‘Digital Natives’ are Consumers, not Creators.

Wayne Leavey, the principal at the Toronto District School Board, labels his adult generation as “digital immigrants,” describing today’s students as “digital natives” – a clan of young learners who have grown up on Facebook; smartphones all but physically adhered to their hands.


Dr. Marc Prensky coined the term digital native in his work “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, published in 2001. In his seminal article, he assigns the title to a new group of students enrolling in educational establishments. What’s surprising is that Wayne Leavey’s comments were made in July 2013, using terminology from a 2001 paper whose efficacy has steadily eroded over the past decade. Despite this, the captions have remained evergreen in media circles, always available and willing to be dusted down for soundbite duties.


The term digital immigrant overlooks the fact that many people born before the digital age (pre-1980) were the inventors, designers, developers and first users of digital technology and in this sense could be regarded as the original ‘natives’ (see Stoerger, for similar views). To confuse the prolific [and arguably superficial] use of digital technology by current adolescents as deep knowledge and understanding is potentially misleading and unhelpful to the discourse. The term also discounts the broader and more holistic knowledge, experience and understandings that older generations may have about digital technologies and their potential place in society.


The media-friendly image of today's youth, engaged with technology to a degree which some academics claim is inciting moral panic.
The media-friendly image of today’s youth, engaged with technology to a degree which some academics claim is inciting moral panic.


The digital natives term is synonymous with the term digital inclusion. Being digitally included means possessing innate ability in the use of a smartphone, or computer tablet. Bennett, Maton & Kervin (2008), critically examine the research evidence to support this terminology and describe some accounts of digital natives, as possessing an academic form of moral panic. Presenting this perspective is more indicative of unfamiliarity and exoticism in relation to digital culture. Nobody is born digital; as with any cultural technology, such as reading and writing, it’s a matter of access to education and experience.


Consider a supporting perspective. The Raspberry Pi [credit-card sized computer] may not be slick, but it’s managed to stir something not seen in British computing for a generation: it has inspired a culture of making things with computers, not just experiencing things.


“…The number of people who want to read computer science at Cambridge University (2013) has dropped by 50 percent within the last ten years. And the quality of people we’re getting is not as good as it used to be.” Says Jack Lang: Raspberry Pi Foundation chair, developer of educational software for the BBC Micro in the 1980s and Entrepreneur in Residence at Cambridge University Computer Science Laboratory.


“Kids these days download, they don’t program,” Lang says. “They need a toolkit and a curious grandmother – someone to say, ‘That’s nice dear, show me more.’”

“People are just using their computers [and phones] as devices to consume stuff that a small and shrinking pool of other people have developed. The Raspberry Pi was hatched to create a BBC Micro for this new era.”


Knowing how to use Android and knowing how Android works, are comparable to knowing how to drive a car and knowing how to build a car.
Knowing how to use Android and knowing how Android works, are comparable to knowing how to drive a car and knowing how to build a car.


Although differences will exist in the ‘technical learning journey’ experienced by natives and immigrants, difference does not imply a dependence on ability. If the board of a large successful corporation were examined, member by member; how they arrived at their place around the table, would vary substantially. However, judging one as better or more able than another, is an unnecessary step and extraneous to the practical operation of the board.


The accelerating arc of technological development is causing discomfort for both sides, but there is no clear advantage for either perceived party. Natives are familiar and enmeshed in using the technology, but to a greater extent have developed a habit of excessive consumption. Echoing the motif of E.M. Forster’s dystopian tale: ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909).


Most modern technology is built upon the creativity which sprang from the rigour needed to make those first tentative steps. The imagination required in order to gap-analyse, naturally alters as the technical landscape becomes denser through niche products. For example, you design and develop a tablet computer, then an app, then a weather app, then a weather app for climbers and so on. In a native/immigrant taxonomy, there is a clear conflation of system operation, with technical expertise.


Both identified parties can (through personal experience) apply coping mechanisms and strategies to compensate, from opposing poles. Academics from the digital immigrant end of the spectrum, may on occasion prefix technical learning with an admission of being a ‘technophobe’, where the compensation would be: underpromise and overdeliver. The digital native student may employ bravado and outwardly display interface proficiency, where the compensation is ultimately of the [less functional] overpromise and underdeliver variety. However, I strongly echo the sentiments of the OU acting for the HEA (see the following paragraph), where no generational divide appears to exist at all. Exponential technology growth and its resulting use, can only be effectively managed by a corresponding growth in teaching provision, for all sectors and cohorts of society; both real and imagined.


“Advice derived from generational arguments should not be used by government and government agencies to promote changes in university structure designed to accommodate a Net Generation of Digital Natives. The evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands. A key finding of this review is that political choices should be made explicit and not disguised by arguments about generational change.”The Net Generation & Digital Natives, Open University for the Higher Education Academy, 2011.




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