveyed students born in the 1990s use social networking sites, but only 1.5 out of 5 use blogs and slightly more than 2.5 out of 5 use wikis. Another interim finding is that students use a wide range of technologies, but their usage depends on students’ individual circumstances and the context in which the learning occurs.


I have seen well-intentioned elearning initiatives fall flat because they began by asking the students, “would you like to use technology x?” and then not knowing what to do when students were less than enthusiastic. Students may need to be helped to understand the context in which technology x can sharpen their learning. Students might not have any personal experience of reading or writing blogs, but that does not mean a moderator with a clearly envisioned pedagogy cannot successfully help students to purposefully read and contribute to blogs in a course.


Assumptions about students’ technology use are dangerous simply because tech-use demographics can change fast. For example, while the median age of a Twitter user has been 31 for at least one year, the median age for Facebook is now 33, up from 26 as recently as May 2008. How many predicted the speed of the greying of Facebook?


In his 2009 article “H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom.,” Prensky moves from differentiating digital immigrants from natives based on when they born, to a new concept of “digital wisdom”. To quote, “Digital wisdom is a twofold concept, referring both to wisdom arising from the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our innate capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities.” Learning practitioners need to demonstrate and encourage digital wisdom in our students without demographic assumptions.

Terese Bird

Beyond Distance Learning Technologist and Assistant ZooKeeper

Leave a comment

1 Comment

  1. What’s my learning future? « Beyond Distance Research Alliance Blog

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: