Archive for February, 2013

In 2001 Marc Prensky coined the term Digital Native. He defined this as young people (since this was written in 2001 he was referring to people born from roughly 1985 after). Who, “spent their entire lives surrounded… all the other toys and tools of the digital age” (Prensky, 2001).

I think he made a good point, children born in the last two decades of the 20th century were born into a technological environment that was very unique. While this could be said about any generation, this group’s technological experience was colored by significant cultural changes that shaped the century.  The United States Census Bureau issued a report that stated that 1961 17% of mothers returned to work within the first 12 months of giving birth, by 2007 that figure was 64% (United States Census Bureau, pp. 13-14).

Children born in 1961 had a few ways of interacting with others, primarily telephone and US mail. National broadcasting was something that was confined to a few large media institutions. You had to be selected by one of them to be seen in a broadcast produced by others. Television and movies consumed by children and youth in 1961 were constrained in the topics that could be discussed, the use of profanity and the images that could be shown. Compared to children in 2001, the scope of their world was smaller and more closely controlled by their community (familial and geographical) and options for interaction were more limited as well as more easily supervised.

Children born 30 years later grew up in a very different cultural landscape.  They had more options for one on one interaction, along with that they had the chore of deciding which tool they would use to communicate with various members of their social network (ie. mailing a grandparent a thank you note for a present  versus emailing a parent on a business trip).  They were able to directly broadcast their thoughts and actions to national and even international audiences without an intermediary controlling the broadcast. They were using technologies that were not always completely understood by their parents and other adults. At the same time that Prensky was writing about children and youths as digital natives, Bovill and Livingstone (2001) described children in First World countries as inhabiting a “bedroom culture”. They described homes in Western societies it is taken for granted that most of the children had their own bedrooms that are filled with electronics such as radios, TVs, computers, iPods, etc.

My issue with the term Digital Native is that they aren’t natives.

In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, these are the first 6 definitions of the word native:

1: inborn, innate <native talents>

2: belonging to a particular place by birth

3 archaic: closely related

4: belonging to or associated with one by birth

5: natural, normal

6 a : grown, produced, or originating in a particular place or in the vicinity : local

b : living or growing naturally in a particular region : indigenous

All of these definitions carry with them the notion of a place where someone is born and/or bred or something that is intrinsic to who they are[1]. No one is born digital or as a resident of The Internet; living the digital life is something learned; humans need to become literate with it. This is not an odd or new concept. We are not born knowing how to use a telephone, little children may imitate their parents’ behavior and body language while chattering into a phone (and I’m looking at you my beloved nephew) but they have to be taught how to make a phone call. Children may sit in front of a TV but they need to be taught how to change the channel (Ok, show of hands, how many of you used to think that the people on TV lived inside the cable or TV itself?)

If you read the entire article by Prensky, he was specifically referring to education, K through college (Prensky 2000) but even in that case I don’t like that phrase. Aside from these phrases feeling disrespectful to immigrants, his paper seems to suggest that people who were born before the digital are will always have a handicap, he calls it and accent, navigating through digital culture and that people born in it “They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work” (Prensky, 2001).  He implies that using technology is something that is fundamental to post digital people. I would say that, like reading, navigating and being able to vet information online is a learned skill. While it’s use is something assumptive and a necessity in today’s business world, it’s not a fundamental skill because becoming digital involves “old fashioned” skills such as reading, logic, communicating clearly, etc.

A big thing I see is missing completely is while the amount and form of media has exploded, how the human brain perceives and retains information has not. Also, sound instructional design is sound instructional design regardless of the media used to convey the message. An adjunct to that idea is that in a classroom situation, a good instructor can work with the group they are given. Look, it was so-called Digital Immigrants who designed much of the “Digital”, it’s not a foreign land but a land they designed and built.  I think these phrases just serves to create generation gap that I’m not really sure exists to the extent that he portrays.

Prensky is now talking about something called “Digital Wisdom” which means finding the best combination of mind and technology. He talks about technology as enhancing human beings. I liked this idea when Vannevar Bush wrote about Memex as a form of brain extension in As We May Think back in 1945.


Bovill, M., & Livingstone, S. (2001). Bedroom culture and the privatization of media use.

Children reporting online: The cultural politics of the computer lab. (2004). Television & New Media, 5(2), 87-107. Retrieved from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ufh&AN=13081297&site=ehost-live

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2012). Employment characterisitcs of families summary. (Economic Release No. USDL-12-0771). Washington, DC: United States Department of Labor

[1] While one might argue that language is not something inborn or intrinsic, I would say that language falls under definition #4. Even though a child may not be able to speak until 18 months or so, they are developing language skill from the beginning. I once read somewhere (and I can’t remember where so I’m not able to verify this) that by the time a baby is four or five months old, the noises they make are the noises they need to speak the language(s) of the people their caretakers.

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