All entries for Monday 17 July 2006

July 17, 2006

Digital natives

Writing about web page,,2101-2256968,00.html

This article in the Sunday Times is an interesting discussion of the concept of being "digitally native" or a "digital immigrant". Emily, who's 20, is a digital native:–

Technology is an essential part of my everyday social and academic life. I don’t know where I’d be without it.

But her mum, who's 55, isn't:–

Though 55–year–old Christine happily shops online and e–mails friends, at heart she’s still in the old world. “Children today are multitasking left, right and centre — downloading tracks, uploading photos, sending e–mails. It’s nonstop,” she says with bemusement. “They find sitting down and reading, even watching TV, too slow and boring. I can’t imagine many kids indulging in one particular hobby, such as birdwatching, like they used to.”

The interesting question is whether this distinction between people who have grown up with and always had access to some technologies and who use it continuously, ubiquitously and in a multi–tasking way, and people who are IT literate but not dependent in the same way signifies anything. Are twenty year olds in some significant sense different to 50 year olds because they're more dependent on their mobiles and they surf the web, email, text and IM, sometimes all at once? The article quotes people who think that the answer is "yes", but they mostly seem to be stating without proof:–

Something as massive as our — for many people — daily interaction with computers and video players is bound to have a significant effect.

And another suggestion is that being digitally native implies an acceptance of rapid change which is less apparent in older people. But I don't think this is anything to do with technology per se; it's just that when you're younger, you're more accepting of or enthusiastic about change than when you're older. Since technology is changing quickly, young people are more comfortable with it than older people, but it's not the technology that's significant, it's the change; you could argue exactly the same thing about fashion.

So I don't know. There's nothing in this article, interesting though it is, that seems to offer any kind of convincing evidence that digital natives are different in any substantive way to digital immigrants except in the observable sense of how they use technology. Whether it's made them more intelligent, or shortened their attention span, or made them better at responding to certain stimuli seems to be an open question. I wonder what an academic who has been teaching for many years would think? Arguments about whether the work students do at school prepares them for university as well as it used to are well rehearsed, but if you were to try and control for that in some way, would students today be observably different to how they were twenty years ago? And if they were, would the difference be plausibly attributable to their being digitally native?

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