Section author: Matt Mawer

Introduction

Evidence

Conclusions

References

Introduction

The idea of the Digital Native was proposed by games-based learning theorist Marc Prensky (2001a, 2001b) as a reflection and call to action on the education system (although it has also diffused substantially into other areas). Prensky (2009) has indicated that the idea is now less relevant than at its time of publishing, however there is substantial evidence indicating that it is utilised (e.g. Lei, 2009), investigated (e.g. Thinyane, 2010) and critiqued (e.g. Helsper & Eynon, 2010) in e-learning literature. The Digital Native idea describes a fundamental divide in modern society between those born, socialised into, and surrounded by digital technology during their upbringing, and those who came upon it later in life. This generation divide is between the “Digital Natives” born post-1980, and the pre-1980 “Digital Immigrants” (Prensky, 2001a). The 1980’s is seen as the key decade for this process of digital saturation (Prensky, 2001a), and I concur with Guo, Dobson and Petrina (2008) that is reasonable to assume that exposure to digital technology substantially increased after the boom in personal computing (in developed countries such as the UK, at least). Prensky makes several claims about the Digital Natives: ·         They are technology focused and driven, incorporating digital technologies into every aspect of their lives·         They engage with information and activity at a vastly faster rate than their predecessors: described as “twitch speed” (Prensky, 2001a; 3)·         Their minds are shaped (neurologically) by their engagement with all things digital, leading to entirely new thought process and modes of communication that are entirely alien to Digital Immigrants·         They value collaboration, participation, social co-presence and a networked structure to information·         They are heavily influenced by digital media sources and therefore less engaged with non digital activities (books, for instance)  There is considerable variation between sources in the attributes that Digital Natives are deemed to possess, however the orientation of the Digital Natives is effectively summarised as:  “….native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the internet” (Prensky, 2006; 9) The concept has gone under various guises, including Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000), the net generation (Tapscott, 1998), and the Google generation (Oblinger, 2008). It seems from academic publications that it is Prensky’s terminology which has stuck most effectively (e.g. O’Connell, Grantham, Workman, & Wong, 2009; Penfold & Duffy, 2010), so it is ‘Digital Native’ that I shall use during this literature review. It is also the case that some of the other terms used are somewhat misleading, for instance the reference to Google is curious given that Google’s dominance in popular discourse is certainly more recent than the 1980’s. Given the launch date of Google’s flagship search engine, the only people who could have been “growing up with Google” (Oblinger, 2008) would currently be entering secondary education and would have been pre-school when Prensky’s Digital Native thesis was published. It is symptomatic of the Digital Native idea more broadly that the terminology is appealing, but inaccurate.

Evidence

Popular uses of the Digital Native idea have a certain apocryphal quality. Even within peer-reviewed publishing they are prone to uncritical replication of “what Prensky said” (e.g. Long, 2005; Penfold & Duffy, 2010) and empirically unsupported polemic (Barnes & Tynan, 2007). This has done little to develop the idea itself, and it is perhaps telling that the most significant advances within the Digital Native discussion have been in its critique. Bennett, Maton and Kervin (2008) offer a lucid deconstruction of some of the assumptions that seem to underpin the Digital Native idea, particularly the disregard for intra-group differences:

“…a proportion of young people are highly adept with technology and rely on it….there also appears to be a significant proportion of young people who do not have the levels of access or technology skills predicted by proponents of the digital native idea” (2008; 779)

At the heart of Bennett et al.’s objection to the Digital Native idea is the distinction between ownership and participation in digital technology. Research on the uses of digital technology by Australian university students suggests that ownership and use of technology such as laptops or mobile phones is high, but participation in content sharing and social networking is much lower (Kennedy, Judd, Churchward, Gray, & Krause, 2008). Kennedy et al.’s study is somewhat dated now, given the social networking boom of recent years (the research was conducted in 2006). Even assuming a significant increase in social networking however, Kennedy et al.’s findings indicated significant heterogeneity in students’ technology uses beyond that which the Digital Native idea would suggest:

“While some students have embraced the technologies and tools of the ‘Net Generation’, this is by no means the universal student experience. When one moves beyond entrenched technologies and tools (e.g. computers, mobile phones, email), the patterns of access to, use of and preference for a range of other technologies show considerable variation.” (Kennedy et al., 2008; 117)

Recent evidence from both South Africa (Thinyane, 2010) and the United Kingdom (Jones, Ramanau, Cross, & Healing, 2010) has also supported the lack of homogenous attitude and access to technology from students of the Digital Native age bracket. Particularly in reference to collaborative and co-constructive digital resources (blogs, wikis, or virtual worlds), the case for the Digital Native is underwhelming. Jones et al. (2010) report that of their 534 survey respondents a mere 2% used a virtual world, 12.1% contributed to a wiki, and 21.5% contributed to a blog.

It is also not entirely clear whether specific technology practices (such as social networking or computer gaming) necessarily impact upon virtual world learning in the way purported by the Digital Native idea. Some educators establishing a case for the use of virtual worlds in learning have been swift to capitalise on the transferability of practices implied by the Digital Native idea:

“The communicative, social nature of virtual learning allows students to demonstrate the skills and strategies they have acquired through utilization of social technology tools” (Burgess, Slate, Rojas-LeBouef, & LaPrairie, 2010; 84)

However it is frequently the case that this assumption is not born out in the findings virtual world learning evaluations. Mayrath, Sanchez, Traphagan, Heikes & Triveldi (2007) and Sanchez (2007) discuss student’s experiences of frustration at the counter-intuitive nature of technical control within Second Life. They report that it proved difficult to transfer social practices across technological platforms, and students were not able to quickly master the environment based on their previous engagement with technology. There is supporting evidence of this finding in other instances of virtual world learning also. Herold (2009) echoes the findings of Mayrath et al. (2007) and Sanchez (2007) in observing that many students struggled to grasp the technical functions of Second Life; even those who had previous experiences in computer gaming. In a recent ethnographic exploration of virtual world learning, Petrakou observed that:

“…the virtual world may be a new environment for students, which means that they have to be introduced to a new world with new social norms and rules, new navigation skills and new means of interaction” (Petrakou, 2010; 1024)

Based on reports of some of education’s initial forays into virtual worlds, it would seem that the Digital Native’s ability to quickly grasp the form and function of any digital technology is an egregious generalisation. Even whilst engaging with the terminology and the idea of the Digital Native, one partner from the Theatron virtual worlds project emphasised that “They [students] may be digitally natives but they are not virtual natives” (my emphasis; Childs, 2009; 33).
Other evidence from the virtual world learning literature challenges the definition of a Digital Native by age (or generation) entirely. Daniels-Lee (2009) taught an academic business module that employed Second Life with a substantially positive response from the students involved; albeit with some trepidation about the use of a virtual world in the academic classroom. In this case the students were mature (aged 28-34) and predominantly already in professional practice, barely contained within the most generous estimate of the Digital Native age bracket (i.e. 1980 onwards). Girvan and Savage (2010) trialled the possibility of communal constructivist pedagogy in virtual world learning with 20 professional educators and found that engagement strategies attributed to the Digital Natives were also routinely used by these (older) participants. Conversely, Cheal (2009) taught a technology module using Second Life to undergraduate students aged (on average) 20 years old which received a highly negative response. Over 90% of participants indicated that they would not take another class in a virtual world (Cheal, 2009). Research findings regularly fail to support the generational divide as put forward by the Digital Native idea. There may be an age ‘effect’ that is of interest to us in our understanding of student’s , however it is evidently more complex than a binary opposition of pre- and post-1980 birthdates.

Conclusions

There is little indication in published literature to suggest that proponents of the Digital Native idea have taken stock of either critique or new evidence. Sheely (2008), drawing on Latour’s sociological theory, offers a persuasive account of how the Digital Native concept has progressively stabilised from the little-evidenced viewpoint of one writer to a received or assumed knowledge. In his critique Sheely demonstrates how the notion of the Digital Native quickly became a powerful ‘fact’ almost purely through the influence of authors according it some credence in their academic work (Sheely, 2008). Even the terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrant (Prensky, 2001a) have been criticised as evoking racist, or at least colonial, impressions (Bayne & Ross, 2007), yet they persist within the virtual world learning literature (e.g. O’Connell et al., 2009). It seems that the Digital Native has become a construct (or an illusion, as Sheely puts it) supported primarily by the strength of its own publicity; an evidence-less phantom that proves remarkably resilient in the face of its own academic shortcomings.
Despite objections to the politicised positioning of students by the Digital Native idea, it is still one we must engage with in addressing the virtual world learning literature. Several authors of substantial virtual world projects have invoked the terms or positions of the Digital Native idea in order to justify a case for learning in virtual worlds (e.g. Burgess et al., 2010; Penfold & Duffy, 2010). Sheely argues that the Digital Native is in some ways a helpful illusion because it focuses our attention on elements of student’s values that might best inform our pedagogy: learning through social interaction, seeking relevance and authentic experience, constructing knowledge etc (2008). I would agree with this to an extent, but I have a twofold reservation. Firstly, we must be cautious in presuming that even these values are applicable to all students. Secondly, I believe it would be more helpful to divorce these values from the political baggage of the Digital Native idea entirely, perhaps resituating them into a less controversial frame (perhaps Multimodality; Kress, 2003). Jones et al. (2010) have noted that the use of the term “Millennial” has been more nuanced and sophisticated than the replication of the Digital Native idea, however in light of the evidence it is contentious whether there is need for any such generalistic label at all. In that vein I would advocate exploring empirical and theoretical literature regarding virtual world learning without paying homage to the Digital Native idea as a frame of reference. There are innumerate sociological and pedagogical concepts we can apply to frame the literature without relying on such an academically dubious underpinning as “Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants” (Prensky, 2001a).

References

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Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of educational technology, 39(5), 775-786.
Burgess, M., Slate, J., Rojas-LeBouef, A., & LaPrairie, K. (2010). Teaching and learning in Second Life: Using the Community of Inquiry (CoI) model to support online instruction with graduate students instructional technology. Internet and Higher Education, 13(1-2), 84-88.
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