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Like any scientific endeavour, one of the virtues of sociology is its scepticism – and one area that’s always ripe for a sceptical approach is new media and the various claims made on its behalf.

One such claim is Prensky’s (2001) concept of the “digital native”, something that has become widely used in both press and public to refer to a generational difference between those (natives) who have grown-up in the digital age and those (immigrants) who came to the digital realm later in life.

  • Natives, in this respect, generally refers to those born in the 1980’s (often labelled millennials, because they broadly came of age around the turn of the new millennium) who have effectively lived their whole lives surrounded by and immersed in digital technologies.
  • Immigrants refers to those born before the widespread development of digital technologies. They are in this respect latecomers to the digital party, even though many will have different levels of experience, confidence and facility with digital technology. Immigrants are, nonetheless, generally portrayed as outsiders in this new digital realm. While they may, for example, “understand the language” of digital tech and speak it relatively fluently, they are not, for Prensky among many others, “native speakers” of this language – with all that this may imply.
  • This distinction is not, on the face of things, too outrageous to contemplate, particularly if writers such as Prensky had simply restricted themselves to observing how this generational difference might be akin to the difference between learning a new language and being a native speaker.

    It may seem plausible, for example, that the digital natives who have grown-up with various forms of digital technology are likely to be much more fluent in its use than their elder(ly) peers.

    Equally, the distinction might involve a range of ways of doing (such as finding your news on social media rather than in newspapers or on television) and being (living your life on Instagram or TikTok, perhaps, or maybe in the soon-to-be unleashed multi-dimensional Facebook metaverse that looks and sounds, to me at least, very much like an unironic Matrix reimagining…) that are qualitatively different in some way. As Prensky, for example, argues, digital immigrants:

  • don’t go to the Internet first for information.
  • print things out as opposed to working on screen.
  • read manuals rather than working things out online.
  • The significance of these qualitative differences for writers such as Prensky (presupposing they actually exist) is, however, a desire to extend them, such that they become the basis for a wide-ranging and fundamental critique of contemporary forms of educational teaching and learning.

    Which, when you stop to think about for a moment, is some stretch of the imagination.

    Undeterred, however, Prensky argues that:

    “It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures,“ says Dr Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine…it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed.”

    Despite the equivocation about whether or not digital natives “have a different brain structure” to their immigrant peers – although if it’s not “literally true” then it’s literally false – the claim they have a different way of thinking lays the ground for a critique of contemporary education systems based on the idea they were designed by and for the digital immigrants of the distant past.

    The upshot of this is an educational disjunction between those who control the education system (digital immigrants) and those who consume it (digital natives) which has resulted in a type of education that is no-longer fit-for-purpose. Educational systems need, in a nutshell, to be reinvented to bring them into line with how digital natives think and learn. Which according to Prensky means:

    Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to “serious” work. (Does any of this sound familiar?) But Digital Immigrants typically have very little appreciation for these new skills that the Natives have acquired and perfected through years of interaction and practice. These skills are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants, who themselves learned – and so choose to teach – slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and above all, seriously. “My students just don‟t _____ like they used to,” Digital Immigrant educators grouse. I can’t get them to ____ or to ____. They have no appreciation for _____ or _____ . (Fill in the blanks, there are a wide variety of choices”.

    While, as I’ve suggested, the digital natives concept might have some (limited) currency, it’s questionable that it can be extended in the way Prensky claims, for a couple of reasons identified by Helsper and Eynon (2009):

    1. The validity of the generational dimension to digital nativism is open to question. As they argue:

    Those in support of this digital native / immigrant distinction tend to assign broad characteristics (e.g. a specific learning style, amount and type of technology use and / or set of learning preferences) to an entire generation and suggest all young people are expert with technology. Yet, while the proportion of young people who use the Internet and other new technologies is higher than the older population there are significant differences in how and why young people use these new technologies and how effectively they use them”.

    2. The extent to which differences between digital natives and digital immigrants can be explained by age differences rather than differences in class, socialisation, experience and the like is also questionable.

    Moreover, Helsper and Eynon’s research makes a number of observations and draws a range of conclusions about the concept that we can summarise as follows:

    1. “Generation alone does not adequately define if someone is a digital native or not”. There are a range of factors involved here, from class and gender to different levels of learning and experience.

    2. The use of digital technology and media is to some extent age-stratified in the sense younger people:

  • have a greater range of ICTs in their household
  • tend to use the Internet as a first port of call
  • have higher levels of Internet self-efficacy
  • multi-task more
  • use the Internet for fact checking and formal learning activities.
  • use the Internet more
  • are more likely to come from media-rich homes
  • are more confident about their skills
  • are more likely to engage in online learning activities.
  • Despite these differences, however, age alone is neither a sufficient nor necessary explanation. As Helsper and Eynon conclude:

    Generation was not the only significant variable in explaining these activities: gender, education, experience and breadth of use also play a part. Indeed in all cases immersion in a digital environment (i.e. the breadth of activities that people carry out online) tends to be the most important variable in predicting if someone is a digital native in the way they interact with the technology”.

    In this respect they conclude:

    1. While digital natives and immigrants exist in the sense there are notable differences in the extent to which different individuals and social groups are comfortable using digital technology and media they are not “two distinct, dichotomous generations”.

    2. “While there were differences in how generations engaged with the internet there were similarities across generations as well, mainly based on how much experience people had with using technologies”.

    3. Internet use in particular reflects “a continuum of engagement” rather than “a dichotomous divide between users and non-users”. People, in other words, of various ages use the Internet for a wide variety of purposes.

    4. Their research “supports other research that has demonstrated that there are significant differences within cohorts of young people in terms of their preferences, skills and use of new technologies”. Young people are not, in this respect, an “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

    References

    Prensky, Marc (2001) “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” parts 1 and 2.

    Helsper, Ellen and Eynon, Rebecca (2009) “Digital natives: where is the evidence?”

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