Theories for the digital age: The digital natives discourse

Is learning in the 21st Century significantly different to learning in previous years? One of the more controversial theories of the digital age is the claim that technology is changing (or rewiring) our brains (Greenfield, 2009) whilst some also claim that prolonged use of the Web is detrimental to human intellectual development (Carr, 2010). It could be argued that these theories stem back to the seminal claim of Marshall McLuhan (1964) that ‘we shape our tools and thereafter, our tools shape us.’ This belief was also the basis for the Digital Natives and Immigrants theory (Prensky, 2001), a persistent discourse that has greatly influenced the thinking of educators in recent years. A significant body of work has arisen around the Digital Natives and Immigrants theory, including descriptions of younger students as ‘the Net Generation’ (Tapscott, 1998), ‘Screenagers’ (Rushkoff, 1996), ‘Born Digital’ (Palfrey and Gasser, 2008), ‘Millennials’ (Oblinger, 2003), and ‘Homo Zappiens’ (Veen and Vrakking, 2006). The latter theory suggests that younger students learn differently, through searching rather than through absorbing, through externalising rather than through internalising information, are better at multitasking, and see no separation between playing and learning (Veen & Vrakking, 2006).

If these theories are true, and younger students do learn differently, the implications for education are profound, demanding changes to the way formal learning content is developed, delivered and organised, and a reappraisal of our conception of knowledge and what it means for education. There are, inevitably, objections to the Digital Natives position.

All of the above theories tend to characterise younger learners as being different to previous generations in their use of technology. These positions are countered by researchers who maintain that such claims are largely based on anecdotal and intuitive arguments, and that there is no significant difference in the way younger or older students manage their online learning activities (Crook and Harrison, 2008; Ito et al, 2009; Kennedy et al, 2010) and that the current generation of learners is far from homogenous (Bennett et al, 2008; Jones and Healing, 2012). Bennett et al (2008) also assert that there is no clear evidence that multi-tasking is a new phenomenon and exclusively the preserve of younger learners. Jones and Healing (2010) criticise the Digital Natives and Immigrants theory as too simplistic, and point out that a greater complexity exists in the way students of all ages use technology, based not on generational differences, but on agency and choice. There is yet further dissent. Vaidhyanathan (2008) argues that ‘there is no such thing as a digital generation.’ He suggests that every generation has an equal distribution of individuals with low, medium and high levels of technology competency. Vaidhyanathan is uncomfortable with the erroneous misclassification of generations and associated assumptions of technology competency levels, and warns: ‘We should drop our simplistic attachments to generations so we can generate an accurate and subtle account of the needs of young people – and all people, for that matter.’

Perhaps the most sensible advice comes from Selwyn (2009) who argues that contrary to the popularist beliefs expressed in the Digital Natives discourse, young people’s engagement with technology is often unspectacular (Livingstone, 2009). According to Selwyn, accounts of Digital Natives are often based on anecdotal evidence, are inconsistent or exaggerated, and hold very little in common with the reality of technology use in the real world. The Digital Natives discourse tends to alienate older generations from technology, and teachers can make dangerous assumptions about the capabilities of young people (Kennedy et al, 2010). Selwyn counsels: ‘Whilst inter-generational tensions and conflicts have long characterised popular understandings of societal progression, adults should not feel threatened by younger generations’ engagements with digital technologies, any more than young people should feel constrained by the “pre-digital” structures of older generations’ (Selwyn, 2011, p. 376).

Arguably the most useful explanatory framework for current online activities is offered by White and Le Cornu (2011), who have argued that habitual use of technology develops sophisticated digital skills regardless of the age or birth date of the user. They call these users ‘Digital Residents’ and suggest that those who are ‘Digital Visitors’ are less likely to be digitally adept because of their casual or infrequent use of digital tools.

Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L. (2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence, British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5), 775–786.
Carr, N. (2010) The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.
New York, NY: W. W. Norton.
Crook, C. and Harrison, C. (2008) Web 2.0 Technologies for Learning at Key Stages 3 and 4,Coventry: Becta Publications.
Greenfield, S. (2009) The Quest For Identity In The 21st Century. London: Sceptre.
Ito, M., Horst, H., Bittanti, M. and Boyd, D. (2009) Living and Learning with New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Jones C. and Healing G. (2010) Net Generation Students: Agency and Choice and the New Technologies. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, (3), 344–356.
Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Dalgarnot, B. and Waycott, J. (2010) Beyond Digital Natives and Immigrants: Exploring Types of Net Generation Students, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26 (5), 332-343.
Livingstone, S.(2009) Children and the Internet. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Oblinger, D. (2003) Boomers, Gen-xers, and Millennials: Understanding the new students. Educause Review. 38 (4).
Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2008) Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives.New York, NY: Basic Books.
Prensky, M. (2001) Digital Natives, Digital ImmigrantsOn the Horizon, 9 (5).
Rushkoff, D. (1996) Playing the Future: What we can learn from digital kids. London: Harper Collins.
Selwyn, N. (2011) The Digital Native: Myth and Reality. Aslib Proceedings,61 (4), 364-379.
Tapscott, D. (1998) Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw Hill.
Vaidhyanathan, S. (2008) Generation Myth.The Chronicle of Higher Education.
Veen, W. and Vrakking, B. (2006) Homo Zappiens: Growing up in a Digital Age London: Network Continuum Education.
White, D. S. and Le Cornu, A. (2011) Visitorsand Residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16 (9).

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[This is an excerpt from a forthcoming publication entitled: Personal Technologies in Education: Issues, Theories and Debates]

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Theories for the digital age: The digital natives discourse by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Pat Parslow said…
Thanks Steve,

I have issues with the way a lot of the debate around "Digital Natives" is framed. Most people criticising the notion do so on the basis that the younger "generation" are not all technically adept. But Prensky's writing was talking about people who grow up with technology around them all the time, and we have seen very few of those, to date. I've critiqued the critiques, in a fairly ranty style, in a couple of posts: and

Yes, there is not a generational, magical, quality to people's ability with technology. Not surprising, as we don't see much evidence of magic around anyway. And, yes, those who have grown up with technology at their finger tips (and again, I have to stress there have been very, very few of those to date, due to the relative expense of computers as little as 18 years ago), are not necessarily good at using it to help them with academic work. But then, the educators aren't necessarily good at that either. And, yes, those of us who have spent the last 32 years living and breathing computers and technology are probably closer to being digital natives than those who have only spent, say 10 of their 18 years doing so.

But you know what? That doesn't 'debunk' Prensky's original writing. I'm not even convinced Prensky's backtracking really counts against it all that much...
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your comments Pat. I don't consider myself to be in the business of debunking theories or ideas here. What I'm trying to do is frame the breadth of the discourse surrounding Prensky's theory.

However, if I am to express my own views, they are more likely to be aligned to the empirical evidence I cite, namely the work that has identified less spectacular use of technology by the so called 'digital natives.' I will also admit that I am disturbed by the ease at which the phrase has been adopted so readily and apparently without much thought by the teaching profession as if it is actually supported by evidence, which as far as I can ascertain, it is not.

I'm sure however, that this discourse will develop and the debate will continue.
Anonymous said…
When I started teaching in the 90s, it did seem that kids knew more about technology than adults. It was the running joke in the staff room: don't know how to do something on the computer? Ask one of the students!

My own early exposure to computers in the late 70s involved a significant amount of programming - we needed to know how the computer worked in order to get it to do anything. We entered pages upon pages of code from Byte magazine to get a new game, then spent considerable time debugging and, in the process, learning how things worked.

The way we engage with technology today is very different from the past. We're over the hump now of kids knowing more than adults primarily because technology users are so far removed from the inner workings of the device in their hands, and the code that makes it work. The devices themselves don't require a lot of time and training and time to learn, but the uses to which they are put have to be modeled and taught.
Steve Wheeler said…
Aye and there's the rub... many of the tools we now use regularly are very intuitive and this leads to a greater need to theorise how students (of all ages) are using new technology to support their learning. This is why I believe White and Le Cornu's theory will take on added significance in the coming years, and why Prensky's theory is increasingly anachronistic.
Pat Parslow said…
I agree - the term was not only adopted, but assumptions made, and it was equated with a 'generation' - something it appears Prensky had tried to avoid doing. There is plenty wrong with the way the term was seized on and mis-used, just as there is also plenty wrong with the criticisms of it.

lagavuln also hints at a good point - the rapidly changing nature of the technologies mean that nobody has a chance to 'grow up with' any particular set of tools; logically, therefore, nobody is going to be able to exhibit being a Digital Native, whether or not the actual concept is sound.
Steve Wheeler said…
That's the reason why, as I said below in response to lagavuln's comment, that alternative explanations such as White and le Cornu's theory will assume more significance in the coming years. They view the use of new technologies within a situated context, and this is more appropriate, given the rapidly shifting nature of new technology.
Things I like. 1.) Steve Wheeler not in the debunking business and 2.) Some attention accruing to the Content-Consumption-UnTech-generation under 10 and their teachers
Pat Parslow said…
Big though the V/R following is at the moment, I don't honestly think it will continue to be seen as particularly significant (sorry to Dave White!). It is just another way of describing differences, and I do not think it provides many affordances, such as predictive or explanatory power, by doing so. That is not to say it isn't a useful part of the dialogue, of course - it is, and as you suggest, it may well be a suite of alternatives which carry us forward in the medium term.

Personally, I think a role-based model is more appropriate, for helping identify the skills, interests and tool uses of individuals either alone or as part of a community (e.g. - but then, that's my own approach, so I am likely to find it preferable!
GillianP said…
Said it before and will say it again: it's access and informed use, not age, that makes the difference.
Ben Harwood said…
This may seem totally off-the-wall (and it is) but if one thinks back to the cave drawings at Lascaux and elsewhere, just who were the artists? Could their work be considered examples of pre-historic learning? If so, this is the first recorded and lasting way that humans codify and represent all kinds of events that could be tied to learning. A signifcant part of "digital natives" is an understanding that self-regulated contributions shared on the internet are permanent. Youngsters take it for granted that it is. Back to the cave folks, for example, epic scenes showing team-based strategy, collective hunting, how to deal with pesky wooly mammoths, bison for food... While this gives way to vast speculation, some research suggests that folks of all ages contributed to the drawings. So, the parallel I'm suggesting is: could the paintings be viewed as pre-historic digital representations of learning? And if they are, to what degree did their creators share and model learning to younger artists? At what point in this paradigm were students native to this art-form using tools that evolved and improved over time and did they understand their work would be accessible for generations to come?
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for your contribution Ben. I would say you are describing an early form of tribal behaviour centred upon cultural transmission. The tribal behaviour we now see on the web (digital tribes and virtual clans) is reminiscent of this as I have suggested in previous postings. However, I think we are talking about a different phenomenon when we suggest that young people perceive the web or technology differently to their forebears. Each generation is different from the previous generation, and at some point it begins to express its differences in the way it communicates, dresses, entertains itself and generally transmits its culture. I would further suggest that in the neolithic times around cave dwelling and painting, the gap between the generations was much less marked than it is today. However, this is no license to assume that generational differences are homogenous, or translated as brain changes, of which there is evidence for neither.
janaslindsay said…
Very interesting and thought provoking post Steve!

I have only one question- which I seem to be muddling and mucking about with a substantial amount of time as of late- Is it that student's brains are wired differently or are we only really just starting to truly understand how making learning open, transparent, and personalized is engaging and motivating for our learners?

It's a wonder I think about often... being off doing my masters has given me the time to reflect but also dig deeply into what learning should look like in this century. Technology is a part of that but I think it is more about critical questions and passion to inquire that provides a powerful lens through which our students are looking.

Would love to hear your thoughts!
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks Jan, for an interesting question. My initial response is that education in its traditional format is long overdue for a radical revision, and that applies to all age groups including adult education of course. Technology is indeed a part of the equation, but using tech for tech's sake is not the answer. I believe firmly that we need to engage students more by flipping the roles in the classroom (see my previous post What the Flip for more thoughts on this). We also need to ensure that students are more involved in the creation, organisation, repurposing and sharing of content. They should be more engaged in problem solving and making. Finally, they need to be engaged in defending and attacking ideas - to develop and promote critical thinking, reflective practice and a number of other key transferrable skills for the 21st century. We have been sadly lacking in formal education in most of these areas.

I don't believe there is any clear evidence that younger generation minds are wired any differently to older generation minds. What is different is the way those of us who habituate in the use of technologies use them, to those who are casual users. However we use technology, that is not really the main question. The main question is how do we transform formal education to keep students engaged, inspired and questioning...
janaslindsay said…
Thanks for taking the time to weigh in and wrestle with my question. I believe we can only move a model that honours all learners forward is by creating a groundswell in our profession that gets at the heart of what learning can be.

Keep sharing your powerful words!

Feel free to stop by my blog as I ponder my way through my learning:
Torn Halves said…
Steve, you give a very balanced treatment of the digital native discourse, checking it against the empirical evidence. Is anyone listening to the quiet empiricists, though? The loudest voices in the online halls of education are taking the new technology for granted and accepting the idea that it changes everything, including the learning styles of the young.

What disturbs a few of us, is a sort of technological fatalism - the assumption that the development of the technology cannot be criticised. This is the Digital Age. We identify our epoch with its technology. The technology is the essence of the age, and so must be accepted exactly as it is. To doubt it is to be a stupid Luddite who obviously has some terrible allergy to history itself. Schools, on the other hand, can be bashed vigorously by ex-professors of education (I am thinking of Ken Robinson) because they are out of step with the new trends in the technology, and the auditorium full of iPad-owning teachers will stand as one and applaud.

Why is the technology beyond criticism? What strange kind of reification is at work here? Are we assuming that the technology is the appearance of the Divine itself? Is the technology not just a retooling of a rather old economy - and a very dubious economy at that? Does the new digital technology not remain utterly industrial, and insist that culture, too, be turned into an industry?

One would have hoped (stupidly) that the most vigorous minds in education would have argued for a more critical approach to the new technology, reminding us that we need to have clear ideas about how we want to bring young people up - how we want them to be educated - and our use of technology should be shaped by that deeper understanding.
Steve Wheeler said…
You raise some important issues Tom, many of which I am aware of in my own circles of academic discourse. You are correct of course, in your unease about technology being beyond criticism. I don't believe that technology is above criticism, and am very comfortable about engaging in that debate. There are certainly many voices being raised against the march of technology and the seemingly blind manner in which people adopt it and adhere to it. This is one reason why I have tried to write about the digital natives discourse in a balanced and critical way.

I don't agree however, that today's technology is simply a retooling of the old economy. The shift has been radical and irrevocable, and has disrupted forever the way we live. We need to make sense of this now, and see how technology can be harnessed in new and productive ways.

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