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

The Post-Google Generation

Last April I attended E for Enhancement 2009, an all-Wales e-Learning conference in Cardiff. During his very inspiring keynote, Prof Stephen Heppell related some facts about the online behaviour of the very young. In one of his projects, Prof Heppell, in perhaps an excessive burst of trustful enthusiasm, handed out iPhones to young teens and set them to work on a series of tasks which took several weeks to complete. At the end of the project, the students reported that they had used every feature of the iPhone “except this one button which has something to do with work” — email. Prof Heppell also stated that for children younger than 10, the search engine of choice is YouTube. Indeed, as of January 2009, the number two search engine, after Google of course, is YouTube.

I don’t recall whether Prof Heppell used the term “the post-Google Generation” in his keynote, but it is most appropriate for the age group (probably those born after 1990) which does not even recognise the need to use the all-pervasive Google to find things on the web. Marc Prensky gave us the term “digital natives.” The “Google generation” has been used to refer generally to those who seem to know no other way of finding information than to “Google it.” But I find it fascinating that very young people, who have never known a world not just without the internet but without full multi-media, go directly to the multi-media offerings of YouTube. Indeed, until I heard Prof Heppell quote this statistic, I did not even consider YouTube to be a search engine.

But of course it is a search engine. Need a recipe for macaroni cheese? YouTube not only displays the recipe but shows just how the butter should look when it’s time to stir in the flour to make the sauce. Just getting started in Second Life? There are innumerable “Beginning Second Life” tutorials on YouTube, some posted by higher education instructors for their own university students.

The truly fascinating question for me is: why is it that very young people who grow up with digital multi-media seem to think differently about how to search, how to learn, and how to do just about everything? Why do they skip Google when older surfers can’t live without it?

My post-Google-Generation daughter decided to learn to play the piano – well, the digital keyboard. We were ready with a piano teacher and the traditional regime of “one lesson per week, then nag daughter to practice.” Daughter had other plans. “I’ll just teach myself from YouTube,” she announced. As a child, I learnt piano the traditional way, and after one or two years of lessons, I could still only play fairly boring pieces. Yet after only a couple of months of YouTube, Daughter can play a handful of fairly impressive pieces. Perhaps her relative success can be attributed to the fact she chose exactly what she wanted to learn to play, then just learnt it, and enjoyed it, and therefore got results more quickly. The downside is that Daughter has not learnt to read much music from YouTube. But in a very post-Google way, she achieved what she wanted: musical enjoyment for herself and her listeners through playing the piano.

In “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Marc Prensky suggests that prolonged exposure to immersive digital multi-media actually results in fundamentally different thinking processes. The onus is on the educator, therefore, to be prepared with learning tools suited for the post-Google Generation, as well as with the research to inform and support the use of such tools.

Terese Bird

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