The natives are revolting

I was deliberately provocative on Twitter this morning when I tweeted this:

In just a few hours I had responses of all hues and colours, some agreeing, some disagreeing, many wanting more flesh to be put on the subject. So here, just for the record are my own, and other people's thoughts on the controversy of Marc Prensky's Digital Natives and Immigrants theory. Prensky originally suggested that those who were born before the digital age are immigrants, whilst those who have grown up with technology are the natives. The implications for this dichotomy?

Children don't need instruction manuals to use technology - they expect the device to teach them. Older people - the immigrants - can't multi task like younger 'natives' can, because they are not as immersed in the gaming culture, and therefore don't live at 'twitch speed'. Older people have a foot in the past, and speak technology with an 'accent' that they cannot lose, while younger people are naturally adept at using new and emerging technologies. OK, this is a potted version of Prensky's article, and you can read the entire thing for yourself at the link above. I won't begin to deconstruct his ideas on the supposed 'cognitive changes' he suggests are taking place in the heads of younger users. I'll leave that for another blog post.

A welter of similar terminologies has emerged alongside Prensky's 2001 distinction. Veen and Vrakking published an entire book dedicated to an analysis of ' Homo Zappiens ', whilst Diane Oblinger, Don Tapscott and others popularised the now oft repeated phrase 'Net Generation'. Other terms, such as 'Net Savvy Youth', 'Screenagers' and the 'Google Generation' played on a supposed distinction between age groups, and in doing so, created a dangerous perception that the two really were somehow different. As a response to this feeding frenzy, Mark Bullen set up a blog entitled 'Net Gen Skeptic', which he has used to attempt to debunk much of the rhetoric that has been generated on the subject. Bullen actually speaks a lot of sense, and in a recent interview said:

"...my basic point is that the claims about this generation are not based on research. They are speculations that emerge from anecdotal observations and from a techno-utopic view of the world and a fascination with technology. I don’t dispute that this generation is different than previous generations. Every generation differs from the previous in some way. The social, political and technological context changes so this is bound to have an impact on the people growing up at that time. But before we start making radical changes to the way to do things in education we need some evidence." (from Open Education.net)

Bullen goes on to warn of the dangers that lurk when politicians and school leaders swallow the digital natives theory whole and assume that policy and provision should be based upon it:

"...there is an assumption that because this generation is much more immersed in digital technologies for primarily social and recreational purposes that they a) want to use them for educational purposes and b) will be skilled at using these technologies for educational purposes. I have yet to see any evidence to support these assumptions. Also, some of the claims are the same or very similar to claims that have been made about every generation of young people: impatient, social, prefer to learn by doing, and goal oriented." (from Open Education.net)

The message is clear: teachers should not assume that because many children are adept at using new and emerging technology, that they are able to apply them freely in formalised learning contexts such as school. Nor as a result, should they shy away from using technology in the classroom with the fear that 'the children will know more about it than me' - children may have skills in the use of technology, but teachers have the skills and the knowledge to create engaging and exciting learning opportunities and environments. Technology is simply a part of that equation.

JISC has also produced a research based rebuttal of the Google Generation and several other evidence based refutations have recently been published, including Neil Selwyn's Digital Natives: The Myth and the Reality in which he provides a measured commentary of the difficulties the theory imposes upon education. The Chronicle has weighed in with its own report entitled Generational Myth while a useful critical review of the digital natives debate so far, has been captured by Bennett et al in the British Journal of Educational Technology. Finally, David White (University of Oxford) has proposed his own alternative theory - the Residents and Visitors theory, which is not based on the false distinction of age, but rather on perceptions of usefulness and habituation within digital environments. The evidence is now stacking up that there is indeed a lot of doubt being cast over the digital natives and immigrants theory. It's interesting that although Marc Prensky has revised his theory, with a much more measured 'digital wisdom' approach, many people are either ignorant of it, or simply choose to continue to subscribe to, and quote from the digital natives theory. Perhaps it conveniently suits their purpose....?

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The natives are revolting by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

Comments

@newmanswords said…
When learning can be extended into an exploration, when learning is truly fun, then the young more readily engage. Thought provoking Steve, but I feel it's all about making the act of learning as informal as possible.
Dick Moore said…
I have been concerned about the whole digital native / immigrant dichotomy for a while now.
The idea that a generation can be conditioned to multitask through watching MTV struck me as unlikely, and expecting the interface to teach them rather than the manual is not exactly new, I don't remember a manual with my first cycle, phone, or transistor radio, though I am sure they all had one.

The "10,000 hrs to learn a skill" resonates, and for me is a more likely explanation for fluent skills. It also explains why my kid beats me on XBOX and why I beat him on MUD.

Good to see the emperor's diaphanous outfit under scrutiny.
Eileen Hurley said…
I wonder if by calling young people "digital natives" we were allowing ourselves to abdicate responsibility.
Seb Schmoller said…
Phil Candy's summing up at ALT-C 2006 which was about the "next generation" is really relevant to this post, Steve, and he picks up on the "nonsense" of Prensky's natives/immigrants idea between 12 and 13 minutes into the talk.
PPT - 0.3MB
MP3 - 13MB
daibarnes said…
Great post Steve. I get a bit fed up with folk talking about young people in a way that young people do not. Digital natives and the like are just kick-starters and not based in evidence. You sometimes feel quite disappointed when people make claims - find hooks - that have no grounding but make others (school leaders and the like) raise an eyebrow. I would much rather they read something well researched and supported rather than trusted the opinion (bolstered by much web content) of me or any other educational technologist.

Good example is visual, aural and kinaesthetic learning styles. Poppycock with no evidence of the impact on learning outcomes and schools and companies hinge themselves on the theory.
Anonymous said…
@Eileen, I think the flip side of that is true, too. When one calls the other generation "immigrants", it sounds like they are necessarily incapable of self-serving and making themselves at home in digital environments. Faulty assumptions and over-generalizations on both sides, in my opinion.

Thanks, Professor Wheeler, for articulating how I feel on this topic better than I have!
Scott said…
Hi Steve,

It feels very one dimensional to characterise generations just by their relationship to technology.

I've enjoyed Joshua Glenn's "generationisms" on HiLobrow far more - and weirdly enough found them of more practical use in thinking about the attitudes of students and staff in education:

http://hilobrow.com/2010/05/24/throwbacks/

However JG's scheme is also self-consciously ridiculous and arbitrary (unlike Prensky's) .

(But that doesn't mean it isn't also true)
mvallance1234 said…
Another great post and tweet. I am so relieved that others consider Prensky's work 'nonsense' (see above). As a reviewer for a journal I often read submissions that set the context for participants in a project or research as digital natives but with no true explanation of what is meant by the term. There's just a lazy reference to Prensky. Then later in the Discussion and Limitations sections the authors assign fault to the participants for not being technically adept with the ICT being used or that the technology is not user-friendly enough (or words to that effect). This is so common in submissions that I now have a set paragraph I insert in my reviews (which I cannot reveal as I will lose my anonymity) if indeed the assumption of participants as digital natives appears contradictory to the researchers' observations.
mvallance1234 said…
Simply an observation I know, but my tweet from 26 April:
FUN2020 Michael Vallance
44 new students, only 2 can use a word processor. Where am I? Japan. University. Science course. Prensky's digital natives is hokum!
========
My next new class of 20 first year uni students here in Japan in a technology rich university: 0 students can use Excel, they cannot make a graph.
Again, colleagues and I have much to do this semester.
jcorippo said…
Counterpoint (just for fun):
Where is the proof that sitting in classrooms taking Cornell notes is effective? Most anyone who has been through a bracket of those classes feels their time was wasted.
James said…
An excerpt from my blog:

I run off to another session on another Web 2.0 tool of which I have never heard. The tool is called Insert Web 2.0 Tool Of Which You Have Never Heard. The presenter has used this tool a whole two and a half weeks, and the kids in their class really like it. Though the tool drives the curriculum and not vice versa, it still is really cool and the kids really like it so it must be perfect for these lil’ Digital Natives (they are so cute when you can pry the earbuds out of their ears and get them to stop texting for a minute… WHAT?! You don’t let them text in class?! These are DIGITAL NATIVES! We must cow-tow to them! What are you, crazy? How can you expect the greatest generation – Sorry you World War II guys, a free world cannot compete with a teenager with a credit card and cell phone – to learn if you do not bow down to all their needs and give them limitless boundaries?).
Steve Wheeler said…
Delightfully ironic James :-) Your story portrays something we should all avoid of course. The assumptions some teachers make, without checking out the whole story, can often lead to bad pedagogy. Evidence based practice (in the words of Mr Spock) is, and always will be, your friend.
Ove Christensen said…
Very well put. I also find it very the generational thinking problematic. I also find that the whole notion about tech savvies is misplaced in that it solely focus on technology where it should be on teaching and learning. You can see my full comment to this post here: http://bit.ly/mH5Pdw
animakuri said…
Useful links about this here - http://digitalmigrant.blogspot.com/2010/10/those-not-digital-natives-references.html
Uwe Spangler said…
There is some good research on this from a german professor.
Here an english text: (closed journal) http://www.ckbg.org/qwerty/index.php/qwerty/article/viewArticle/37

Form german speaking folks here the whole working paper (106 pages!!!) open accesible

http://www.zhw.uni-hamburg.de/pdfs/Schulmeister_Netzgeneration.pdf
David Hopkins said…
Hi Steve.

I admit to being someone who subscribe(d) to the Native vs Immigrant theory until I read a post (can't remember who or where, sorry) where the Resident vs Visitor was explained, and it made more 'sense'.

I have met and listened to Marc Prensky and thoroughly enjoyed it, even though he seemed reluctant to dwell on the Native/Immigrant theory questions but, in his defence, that was not the reason for his attending the event.

I do, however, think it is more simple than either of the two approaches ... I think it is more about "Digital Willing vs. Digital Reluctant" - there are some extremely technically capable people out there who may or may not fit into the 'Native' definition, but most definitely fit in the 'Resident' definition, yet they choose to snub (?) technology out of moralistic or other personal reasons.

Not sure where I'm going with that thought but it could start a further discussion?

All the best, David
David Hopkins said…
Hi Steve.

I admit to being someone who subscribe(d) to the Native vs Immigrant theory until I read a post (can't remember who or where, sorry) where the Resident vs Visitor was explained, and it made more 'sense'.

I have met and listened to Marc Prensky and thoroughly enjoyed it, even though he seemed reluctant to dwell on the Native/Immigrant theory questions but, in his defence, that was not the reason for his attending the event.

I do, however, think it is more simple than either of the two approaches ... I think it is more about "Digital Willing vs. Digital Reluctant" - there are some extremely technically capable people out there who may or may not fit into the 'Native' definition, but most definitely fit in the 'Resident' definition, yet they choose to snub (?) technology out of moralistic or other personal reasons.

Not sure where I'm going with that thought but it could start a further discussion?

All the best, David
Lee said…
Hi Steve, great post :)
I think it's worth remembering that we are not born any differently. What has changed the most from generation to generation is the teaching environment. My Mum (in her 60s) was of a generation where technology was rolled on out on display. No one was allowed to touch until everything that could be learned was, even then only the top of the class were allowed to touch(based on some test of said learning). Compare this to a primary school classroom now where kids jump on anything new. The difference (IMHO) is the confidence to try new things, happy to learn by mistakes. I certainly don't 'rubbish' Prensky's work. I got into e-learning by seeing first-hand how engaged my younger students were when I used technology in class. Not much in life fits neatly into little pigeon holes (Natives, Residents etc etc) and part of being in teaching and learning is about an awareness of your learners and about equipping them for the future. Embedding those native traits not expecting them.
A whole new book was published recently on the subject, Deconstructing Digital Natives: Young People, Technology and the New Literacis (Routledge, 2011) edited by Michael Thomas with contributions from Prensky, Palfrey and Gasser, Chris Jones, and many prominent digital natives researchers.
http://www.amazon.com/Deconstructing-Digital-Natives-Technology-Literacies/dp/0415889960/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1312534388&sr=1-1
Timos said…
Hello Steve,

Interesting post; as you state towards the end, even Mark Prensky himself has revised his own theory and now talks about levels of 'digital fluency' rather than digital natives and immigrants. He may have realized that someone's age alone is not enough to dictate their attitudes towards technology.
Some evidence-based research on the subject has been undertaken by the OU and can be found here:
http://www.open.ac.uk/researchprojects/netgeneration/p4_1.shtml
I think its time that we all go past this false dichotomy; as you say, we are all in this together.

Cheers,
Timos
Lee said…
Digital Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment? [video]
Michelle said…
It comes down to how much time one has used something. More time = equal better use/knowledge. My dad has worked on cars a lot, so he can quickly and easily learn new things related to cars. I have never worked on a car, so I cannot. Younger generations have used more technology growing up, so they may be able to learn other kinds of technology easier. But, my mom can learn to use technology fine as well, that is, given the same amount of 'hands on' time that my nephew has had.

You wrote "The message is clear: teachers should not assume that because many children are adept at using new and emerging technology, that they are able to apply them freely in formalised learning contexts such as school."

I agree fully. I see this all the time at my work. The students come to classes with 3 mobile phones, iPads, laptops an a host of other things, which they play on, watch YouTube videos and post on FB. But, that isn't the same thing as directed, pedagogical, learning with those tools.
Genie McGuire said…
Agree the Natives|Immigrants divide is potentially harmful. Most 'Immigrants' have deeper knowledge about computers' functionality from 1970s. Sadly the Natives are actually 'Digital Captives' - locked within a system designed by others.

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