Thursday, May 16, 2019

The term “digital native” entered popular and academic discourse in the early 1990s to characterize young people who, having grown up surrounded by digital technology, were said to be highly technologically skilled; it's a myth

The Myth of the Digital Native and What It Means for Higher Education. Linda Corrin, Tiffani Apps, Karley Beckman, and Sue Bennett. The Oxford Handbook of Cyberpsychology. Edited by Alison Attrill-Smith, Chris Fullwood, Melanie Keep, and Daria J. Kuss. Sep 2018. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780198812746.013.7

Abstract: The term “digital native” entered popular and academic discourse in the early 1990s to characterize young people who, having grown up surrounded by digital technology, were said to be highly technologically skilled. The premise was mobilized to criticize education for not meeting the needs of young people, thereby needing radical transformation. Despite being repeatedly discredited by empirical research and scholarly argument, the idea of the digital native has been remarkably persistent. This chapter explores the myth of the digital native and its implications for higher education. It suggests that the myth’s persistence signals a need to better understand the role of technology in young people’s lives. The chapter conceptualizes technology “practices,” considers how young adults experience technology in their college and university education, and how their practices are shaped by childhood and adolescence. The chapter closes with some propositions for educators, institutions, and researchers.

Keywords: digital literacy, digital native, education, educational technology, higher education, technology practices, young adults, students, college, university

In the late 1990s and early 2000s the idea of the “digital native” emerged (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008). In essence, it was proposed that because young people had grown up surrounded by technology, they had developed sophisticated technology skills superior to the adults around them. This made them “tech savvy” in a way that those from older generations could never be. And because of this difference, young people were dissatisfied with and disengaged from an education system that persisted with oldfashioned approaches to teaching and learning. This argument was used as the basis for calls for revolutionary, transformational change across education systems.

Since then, scholarly critique and empirical research have debunked the notion of the digital native (see Bennett & Corrin, 2017). Critiques have continually called into question the crude characterization of all young people as both highly adept with and avidly interested in digital technologies across the various aspects of their lives as well as the assertions about the implications for education. Research evidence has revealed a much more complex situation. The ways in which young people make use of digital technologies for learning, leisure, socializing, and work are richly diverse and very much dependent on the various contexts in which they engage. These findings reveal that there are indeed young people who are highly engaged with digital technologies, who are using opportunities that technologies provide to create and connect in new ways, and who participate via these technologies in activities and causes that interest them. But not all young people choose to or have the resources available to them to do so. This makes the universality of the digital native label inaccurate and misleading [...]

So what are we to make of the persistence of the notion of digital natives, given the nowsubstantial body of considered scholarship that has discredited this notion? The idea has had widespread popular appeal, perhaps because is seems to be true, based on anecdotal evidence. [...]

Beyond the power of anecdote, however, there are a number of ways to interpret the emergence of and continued interest in the digital native. Generational differences have long been a source of concern in many societies. This is reflected by the labelling and characterization of generations such as the “baby boomers,” “Generation X,” and the “millennials” (e.g., Howe & Strauss, 2000). The idea of the digital native can be seen as a variation of this familiar theme that pits generations against each other and serves to highlight one of many ways in which young people in general are different to older generations. But these generational stereotypes seldom withstand closer scrutiny, and the digital native stereotype, like others, is ultimately unhelpful in genuinely understanding the needs and interests of young people.

Another possible explanation could be that the notion of the digital native reflects a more general concern about the pace of change in modern life, as well as disquiet about the role of technology in driving social change. Again, this concern is not new. The history and sociology of technology reveal long-held misgivings about the ways in which technology has changed the nature of work, civic engagement, and social interaction well before the twenty-first century. Suggestions that an increased rate of change is further risking our ability to adjust to new technologies may explain recent heightened concerns, but the phenomenon itself is not new. From this perspective, characterizing young people as digital natives aligns with the concerns of many older people that technology is driving rapid change to the ways of life with which they are familiar. Thus, the idea of the digital native may reflect the genuine ambivalence that many feel about the role of technology in their lives and, more broadly, its influence on society.

Questions, too, might be posed about the motivations of those advocating for the existence of digital natives. In the field of educational technology, the vested interests of commercial vendors have led to many exaggerated claims that technology can and will revolutionize education (Buckingham, 2013). Education, for its part, has evolved over time, but much too slowly for some technology advocates. Academic reputations are also built on claims that technology will drive pedagogical innovations that will, in turn, increase student engagement and boost learning outcomes. Sceptics have often been labelled as Luddites in debates where polarized positions, untestable claims, and competing ideologies have, at times, overshadowed the findings of research and scholarship that necessarily lags the introduction of the latest technology.

There is clearly further work needed to discover what is at the heart of the concerns about young people and technology. While this is beyond the scope of this chapter, knowing more about why these questions exist is surely important. At the same time, this uncertainty should not prevent seeking to know more about the role technology plays in young people’s lives and consider what that means for education. As noted, scholars and researchers have already begun this quest [...]

We argue that while the idea of the digital native has been shown to be, at best, misleading and unhelpful, its persistence in our discourse, particularly about education, signals there is something underlying it that warrants our attention. It continues to invite us to ask important questions about how young people can, do, and could use technology to enhance their learning. This, in turn, raises important questions about teaching and teachers, educational systems and administrations, and institutional provision of technology infrastructure and learning spaces. [...]

We further argue that this research would benefit from a conceptualization of technology use that is underpinned by the notion of practice. A practice perspective allows us to go beyond regarding digital technologies as tools designed for particular uses to focusing on the ways in which individuals and groups adopt and adapt technologies and embed them in socially-constructed activities. These are technology practices—a notion that captures a range of possibilities and allows for technologies to be adopted and integrated into existing practices, for technologies to shape and so alter existing practice, and for entirely new practices to emerge. In this conceptualization, technologies are never “value free,” but instead carry the values and assumptions of designers and providers. At the same time, it gives possibility for users to adapt or disrupt the intended design or use. [...]

The focus of enquiry then becomes understanding the perspectives and practices of those using technologies, with consideration of the various contexts in which those practices occur. In education, this kind of research uses naturalistic approaches to explore “what is actually taking place when a digital technology meets an educational setting” (Selwyn, 2010, p. 70) rather than studying “state of the art” innovations. Such research complements a well-established and continuing tradition of research into specific pedagogical applications of technology by seeking to understand the nature of technology experiences more broadly. Understanding how students experience technology in their formal education and across their other life contexts is key to understanding how technology might be most effectively integrated [...]

A practice perspective also invites a particular way of considering how technology could best be integrated into education and, specifically, what skills, knowledge, and dispositions young people might need to develop in relation to technology (Bennett, 2014). Contemporary conceptualizations of digital literacy have evolved significantly from their predecessors, for example, computer literacy, ICT literacy. There is growing recognition that to be digitally literate means much more than having the skills to operate technology. [...]

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