The Other Side of Digital Nativeness

digital natives: funny design with laptop, feeding bottle and pa

I had a ton of interesting conversations at ISTE about the uniqueness of today’s students. As the first generation raised in the digital age, they say students are interacting with technology in ways that most teachers do not understand or appreciate. The term ‘digital native’ has been coined* to refer to children who, due to privileges granted by their geographical location and socioeconomic status, are able to use technology on a daily basis throughout their upbringing. The ramifications of these online interactions are still undetermined, leaving educators and researchers bickering endlessly about whether digital natives are fundamentally different than previous generations of students.

As a result of this debate, perspectives on technology use in schools are myriad and often opposing. I thought at a technology conference I’d be talking to the converted, but found that this was not always the case. Many people brought up opinions that technology has rewired our children’s brains, causing them to be unfocused and easily distracted. Many others talked about issues of cyberbullying and harmful messaging in the digital spaces of their schools. One woman spoke about the gaming addiction she has witnessed ruining lives. All of these people agreed that technology has its place in school, but its excessive use has proven harmful to students’ offline existence.

As a digital citizen (albeit an immigrant) myself, I was dismayed to hear so many technology specialists speak so harshly of the tools I love, and I turned to the George Couroses and the Jason Markeys of the conference for some uplifting pro-tech perspectives. Couros did not disappoint – he has proven to be engaging and inspiring whenever he speaks, and I know he has converted many school administrators to a pro-tech stance. But even Markey, a progressive and passionate tech supporter, mentioned that his school had to block twitter on its local network because it consumed students’ school days. This got me thinking that perhaps I need to take a hard look at my stance on tech in schools.

Debate illustration conceptThe perspectives of so many educators who have mixed feelings about tech are hard to ignore. After all, I’m not in schools seeing how children interact with their devices and each other. I’m following the debate closely on social media, but I’m still an outsider. I’m always looking for more perspectives and opinions. After careful consideration and heartfelt discussion, however, my opinion is this: digital natives are fundamentally different from us. Their home is online – this is where they communicate, collaborate, and learn. They will harness the power of technology in ways that we can’t even imagine because they were born into it, but this comes at the expense of their offline functioning. If we take the term ‘digital native’ literally, it means that these kids are foreigners in the offline world, and they have to overcome all of the obstacles and barriers faced by immigrants learning a new culture and language.

There are two ways we can deal with this: we can create classroom programming to socialize students and encourage parents to facilitate bilingual online/offline development. Or maybe we can just back off and let them do their thing. It’s very possible that, in the world they create, they won’t need the offline skills we value so highly. But cutting them off from tech, banning it from schools, is not an option. Cutting them off from their homeland will only stunt their growth, leaving them disconnected and disengaged.

* Editor’s note: CUE will be featuring Marc Prensky, who invented and popularized the phrases “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants” as a CUE 2015 Fall Conference Spotlight Speaker.


KateKate Salmon (@CSCKate) is a Communications Specialist and general word nerd from Toronto, Ontario. With a BA in Rhetoric and Professional Writing from the University of Waterloo, she continues her learning journey at Learnography, a non-profit education consulting organization. Learnography’s team of former educators are dedicated to creating transformative learning experiences, inspiring her to take on new challenges every day.

5 thoughts on “The Other Side of Digital Nativeness”

  1. Kate, you have certainly found a key issue in the tech in schools discussion. Our students today do live a significant amount of time in their social media world. At the same time, I am not sure that qualifies them as “digital natives.” True they use social media but, by in large, are not necessarily more digitally capable. I’ve found many high school students unable to do anything but text or tweet. This is really the issue. Teachers that are not comfortable with technology feel compelled to stop student use of social media. Teachers that understand the value of the the tools as a part of the learning process are typically much more comfortable with student use of social media. If students are utilizing technology as a part of their learning, including social media, they are actually building upon their “digital native” status. Like you say, we need “to create classroom programming” that supports the complete development of these digital natives. This requires that we help our students see the much greater value of technology in the learning process and thus in the world outside of school.

    1. Thanks for your very insightful comments, Patrick! I’m surprised to hear there are so many high school students who aren’t inspired to engage with the digital world beyond social media. But I am admittedly only exposed to a small subset of high school students – those kids who teach themselves coding and read Wikipedia for fun.

      I completely agree that teachers play an important role in developing digital citizenship and media literacy, and they can do this more effectively if they are comfortable with all the tech their students are using. Great points!

  2. Kate,
    Banning students from technology in the classroom is certainly not an option. In this 21st century, technology needs to be embedded in classrooms so that students can continue to be engaged. This is why it is important for schools to set students up for success. Expectation must be set clear for administration, teachers, and students so that technology can be used as a digital tool that can help them in their learnings. If students can understand how to be responsible technology users, then using technology in the classrooms will become meaningful to students. As a result, teachers will foster intrinsic motivation, support their development as “digital natives,” and help them connect to real life experiences.

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