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The term digital native was coined and popularized by education consultant, Marc Prensky in his 2001 article entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, in which he relates the contemporaneous decline in American education to educators' failure to understand the needs of modern students. His article posited that "the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decade of the 20th century" had changed the way students think and process information, making it difficult for them to excel academically using the outdated teaching methods of the day. In other words, children raised in a digital, media-saturated world, require a media-rich learning environment to hold their attention, and Prensky dubbed these children "digital natives". Contextually, his ideas were introduced after a decade of worry over increased diagnosis of children with ADD and ADHD, which itself turned out to be largely overblown. Prensky did not strictly define the digital native in his 2001 article, but it was later, arbitrarily, applied to children born after 1980, because computer bulletin board systems, and Usenet were already in use at the time. The idea became popular among educators and parents, whose children fell within Prensky's definition of a digital native, and has since been embraced as an effective marketing tool. It is important to note that Prensky's original paper was not a scientific one, and that no empirical data exists to support his claims. He has since abandoned his digital native metaphor in favor of digital wisdom.
In his seminal article, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," Marc Prensky defines the term digital native and applies it to a new group of students enrolling in educational establishments referring to the young generation as "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, videos, video games, social media and other sites on the internet. People who were "born digital", first appeared in a series of presentations by Josh Spear beginning in May 2007. A Digital Native research project is being run jointly by the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland. A collaborative research project is being run by Hivos, Netherlands and the Bangalore-based Centre for Internet and Society. The Net Generation Encountering e-learning at university project funded by the UK research councils was completed in March 2010. More recently the Museum of Social Media, launched in 2012, has included an exhibit on "Digital Natives & Friends."
Conflicts between generations
Due to the obvious divide set between digital natives and digital immigrants, sometimes both generations are forced to meet which commonly results in conflicting ideologies of digital technology. The everyday regime of worklife is becoming more technologically advanced with improved computers in offices, more complicated machinery in industry etc. With technology moving so fast it is hard for digital immigrants to keep up.
This creates conflicts among older supervisors and managers with the increasingly younger workforce. Similarly, parents clash with their children at home over gaming, texting, YouTube, Facebook and other Internet technology issues. Much of the world's Millennials and Generation Z members are digital natives. According to law professor and educator John Palfrey, there may be substantial differences between digital natives and non digital natives, in terms of how people see relationships and institutions and how they access information. In spite of this, the timetable for training young and old on new technology is about the same. 
Education, as Marc Prensky states, is the single largest problem facing the digital world as our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language. Digital natives have had an increased exposure to technology, which has changed the way they interact and respond to digital devices. In order to meet the unique learning needs of digital natives, teachers need to move away from traditional teaching methods that are disconnected with the way students learn today. For the last 20 years, technology preparation for teachers has been at the forefront of policy. However, Immigrants suffer complications in teaching natives how to understand an environment which is "native" to them and foreign to Immigrants. Teachers not only struggle with proficiency levels and their abilities to integrate technology into the classroom, but also, display resistance towards the integration of digital tools. Since technology can be frustrating and complicated at times, some teachers worry about maintaining their level or professionalism within the classroom. Teachers worry about appearing "unprofessional" in front of their students. Although technology presents challenges in the classroom, it is still very important for teachers to understand the unique affordances these digital tools have for students.
To meet the unique learning needs of digital natives, Forzani and Leu suggest that digital tools are able to respond immediately to the natural, exploratory, and interactive learning style of students today. Learning how to use these digital tools not only provides unique learning opportunities for digital natives, but they also provide necessary skills that will define their future success in the digital age. One preference to this problem is to invent computer games to teach digital natives the lessons they need to learn, no matter how serious. This ideology has already been introduced to a number of serious practicalities. For example, piloting an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) in the army consists of someone sitting in front of a computer screen issuing commands to the UAV via a hand-held controller which resembles (in detail) the model of controllers that are used to play games on an Xbox 360 game console. (Jodie C Spreadbury, Army Recruiting and Training Division).
Gamification as a teaching tool has sparked interest in education, and Gee suggests this is because games have special properties that books cannot offer for digital natives. For instance, gamification provides an interactive environment for students to engage and practice 21st century skills such as collaboration, critical thinking, problem solving, and digital literacy. Gee presents four reasons why gamification provides a distinct way of learning to promote 21st century skills. First, games are based on problem solving and not on ones ability to memorize content knowledge. Second, gamification promotes creativity in digital natives where they are encouraged to think like a designer or modify to redesign games. Third, digital natives are beginning to co-author their games through the choices they make to solve problems and face challenges. Therefore, students' thinking is stimulated to promote metacognition since they have to think about their choices and how they will alter the course and outcome of the game. Lastly, through online gaming, digital natives are able to collaborate and learn in a more social environment. Based on the literature, one can see the potential and unique affordances digital tools have, such as online games, to meet the unique learning needs of digital natives. Furthermore, online gaming seems to provide an interactive and engaging environment that promotes the necessary skills digital natives will need to be successful in their future.
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Not everyone agrees with the language and underlying connotations of the digital native. The term, by definition, suggests a familiarity with technology that not all children and young adults who would be considered digital natives have; some instead have an awkwardness with technology that not all digital immigrants have. For instance, those on the disadvantaged side of the digital divide lack access to technology. In its application, the concept of the digital native preferences those who grow up with technology as having a special status, ignoring the significant difference between familiarity and creative application.
The term digital immigrant overlooks the fact that many people born before the digital age were the inventors, designers, developers and first users of digital technology and in this sense could be regarded as the original 'natives'. To confuse the prolific (and arguably superficial) use of digital technology by current adolescents as deep knowledge and understanding is potentially misleading and unhelpful to the discourse. The term also discounts the broader and more holistic knowledge, experience and understandings that older generations may have about digital technologies and their potential place in society. Digital immigrants are believed to be less quick to pick up new technologies than digital natives. This results in the equivalent of a speaking accent when it comes to the way in which they learn and adopt technology. A commonly used example is that a digital immigrant may prefer to print out a document to edit it by hand rather than doing onscreen editing.
The classification of people into digital natives and digital immigrants is controversial. Some digital immigrants surpass digital natives in tech savvy, but there is a belief that early exposure to technology fundamentally changes the way people learn. The actual classification of people into immigrants and natives is tricky as the adoption of digital technology hasn’t been a unified phenomenon worldwide. For North America, most people born prior to 1980 are considered digital immigrants. Those closer to the cutoff are sometimes called digital intermediates, which means they started using digital technology in their early teens and thus are closer to digital natives in terms of their understanding and abilities.
The term digital native is synonymous with the term digital inclusion. Being digitally included means that you are innately able in using a smartphone or computer tablets: modern technology has enabled the non-speaking to speak, the non-hearing to hear and the non-seeing to see. Crucially, there is debate over whether there is any adequate evidence for claims made about digital natives and their implications for education. Bennett, Maton & Kervin (2008), for example, critically review the research evidence and describe some accounts of digital natives as having an academic form of a moral panic. concluded that generation does not explain differences in how learners use technology and that there is no empirical research to support claims made by Prensky and other proponents of the idea of the digital native. Using such a terminology is rather a sign of unfamiliarity and exoticism in relation to digital culture. Of course, nobody is "born digital"; as with any cultural technology, such as reading and writing, it is matter of access to education and experience.
It considers that all youths are digital natives in the modern age. However, this is not the case. It is primarily based on cultural differences and not by age. According to Henry Jenkins (2007), "Part of the challenge of this research is to understand the dynamics of who exactly is, and who is not, a digital native and what that means." There are underlying conflicts on the definition of the term "digital natives" and it is wrong to say that all modern age youths are placed in that particular category or that all older adults can be described as digital immigrants. Some adults are more tech savvy than a lot of children, depending on socio-economic standings, personal interests, etc., but as teachers we must include the world outside with which the children are familiar and use it inside the classroom.
The formulation of digital native is also challenged by researchers looking at emerging technology landscapes. The current discourse concentrates largely on developed technology and has a particular bias towards white, middle-class youth who have the privilege of access to technology. Nishant Shah (2009) says, "It is necessary to promote research that grasps that not all Digital Natives are equal. Each context will have certain norms by which digital nativity is understood and experienced. Dismantling the universal Digital Native and considering contextualised Digital Native identities might also help us move away from speaking of the Digital Native as a necessarily elite power-user of technology and understand the identity as a point of departure from earlier technology-mediated identities within those contexts." He also suggests that one way of understanding digital natives is to look at how they use digital technologies to engage with their immediate environments and initiate processes of social and personal change.
It is possible to argue that digitality is not a birth-right but instead a product of cultural capital. According to its originator, Pierre Bordieu, cultural capital is defined as "the possession of certain cultural competencies, bodies of cultural knowledge, that provide for distinguished modes of cultural consumption". Familiarity with technology and ease of use is a form of social capital that allows those who possess it to advance in society.In fact, scholars have commented on the variability of technological literacy in different social groups. In "Communities, Cultural Capital and the Digital Divide," Viviana Rojas calls this phenomenon a person's "techno-disposition." This familiarity with technology is one of many privileges granted by cultural capital. She defines techno-disposition more explicitly as " practices, perceptions and attitudes, technical education, awareness of technology, desires for information, job requirements, social relations with community members and community organizations, and geographical location." One's techno-disposition, not simply one's access to technology, she argues, is at the root of any digital divide.
As we move into the second decade of the 21st century, others are calling into question Prensky’s Digital/Immigrant dichotomy on different grounds. Jones & Shao (2011) recently conducted a literature review for the UK Higher Education Academy which found that there was no empirical evidence of a single new generation of young students. They argued that complex changes were taking place but there was no evidence of a generation gap. The nature of the metaphor itself is challenged, with White and Le Cornu (2011) drawing attention to the difficulties that a language-based analogy introduces, especially when then linked to age and place. They also highlight the rapid technological advances that have been made in the last ten years, most notably in the advent of social networking platforms. White and Le Cornu therefore propose an alternative metaphor of Visitors and Residents which they suggest more accurately represents the ways in which learners engage with technology in a social networking age.
- Digital omnivore
- Generation Y
- Generation Z
- Homo Ludens
- Information society
- Online identity
- Digital addict
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Palfrey: ... people who were born today... may well see relationships differently, they may see institutions differently, ...
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- Video experience on a 20-month-old baby who discovers a touchscreen
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- Digital Learners in Higher Education research project
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Gee, J. P. (2012). The old and the new in the new digital literacies. The Educational Forum, 76, 418-420.
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