Ind. Study - Digital Natives (Week #4)

Digital Natives

" . . . the single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language" (Marc Prensky, 2001).

Ask yourself these questions:
  • Do you print out your email?
  • Does your secretary print out your email for you?
  • Do you print out a document to edit it?
  • Do you ask people to come into your office to look at a website?
  • Do you phone people to see if they got your email?
  • Do you write down URL's you want to visit again?
  • Do you write down your passwords? 

If you read this list and find that some or all of them apply to you and your presence in the online world, then you are what Prensky terms a "Digital Immigrant."  Digital Immigrants are, "Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology."  When I look at the list above, compiled from Prensky and a few ideas of my own, I am quite happy that I can confidently answer "No" to all of them . . . now!  As recent as last year if I had been asked these questions I would not have been able to answer the same way.  If I think of many of my friends and colleagues, I would hazard a guess that many of them would still answer "Yes" to these questions.

If my generation and my parents generation are defined as "Digital Immigrants," then what does Prensky consider the new generation of learners?  His term, "Digital Natives," encompasses children Kindergarten through Grade 12, that have "spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones, and all the other toys and tools of the digital age."  He also posits that students today are "native speakers" of this technological, digital language of this century.

An aspect of new learning that I had not considered prior to reading Prensky's article was the reference he made to Dr. B.D. Perry, (Baylor College of Medicine), and his statement, "Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures."  Not only our students learning and processing information differently, their brains are "physically" changing due to the altered states of HOW they are thinking.  This is definitely an area where the research is in the early stages, but I suspect will continue to grow, as those with a vested interest in making changes in our outdated education system see these changes as an integral part of ensuring future student success.

The creation of the PTDAL (Preparing Teachers for Digital Age Learners) by the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) is a new initiative in the US to help pre-service teachers gain experience with new digital tools and also to help integrate technology into the education system.  Hiliary Goldmann, director of ISTE's government affairs, writes that PTDAL is still in the early stages, but when the bill is passed and becomes the "law", the ISTE will continue to, "Advocate for funding this important national priority."  The US obviously recognizes the need for change in their education system, does Canada? 

Christine Greenhow, an educational researcher, concentrates her research on new technologies and how they affect how people learn.  In her column for Learning & Leading with Technology, "Who are Today's Learners?" she reports on a study completed by Spires, Lee, Turner, and Johnson (2008) who examined middle grade students and their perspectives on school and technology.  More specifically, "The researchers sought to learn from middle grade students what engages them to achieve in school."  The sample of students were asked about technology tools and skills used at school and also what activities they enjoyed the most at school.  They were also asked questions about computer availability and use at home, as well, what other tools were available to them at home.

Of interest to me was the research team's finding that there was no difference between rural communities, low-income families and more affluent neighbourhoods and the use and access to computers at home and school.  We live in a rural, farming community surrounded by three first nations bands and the socio-economic culture is extreme at either end.  It would be interesting to collect data in my community to ascertain if the above results were typical here also.  One thing is for sure, as Greenhow suggests, "the importance of getting to know your students' out-of-school technology access, conditions, and use."  To obtain this information Greenhow offers a list of questions to ask students to assist in collecting this important data:

  • What technology devices do you own (eg. desktop, laptop, cell phone, other)?
  • Where do you go online (eg. home, school, library, friends' house, other)?
  • Where do you go most often?
  • How often do you go online?
  • How long do you stay when you're online?
  • What activities do you engage in?
  • What are your top three activities?

Just as addressing the divide between Prensky's "Digital Immigrants" and "Digital Natives" is crucial, so to is the acknowledgement of the divide between technology use and access at home and school.  More of her work can be found at

Mark Prensky wrote a follow-up article to the ideas presented about Digital Immigrants and Natives, titled, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II - Do They Really Think Differently?"  In this paper Prensky discusses the "physical changes" in the brain when learning situations have changed.  He presents evidence from neurobiology, social psychology, and studies completed on children learning from gaming.
He concludes that these specialists do agree that the brain will physically change in a new learning environment.  As educators, I think most of us have realized that the way students are learning today has changed - when will we begin to change the way we teach?  Prensky writes that educators do know about these changes, "Because they are not reaching their Digital Native students as well as they reached students in the past."  Two choices, states Prensky:  Ignore the situation and wait until the Digital Natives take over, OR, learn the new language.  I'm learning the new language - kids are worth it.