The Digital Native Debate

We learn about things by naming them so that they can be distinguished from one another. That usually involves some abstraction. After all, things are complicated. Things are, themselves, made up of many things. Even worse, differences between one thing and another are often difficult to isolate, quantify, or even describe. People debate. They say, this thing is really two things. And vice versa.

There has recently been some debate as to whether the “digital native” (a group to which I belong—if it exists) is really its own thing. Given the amount of ink spilled on the subject of teaching so-called digital natives, the debate has some bearing on the field of education. In a recent Nature editorial, “The digital native is a myth,” the case is made that most if not all of the distinguishing characteristics of the digital native aren’t really there at all. Specifically, our ability to multitask. Similar attacks on the digital native isolate other characteristics for criticism, such as our “preternatural” ability to code and our ability to judge the quality of online information.

Entire industries are built on the promise of being able to distinguish, and market, to distinct groups of people. Education’s interest is, we can hope, more altruistic. We want to learn about our students because we want to be better at giving them what they need to be successful. The essence of andragogy as a science is that different people learn differently; it isn’t a leap to wonder if, generation by generation, the needs of learners have evolved with their environment. So is it worth it to try to distinguish the needs of digital natives, specifically? Are we…different?

In the opinion of this (alleged) digital native and sometimes teacher of his own kind: I don’t know. It’s hard for me to remember what my own face looks like, much less the contours of my character relative to some transcendent millennial ideal. Obviously the internet has changed how we organize, apply and pass on knowledge. But is it really so clear that it has changed how we think? How we function? For instance: It’s popular, today, to proclaim the death of the novel; but that end has been predicted, for various cultural and technological reasons, for half a century.

At the same time, I think it’s important to respect how fundamentally changed the learning environment is today from, say, 1979. The Internet is at least as important to the evolution of human society as the printing press, and it has only been a few decades since the first message was ever sent server-to-server.

So I’m curious: Do any of you see distinctions between the generations of students? Have you had experiences which lead you to believe one way or another? Do you think understanding the digital natives, as a group with distinct characteristics, will help you help us learn?

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