Image from “The Myths of the Digital Native” by C. Flathery (2015)

By Toni DiMella

We’ve all heard the claims. Today’s students are tech-savvy with a short attention span and need to experience content in multiple ways, often simultaneously. Those born after 1984 have never known the world without technology. They grew up on Nintendo, spent their middle school years texting on their flip phones and posting pictures on MySpace, and now socialize as adults with others through apps like TikTok and Twitch.

However, as anyone who has been in the classroom for more than an hour will tell you, even though digital natives grew up immersed in technology that doesn’t mean they know how to use it. Their tech skills are largely limited to basic office suite skills, texting, and watching videos. They know to message friends in an app, but not how to upload documents. They may be a whiz on how to make Instagram posts on an iPhone, but not on how to do a screen capture on a laptop. They spend all day online but have no idea how to do research using it—don’t even think about mentioning Boolean search operators! While they use tech every day, their understanding of it is large rudimentary and they use it for entertainment, not productivity.

The term digital native, and digital immigrant for those born before 1984, was coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 but the term wasn’t based on research. It was based solely on his observations. In fact, many studies have found not only are digital natives not more tech-savvy than previous generations, but often digital immigrants actually have more tech skills. When you really think about it, it’s crazy to think just because someone was born during the rise of the smartphone and internet that would know how to use them more proficiently than anyone else. I don’t remember a time without air conditioning, but I certainly can’t fix my own HVAC system. Remember a time without cars? Me neither, but changing my own tire is the extent of my car service skills. Why would we think an 18-year-old would be able to use an app that was created 5 years ago simply because they don’t remember a time without apps?

“But they appear to have difficulty moving beyond very basic types of functionality. They don’t seem to recognize the enhanced functionality of the applications they own and use.”

Kavik & Carus, 2005, p. 52

So, what is an educator to do? Provide directions. Crystal clear, step-by-step, overly detailed directions. Directions that are almost annoying to read. Directions that are not only about what they are doing but how to do it.

  • No, they don’t know how to use VoiceThread. You need to provide a demo video, so they know how to access it and where to click.
  • No, they don’t understand the difference between Facebook posts and a group annotation in Persuall. You need to provide netiquette rules and clearly define your expectations for them.
  • No, they are not experts in how to use Word and do not have a deep understanding of PC file structures. Tell them what to name their files, what extension to choose, and why and how and where to save.

There is a silver lining for our digital natives though. More so than digital immigrants, digital natives are more likely to adopt new technology and, if deemed to be useful, they are more likely to keep using it. So once you help your students learn new skills, identify their importance, and connect them with real-world applications, they will keep doing it after your course has ended. Ultimately, creating the long-lasting change that is every educator’s goal. So, grumble through writing directions on how to properly send you an email knowing that teaching them that skill may help get them the job you’re training them for.