Do You Even Know What Our ‘Digital Natives’ Need?

Young digital Native

Marc Prensky popularized the phrase Digital Native as early as 2001 in his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants“. In his article, he focuses mainly on the digital immigrants which are the people new to this world of technology – especially in the classroom.  His explanation of the digital natives is that of a generation who has spent more than twice the amount of time on computers, video games, cell phones, etc… than they have spent reading. He also explains that these students are learning in a different way than previous generations, and focuses on the benefits of gamifying the learning process – even in what some people would see has a ‘higher level’ course that uses CAD (computer-aided design) software. This is truly a different way of learning and involves a major overhaul of our teaching strategies and classroom structure. The most amazing thing to me was the fact that this was written more than 15 years ago.


Unfortunately, people have started throwing around the term ‘digital native’ in an effort to explain their students’ familiarity with technology and the resulting gap between the teachers and students. Using this term tends to drive parent and community demand for 1:1 programs in their schools, it drives the need for teacher training in the use of computers and other devices in their classrooms, and it drives the demand for EdTech consultants to prepare schools in their move to 1:1 programs. Although it’s wonderful to see these programs growing throughout our country and beyond, the goals of these programs aren’t anywhere near what Prensky was describing over 15 years ago.

It seems that administrators and school boards generally take a slower approach to technology integration and worry about the addition of devices to the classroom creating a difficult adjustment period for teachers. This approach creates a problem with making actual changes in the classroom. Teachers look for and find, the technology that creates a close fit with what they’ve done in the past. They incorporate tools which help them distribute worksheets or practice problems from the textbook (or their filing cabinet). They use games such as Kahoot which focus on reviewing material.  As teachers incorporate these tools, which tend to be at the Substitution level of the SAMR model, too many administrators see this as ‘integrating technology’ and another box is checked off during teacher evaluations.

If we took time to understand how these Digital Natives learn and how they use technology on a daily basis, it could help us truly transform education. Many of these students don’t know much (if anything) about how to write an email in a professional manner, how to create PDF’s from their documents, or how to properly attach files to an email. These are skills we use in the workplace and skills we expect our students to know, but these are not skills our students need in order to either learn or demonstrate their understanding of the material. Instead, these are the skills we want our students to know in order to fit into our world and demonstrates our misunderstanding of the digital native.

So, instead of embracing these ‘digital native’s’ familiarity and knowledge of technology, we continue trying to fit them into the same educational system their parents went through – except we put devices in their hands. Too many educators accept that our use of electronic worksheets and reading textbooks online is fulfilling the needs of our students and producing the necessary technology integration in our schools. However, making real changes requires true innovation (and please don’t use ‘innovation’ as a buzzword). Innovation is not reflected in digital worksheets or typing papers. Innovation needs to truly reflect how we change the structure of our classrooms and how we adjust the strategies in our classrooms to reach this ‘new’ type of learner.

To some educators, this is a scary proposition because it requires real change and it requires it to happen in a short amount of time. Every year we don’t move further toward project-based learning, inquiry-based learning, and gamification is another year we fail to meet the needs and learning styles of these ‘digital natives’. This means we can’t simply be the ‘digital immigrants’ that Presnky describes in 2001. Instead, we need to be the leaders in a digital world and more importantly, the leaders of an educational shift toward building more effective schools for our children.

Image credit: “Young Digital Native” Image Charlotta Wasteson


About Sean Scanlon

Director of Instructional Technology Marian Catholic High School Google Certified Trainer
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Do You Even Know What Our ‘Digital Natives’ Need?

  1. Aubrey says:

    Very true! So my next question is…how do you help educators to truly make this shift? It’s out of the comfort zone and a different definition of “teacher” for many, and that can feel threatening. How can we move to a place of true innovation?

    • Sean Scanlon says:

      Thank you for your input. I agree this is a difficult shift and requires a solid plan. I’ll definitely be writing a follow up to this very soon.

    • Same question, Aubrey! Sean, this is such a great starter post (to the topic), and I will be sharing it with my administration 🙂 Everyone calls me a digital native because I understand technology, but I reply with, “No, I’m not. I’ve had to work on it like everyone else!” They tell me, “Oh, you just know all this because you’re young.” And I have to reply with, “No, I’m really good at using Google.” We have to keep learning and pushing forward to meet our students’ needs!

  2. emueller91 says:

    Said BEAUTIFULLY my friend!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s