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In Redux

By Elizabeth Wroten

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

On 16, Sep 2014 | In Redux | By Elizabeth Wroten

I just want to talk briefly about how much I dislike the term digital native. Especially when it refers to teens and tweens, which in my experience it almost always does. While kids are often more computer savvy than, say, their grandparents, I think the term is very misleading and problematic.

For starters many kids are now children of people who grew up with computers. Meaning their parents watched as computers became more widely available and then more prevalent. They watched as the Internet became more widely available and more prevalent. They logged on with their dial-up modem and continually upgraded their Internet connection. These people used computers in school, they used them in college, and they now use them everyday in the workplace. They tend to be computer savvy. Even the older generation (young Boomers) use(d) computers in the workplace with regularity. These people may not have been playing with iPads at two, but I often find them to have a much better understanding of how computers and computer-related things work. They remember having to hook up the dial-up modem so they have a little better grasp on how the Internet gets to their computer than the kid who just opens the laptop and automatically has Wi-Fi.

The problem with calling someone a digital native is that is lulls us into thinking they know what they’re doing on the computer (or tablet or phone). However, in my experience, it looks like they know what their doing when in reality, they are just very good at making it look like they know what they’re doing. I’ll use two examples to illustrate this. When the sophomores I worked with wrote their research papers they were asked to have a hanging indent at the beginning of each paragraph. A lot of them just hit “tab” at the beginning of the paragraph which worked well enough. Others would hit the space bar until the first word was in approximately the right place. The problem with both of these was that when the formatting changed above the paragraph or they added something, the paragraph could/would not be aligned correctly anymore and sometimes the tab was not placed in the correct place. Without actually looking at how they had done the formatting you would never know that they had done it incorrectly. And they assumed they knew how to do the hanging indent even though most of them had never heard of it and didn’t bother to look up or ask how to create one. Another time a student was asked to double space an essay. Instead of using the line spacing she hit “enter” at the end of every line. It looked correct, looked like she knew what she was doing, but of course any time she added more text, the formatting went wonky.

This ties into the debate about the abysmal research skills of students. There are issues with taking the first result, thinking research should be as fast and easy as a simple Google search, and not knowing where to look for good information. I think it’s a problem to assume they know what their doing in research, but I think that by calling them digital natives we partially make the assumption that they know what they’re doing because it sure looks like they do and they’re a digital native. (I’m not accusing librarians here, although I’m sure we’re all guilty of it at some point. I know I have been.)

I think the term also ignores a good slice of the population that doesn’t have access to a computer or an Internet connection. I know it is sometimes hard to believe that we all don’t have 24/7 access to Google, but there are plenty of people who don’t. I think librarians are often very aware of this fact because these people come into our libraries to use the computers and the Internet. So by grouping all teens and tweens into that mix we lump in those kids who really are not using computers and technology very often. It’s a problem to assume they will know what to do and they may be afraid to ask for help knowing we think they are digital natives.

Just a short rant. I just dislike the term and I actually think I’m seeing it less, although I could be wrong about that.


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