June 07, 2006

What does it mean to be digitally native?

The term ‘digital native’ expresses a useful concept in clarifying the aims of learning technology development. It signifies both the technological and cultural challenges that we face. A specification of what it means to be ‘digitally native’ provides a clear cut measure for us to assess progress, and at the same time helps to explain why being digitally native is a good thing. Finally, it is a starting point for considering how we can create a digitally native university.

We do a lot of work on the assumption that the wider use of ‘e-learning’ or ‘learning technology’ is necessarily a good thing. This of course needs some explication and justification. Our founding claim is that learning, teaching and research (LTR) can be significantly enhanced with the application of appropriate digital and online technologies by staff and students for whom those technologies are self-evidently obvious and natural.

LTR activities are usually collaborative. The use of technologies within such collaborative activities requires that the various partners are comfortable and capable with the tools used. Each collaborator can be skilled to a varying extent, with some super-users leading the way. But experience shows that the more widely the skills are spread, the better the uptake of the technology, and the more effective it is in enhancing the activity.

The concept of ‘digitally native’ is useful. My conjecture is that the more people who are ‘digitally native’ the more effective the technologies can be in enhancing these collaborative activities. Steve Carpenter (Sciences E-learning Advisor) introduced me to the term ‘digital native’, and its antithesis ‘digital immigrant’. The terms, it seems, were invented by Marc Prensky (CEO of Games2Train and author of Digital Game-Based Learning). You can read more in his article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants in which he makes the more dramatic claim that there is a mismatch between digital native students and the digital immigrants who teach them. I’m not going to assess this claim. Rather, I want to give a more explicit definition of what it means to be digitally native, as a means to outline a vision of where I think the university should be in five years time.

What qualifies someone as being ‘digitally native’? A simple set of skills, employing the best available technologies. The digital native does the following:

  1. produce and store quality content (text, images, audio, video, diagrams, databases etc), with consideration of its presentation online;
  2. share content online, in an appropriate location and with appropriate security constraints (considering legal, moral and inter-personal issues);
  3. where responsible, maintain, update and remove content;
  4. structure the relations between content items;
  5. classify and describe content to make it more meaningful and useful;
  6. locate, assess and use shared content;
  7. edit and extend, comment upon, filter, and recommend to others;
  8. record and reflect upon their own work and that of others as represented by their online activities;
  9. create,define and manage networks of other online people;
  10. build up an electronic portfolio and profile;
  11. present samples of online work;
  12. reflect upon this work, in collaboration with others, so as to identify strengths, weaknesses, and actions for improvement (informally, or formally as peer review).

My assessment of the Arts Faculty at Warwick is that it is edging slowly towards being digitally native, but progress is slow, and in some areas non-existent. This pace is surprising, considering the technologies and services that are available. We have a reliable and increasingly extensive web architecture (Sitebuilder, Forums, Blogs), which is well supported and increasingly ubiquitous. There are also many isolated examples of successful technology enhancement of learning, teaching and research. But these remain isolated. Prensky would argue that the big blocker to a digitally native university is that the majority of the people who do the teaching and set examples to be followed are in fact digital immigrants.

My big question is therefore: what can I do to help more people in the Arts Faculty become more digitally native? – a big open question, but at least it gives me a very clear focus for my work. Our (Elab’s) response to this could be to just go ahead and create lots of online learning content for people, as some other universities have done. But that is certainly an un-scalable and un-sustainable approach. Rather, we create technologies and support people in using those technologies so that they become more digitally native. In answering the big question this approach provides a good starting point. But perhaps becoming digitally native is more difficult than we expect.
My first reflection on this is that our ELAT advisory process is successful because it works on an individual basis with people who tend towards the digital immigrant end of the continuum. We are therefore able to get to know their individual ‘technology comfort zone’, and edge them out of it in a sensitive and managed way.
And my second reflection: when I explain to people what i do, saying that I help staff and students become more digitally native is much more meaningful than saying that I am an e-learning advisor. It has other advantages in that it is easier for me to explain that I m enhancing their current uses of technology (which may just be pen and paper), and am giving them skills that are applicable in a wider range of contexts than just teaching.

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  1. Chris May

    Do you think that Digital native–ness is binary state – i.e. that one either is, or is not, a native? Or are there degrees? – in which case, your question might be better framed as what can I do to help more people in the Arts Faculty become more digitally native?

    Also, does the concept of a Digital Native imply the concept of a Digital Nation? If it does, then what form does this nation take?

    07 Jun 2006, 12:54

  2. Robert O'Toole

    Good observation. It is a continuum, but a complex one with many possible positions (stretching my knowledge of topography!).

    I have been avoiding the "digital nation" and "digital divide" discourse, as it has already been colonised by the Blairites! I also suggest that we treat with caution Prensky's claim that "young people today" are particularly digitally native.

    07 Jun 2006, 13:02

  3. John Dale

    I like this. What I think is appealing about digital nativeness is that it's something you are rather than something you do. In many ways that could make our lives much easier, because it might allow us to change the scope of the ELA role to being a "Digital Nativeness Coach" (if you like), and therefore not somebody responsible for creating content or even for advising or taking decisions about creating content, but rather somebody whose role is to get people to the point where they are happy to make those decisions and do those jobs for themselves.

    Actually, now I come to write it down, I think that's actually a restatement of where we started from right at the very beginning of the existence of the ELA team!

    07 Jun 2006, 16:46

  4. Robert O'Toole

    It all seems completely obvious now!

    I do really think that we (elat, webdev, learning grid) have made a lot of progress in understanding how to help people become more digitally native. I reckon its worth distilling that knowledge into some shared understanding. It will help the rest of the uni in understanding exactly what it is we do.

    07 Jun 2006, 16:55

  5. Steven Carpenter

    Prensky's article provides a good overview, if a little one–sided. The concept of natives and immigrants (I prefer the term migrant – it feels less binary) describes what we are trying to achieve in ELAT very well. He makes the point that we are in a transitional phase that is likely to last for a while yet, as subsequent generations feed into academia. This isn't just in terms of a technological comfort–zone, but more fundamentally in terms of what he describes as a difference in processing and managing information. This gives two distinct facets – becoming comfortable with using technology is one, and becoming as native as possible (as Prensky notes, immigrants always retain an element of their 'roots') is the other. The article also explores two further aspects of this; to bridge the divide, who should change, and what should change? The process of discovering the answer to these is a difficult one. He notes this:

    It's not actually clear to me which is harder – "learning new stuff" or "learning new ways to do old stuff." I suspect it's the latter.

    08 Jun 2006, 09:10

  6. Robert O'Toole

    "Becoming comfortable with using technology" – I suggest that our emphasis must be on that, or at the least, making sure that we are not making people uncomfortable!

    In some cases I think we have some kind of responsibility to prepare people for big technological changes. For example, how are lecturers going to react when they realise that almost every student has a gadget with which they can record and peer–to–peer share lectures?

    08 Jun 2006, 11:42

  7. Jenny Delasalle

    I like the way this helps you to define what you do as an e-learning adviser. It is something that other support services (eg the library) can contribute to. Especially if the 12 points you note are what we take to mean that someone has become a digital native, since many of them relate to the information skills that libraries have been trying to impart for some years!

    What you describe as the skills of a digital native sound very comprehensive and therefore a definition of a “digital expert” to me. I think that “native” is a more friendly term than “expert”, though – many don’t like to define themselves as experts out of modesty and/or insecurity.

    I think that the definition of a digital native using these 12 points is necessarily a continuum, because each native might be more proficient with certain types of technologies (or certain skills) than with others. The 12 points therefore seem a bit like a nationality test! There are elements of the 12 points that I would consider myself to be well versed in, as any librarian would, and other elements that I am less proficient at.

    It seems to me that librarians can set a very good example for many of the 12 points. Librarians pick out quality content to share with their patrons. They maintain that collection, they structure the relations between content items, they classify and describe content to make it more meaningful and useful. Librarians help others to locate, assess and use shared content; they comment upon, filter, and recommend content to others; they create, define and manage networks of other (online) people. Many librarians also build up an electronic portfolio and profile, although how we do this is something that is really being experimented with at the moment.

    If the digital native also performs all these roles that have traditionally been the domain of the professional librarian, then what ground is left for librarians? I would hope that librarians can continue to be the trail-blazers in these skills and continue to set a good example and teach those skills to others. The role of the librarian becomes more like the role of a teacher and tour guide in the digital world. As such we must work closely with other trail-blazers and advisers who cover the skills we are less familiar with.

    05 Jul 2007, 10:39

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