Who just said, “digital natives?”

It has now been 14 years since Marc Prensky first used the term “digital natives” to refer to people born after 1980, never having known a world without the internet, and social and digital technologies. (Prensky, 2001) Since then, much has been said and written mostly to debunk assumptions which arose about said natives, namely that they would be arriving at school, or at least at middle school, already wisely blogging and tweeting their way to scholastic success. These students, it was claimed, would demand that their learning be peppered with wise use of technology and pedagogies to match and would shun Luddite teachers and educational institutions.

University of Leicester Medical students - one iPad per student
University of Leicester Medical students – one iPad per student

Except that it didn’t quite happen that way. To quote Jones and Shao, “There is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet” and “The development of university infrastructures, such as new kinds of learning environments … should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding.” (Jones & Shao, 2011, p. 1, 2).

So what presuppositions about technology in learning, if any, are held by students in 2015? I would like to look more closely at Jones’ and Shao’s literature review “The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education,” in which they examine data from 15 nations and come up with some general points. I relate some of these points below, which I comment on especially in the light of work I’ve done with Dr Alison Fox of University of Leicester, in looking at pupils’ and teachers’ use of social media. (This work was with school pupils of various ages, so younger than the HE group Jones and Shao were looking at.)

1. Net Generation and Digital Native imply a homogeneity which belies the complexity of changes which are actually taking place amongst students. So, there is definitely something happening with students and learning technology, but it’s complicated.

2. These changes include an “age-related component” which shows up most clearly in use of technology’s newest trends, for example, creation of multimedia for YouTube, use of Facebook, heavy use of mobile devices. I can echo this. When speaking with (primary and secondary) pupils’ of their use of social media, they mentioned Facebook, their own YouTube channels as well as Instagram and also Snapchat. I could not compile figures for percentage ownership of smartphones and tablets, but it is definitely high and growing, especially in light of the many UK schools adopting one-tablet-per-student programmes.

3. Students’ use of technology is largely dependent on the requirement the teacher places on the use of technology. I would echo this too, at both the school and university level. In University of Leicester Medical school, undergraduate years one and two have been given iPads by the university, and were given basic direction to download and read and annotate their course materials on the iPad. With very few exceptions, students enthusiastically adopted iPad use for this and many other learning uses that they came up with as term progressed. I can easily imagine a scenario in which the iPads were given out with no real direction for their use in learning, and students could have just used them for their own entertainment and nothing more. But because teachers encouraged their use for learning in some specific ways, it worked. Also, in a sixth-form college Alison and I worked with, teachers began using Twitter to encourage independent learning among pupils, who for the most part happily followed their teachers’ lead and tried to use Twitter to prepare for A levels and for help in writing their personal statements.

4. Students do not naturally use wikis, blogs, or platforms such as Second Life (is Minecraft a contender in virtual world learning?). But if the teacher tells them to use these things as part of a module, and explains why they should use them, students are generally happy to use them and can learn from using them. Well of course, no surprises there! For that matter, what student naturally uses Blackboard before we tell them to use it? But they will use Blackboard if we tell them, and especially if we give them well-considered ways to use it. And if that’s true for Blackboard, why not for something more interesting and creative which we might like them to try? On the other hand, I don’t have evidence for this, but I suspect that the number of students coming into the university already blogging is slowly rising…. simply because schools are making more use of blogging and other social tools.

Overall, I think as we go forward, pupils and students cannot but become more proficient in the use of technologies and platforms, but will still need enlightenment and direction in their use for learning. This is part of growing up and taking ownership of their own learning, as well as learning how to communicate and present themselves publicly. We can help students get the idea that these tools, which are now mainstream, can help them academically and professionally and should be utilised to their advantage. To miss out such tools leaves an educational gap.

Terese Bird, Leicester Learning Institute, University of Leicester

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The net generation and digital natives: implications for higher education, York, [online] Available from: http://oro.open.ac.uk/30014/1/Jones_and_Shao-Final.pdf (Accessed 17 January 2015).

Prensky, M. (2001) “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1,” On the Horizon.


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