Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

via flickr: Some rights reserved by foreverdigitalAn oft-discussed topic in education right now is whether students who have grown up with computers and the Internet learn differently than earlier generations and, if so, whether the academy must change instructional traditions to accommodate their new learning styles.

Popular press on the matter claim that "digital natives" have a natural aptitude to use networked technologies, possess new and exciting skills such as the ability to multitask, and hold sophisticated knowledge and information literacy because of the contemporary web culture in which they live. These unique abilities are due to lifelong exposure to computers--the first generation to be born into the Web. The prominence of these technologies in the lives of young people forces some to believe these claims prima facie, but education researchers are increasingly finding contradictory evidence.

Surveys conducted by a number of university researchers show that "digital natives" appear to have surprisingly superficial understanding of new communication technologies, especially the how and why that underlie them. Studies also find that students use these technologies primarily for very limited and mundane purposes, and have weak information-seeking and analytical skills. As Hargittai (2010) and colleagues concluded at the end of their study on how university students find and evaluate web content: "While some have made overarching assumptions about young people's universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them (e.g., Prensky, 2001; Tapscott, 1998)...empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position."

A key claim made about digital natives is that they're able to multitask effectively. It's a conclusion based on observing young people frequently doing many things simultaneously: texting, surfing the Internet, chatting on a mobile phone, while (ostensibly) studying. Similar to other claims, the research on multitasking consistently belies conventional wisdom. Recent studies (included in the footnotes below) show that when people undertake more than one complex task at a time, they do so less efficiently than if they did the same tasks serially. This is especially true when it comes to studying for school. There are also new data about open laptops in the classroom and the negative impact they can have (when used for multitasking) on lesson retention and understanding.

Various emerging technologies have the potential to improve education in specific ways because they enable new modes of thought, new paths of discovery, and rich new engagements between people and the content, not because of special new attributes of today's students. It is misguided to adopt classroom technologies simply because "digital natives" find comfort there. Rather, when technologies are used to accomplish specific educational goals (such as performing a close reading of a text or object, interacting directly with complex relationships among concepts in order to understand them better, or generating experiential knowledge by allowing students to make mistakes in a safe, simulated space) educators may find many new teaching and learning successes that would not have been possible in the past.

For a more thorough analysis of this topic, see Tucker Harding's presentation on digital natives and digital immigrants from the New Media in Education Conference on Oct 22, 2010:



Further Reading

Digital Natives - the following articles argue that the digital natives debate is being shaped by a "moral panic" rather than empirical evidence and that, in fact, there has not been a generational break from the past. However, they admit that there are new issues (e.g. concepts of identity, privacy, and addiction) and that this generation will use digital tools to do terrific and, perhaps, fundamentally "different" things.

Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The 'digital natives' debate: a critical review of evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39:775-786

Jones, C. and Czerniewicz, L. (2010), Describing or debunking? The net generation and digital natives. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26: 317-320. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00379.x

Palfrey, John G. & Urs Gasser (2008). Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. Basic Books.

Tapscott, Don (2002). Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. McGraw-Hill, Inc., New York, NY, USA.

Mutlitasking - These articles debunk the idea that digital natives have an innate ability to complete multiple tasks at one time. In fact, they argue, that a student's ability to do any task declines with distraction to the point where it is more efficient and effective to do them separately.

Gorlick, Adam (2009). Media multitaskers pay mental price, Stanford study shows

Fleming, Nic (2010). Using Facebook 'can lower exam results by up to 20%'

Public Broadcasting System (PBS). The Digital You: Attention, Multitasking and Addiction

Steven H. Appelbaum, Adam Marchionni, Arturo Fernandez, (2008) The multi-tasking paradox: perceptions, problems and strategies, Management Decision, Vol. 46 Iss: 9, pp.1313 - 1325

Laura L. Bowman , Laura E. Levine , Bradley M. Waite , Michael Gendron (May, 2010). Can students really multitask? An experimental study of instant messaging while reading, Computers & Education, v.54 n.4, p.927-931

L. Mark Carrier , Nancy A. Cheever , Larry D. Rosen , Sandra Benitez , Jennifer Chang (March 2009). Multitasking across generations: Multitasking choices and difficulty ratings in three generations of Americans, Computers in Human Behavior, v.25 n.2, p.483-489

Laptops in the Classroom - laptops in the classroom can be a boon for students who wish to research a discussion immediately, but they also put up a (literal) wall between student and teacher and often offer more distractions than benefits. These articles explore how the ubiquitous portable computer affects the classroom experience.

Carrie B. Fried (April 2008). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Comput. Educ. 50, 3, 906-914. DOI=10.1016/j.compedu.2006.09.006

Helene Hembrooke, Geri Gay, H. (2003-09-01). The laptop and the lecture: The effects of multitasking in learning environments. Journal of computing in higher education, 15(1), 46-64.doi:10.1007/BF02940852

Christian Wurst , Claudia Smarkola , Mary Anne Gaffney (December, 2008). Ubiquitous laptop usage in higher education, Computers & Education, v.51 n.4, p.1766-1783,

Information Literacy - just because today's students use a plethora of new technologies on a daily basis, that does not mean that they know how to use them skillfully. These articles explore the misplaced confidence that some students bring to their ability to learn and research online.

Britt, M. A., & Aglinskas, C. (2002). Improving students' ability to identify and use source information. Cognition and Instruction, 20(4), 485-522.

Fallows, D. (2005). Search engine users: Internet searchers are confident, satisfied and trusting--but they are also unaware and naïve. Washington, DC: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

Flanagan, A and Metzger, M (April 2007). Bibliography on Web / Internet Credibility. University of California, Santa Barbara