Railing against ‘digital natives’ (again)

All plugged in…

On a discussion forum for my M.Ed, another teacher just asked me why I hate the term ‘digital natives’. Here is my response:

Where to begin?

  1. It was coined by Prensky at the turn of the century (2001)! While an interesting and helpful construct 13 years ago, it is now outdated. Why?
  2. It is binary. Really? Just ‘natives’ and ‘immigrants’? Those are my only options?
  3. I won’t go into the baggage behind the terms…
  4. It’s usually used in the same breath (or at least the same paragraph) as “21st century learning” (or, as we call it in the 21st century, um, learning) and/or the phrase “we’re preparing them for their future not our past.” I generally like the sentiment surrounding that second one but it has become part of the set of cliches thrown willy-nilly into conversation to show that the speaker is down with the #edtech movement.
  5. Did I mention it’s binary? Where’s the nuance? Where are the shades of grey? Yes, students in our schools have never lived a day in their lives without Google and all the joys that it brings. But many/most of those students have never actually been taught how to find the joy that Google brings.
  6. Mostly, I think the term “digital natives” is used as a cop-out by some teachers to not do anything. The number of times I’ve worked with teachers – both as a math teacher and as a tech coach – who just magically think students are able to make a good movie about the rise and fall of Mesopotamia because they are in middle school, or with teachers who complain about students using Wikipedia for research but who don’t take the time to actually teach students who to search effectively (or to do academic research), because they are “digital natives” astounds me.

“Kids these days” are really good at staying connected with each other through facebook, or reblogging content through tumblr, or watching cat videos on youtube, or finding the latest meme on 9gag. That doesn’t mean they understand how to repurpose those skills in an academic setting or how to use those skills ethically and responsibly. That is our job as teachers and parents. Yet, the term “digital native” is now used with flippancy (not by all, but by a lot in my experience) to absolve teachers and parents of their responsibilities to teach or parent.

Uncle Ben (or Voltaire, if you prefer) once said “With great power comes great responsibility.

Punya Mishra once said, “Go to Google for information; come to me for wisdom.

I think the term “digital natives” now undermines both of these thoughts…

What do you think? Too harsh?

Image Credit: Photo by me, licensed under Creative Commons

Thing 4 – Immigrants and Natives are Obsolete

Files by T a k.Marc Prensky is undeniably more qualified and better versed than me when it comes to educational pedagogy. I respect that his work on Digital Immigrants v. Digital Natives (pdf) was groundbreaking. But that was published in 2001 – a veritable lifetime ago – and it is now, in my opinion, obsolete. Although using labels that can be construed as racist and/or xenophobic, its basic premise – that one segment of the population is inherently more comfortable with technology – is still true, but how that segment is parsed out of the whole isn’t quite as binary as Prensky describes.

Chris over at Betchablog does a great job of unraveling The Myth of the Digital Native:

The Natives vs Immigrants concept serves as a neat, tidy metaphor that is useful on a basic level to help understand some of the differences between Gen-Y and those who grew up in the primitive pre-Google world.  However, the problem with the metaphor is that while it’s neat and tidy, it is demonstrably wrong on so many levels.

Digital fluency and acquisition can be compared to language fluency and acquisition. You might recall the differences between BICS (Basic Interpersonal Communication Skills) and CALP (Cognitivie Academic Language Proficiency) put forth by Jim Cummins: BICS are the day-to-day language skills one needs to get by in social situations; CALP refers to the language skills necessary to succeed in an academic setting.

You see where I’m going here, right?

Prensky’s Digital Natives have the digital equivalent of BICS: they can text, chat, FaceBook, MySpace, and Google (simultaneously, most of the time!). Not every Native, though, posseses the analagous CALP. Can they search effectively? Do they know how to organize and search the massive amount of content they are accessing or creating? Do they collaborate effectively for learning purposes? The list of questions goes on.

In life, things are rarely ever black and white. There are infinite shades of grey that almost defy description. Digital fluency is no different. While I recognize how tempting it is offer categories in order to simplify the discussion, it is these categories that are sometimes the issue. With this concept of Digital Native, it is too easy for teachers to assume that all students of capable of anything technological and to not teach them the more academic skills. Even worse, it is too easy for teachers to assume that, because they are Digital Immigrants, they are not able to teach anything to their Native students.

We need a new nomenclature, one that helps to differentiate between BITS (Basic Interpersonal Technological Skills) and CATP (Cognitive Academic Technological Proficiency), one that promotes the idea that transiency between the categories is possible, and one that is not binary by nature. At first blush, I like the categories Digital Tourist, Digital Resident, and Digital Citizen but I know they are nowhere near sufficient. What categories would you suggest? (While were at it, can we improve upon the acronym CATP?)

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