Digital Natives – An idea to leave out of the box and on a different page

 I admit, and those who know me will readily agree, that I sometimes take things too seriously. I have been known to belabor a point that most people in the room might not care about. Some people find things trivial that I find basic and important establishing principles. Cliche expressions are one thing that, while other people get used to and even filter out over time, sometimes annoy me – the annoyance usually increases instead of decreases over time.

“On the same page,” has no special annoyance to me but nevertheless causes me to curl my toes when I hear it. When used, it is rarely an apt or necessary metaphor.

“Thinking outside the box,” admittedly bothers me more then it should. What box? Why are the ideas inside less valuable then those outside? Why can’t we say, “lets look for original creative solutions?” What is its value?

A third saying, that is becoming more and more annoying and the subject of this post is “digital native(s).” Unlike the others though, I feel that my increasing annoyance is justified; I feel that this blog post is necessary. I find the concept and phrasing of “digital natives” dehumanizing and inaccurate, inherently racist, and devaluing to teachers; I will speak about each point in turn.

Dehumanizing: Every time you label a group of people, even in apparent praise, it is dehumanizing; it is an act of “othering.” No single characteristics can acculturately describe a generation; that includes our current youth. 20% of Canadians currently don’t have the Internet at home. The youth of today, have had a variety of experiences and have vast difference in their understanding and knowledge of digital technologies. To label them all as digital natives, is a dangerous bias / presumption, which may limit the opportunities they are given to explore or develop their understanding in this area.  It will fail to appreciate the disadvantages many of our students have when nagivating digital environments.  Further, it is a slippery slop from: students are X, old people are Y, and poor people are Z; and all the way down to racial epitaphs and other stereotypes and pejorative views.

Inherently racist: The idea that there is necessarily an uncrossable cultural divide between natives and immigrants should be offensive to Canadians. The idea at the heart of this metaphor is that immigrants will always be outsiders, always be awkward in an alien culture, and always be at a disadvantage. This is at least contrary to ideals of Canada, if not blatantly racist. Immigrants are not outsiders; they bring a wealth of new experiences and perspectives. They are fully capable of participation in their adoptive home. They are some of the components of our culture; not outsiders unable to fully comprehend and adapt to it. This particular dichotomy between people comfortable and people struggling needs to be abandoned; we are all learning.  While some people will always be more comfortable with technology then others, do we really need a dehumanizing racist analogy to describe it?.

Devalues teachers: The idea that we (teachers) are outsiders annoys me because it is part of an increasing trend to the education field to devalue teachers. This gives us just one more justification for feelings of inadequacy. It is demotivating and unfair; it labels us and provides us with a justification for out learned helplessness. It is something that we should reject and resent; not something that we should embrace. We can master the digital environment as easily as anyone else. No one had to leave their VCR display to 12:00, it was a choice. It is the same here. Never mind that the digital environment was largely created by our generation; or that apparently we are immigrants to an environment that some of us helped shape; never mind that, but one needs only to consider our advantage. My “digital native” students have only had 13 years to master the digital environment. For 3 of them they were busy wetting their beds. For 2 more years they were learning the basics of language and expression. I have had my faculties (more or less) fully developed for the entire existence of the digital environment. I approached it as an adult and learned it the same way all our “tech experts” did. We need not consider ourselves outsiders in the digital environment.

“Digital natives” is an annoying and offensive metaphor that I hope we reject, apologize for, and replace soon. With the warmer weather I can curl my toes freely in my sandals, but by winter, this phrase is really going to hurt me.


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  1. #1 by Monica Anne Batac on May 28, 2011 - 3:11 pm

    Ah, great post, Patrick.

    You take the words right out of my mouth. I was at a conference yesterday and there are definitely some articles that take this critical perspective to Prensky’s phrase “digital natives”. I will send you the articles via email as I come across them.

    The phrase assumes that because students are growing up immersed in this digital culture, that there is some great benefit from emerging from this age/generation. We may not have grown up with digital media from birth, but we have been able to experience the new technologies and literacies first hand, and develop the related reading/writing/critical/communication skills, practices, and attitudes. This notion of outsiders/immigrants based solely on WHEN we were born/into which context we were born is limiting and absurd when we think of technology and digital media. It’s about personal use/experience/accessibility/familiarity.

  2. #2 by Monica Anne Batac on May 28, 2011 - 3:11 pm

    P.S. I’m still working on my blog post to this term, will share when I’m finished.

  3. #3 by Ms. Solomon on June 17, 2011 - 5:15 pm

    :Standing Ovation:
    I love this post. I couldn’t agree more. I realized recently (at a conference) that I can’t actually keep the disgusted expression off of my face when someone uses that term. Thank you.

    • #4 by Patrick Tucker on June 17, 2011 - 8:52 pm

      I’m glad you liked it; honestly, I am surprised how often this phrase is used with little or no resistence / reaction…

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