The term “digital natives” has led to a paradigm shift in curriculum and pedagogy, causing many educators to see their students in a different light. Teachers need to consider the fact that the world of our students—saturated with technology and abundant with information—is dramatically different from the world of “information scarcity” that we grew up in.
The “digital native” concept has helped me to be more cognizant of my students’ lack of experience with and exposure to older technologies. For example, my high school students have limited experience using book indexes, composing electronic mail, searching online library catalogues and databases, annotating texts, and many are not able to read (or write cursive). The term “digital native” has also reminded me to shift my priorities to new technology training; for example, I no longer teach my Grade 9 students to organize their course binders. Instead, I help them manage their digital files, subfolders and resources.
As mentioned above, however, the label “digital natives” isn’t entirely useful. Educational experts have noted in their criticism of the label that it seems to indicate that “date-of-birth” is the essential criterion for technology awareness. In truth, we are all “digital natives” because of our wholesale digital immersion. I can hardly recall not using the Internet, even though I spent half my life without using it at all. I signed up for my first email account (e-mail then) as an adult in university. Now, technology is as ubiquitous as automobiles, mortgages, and Tim Hortons. Technology is so inseparable from our perception of reality, that we forget that we once functioned happily without it. This is because human beings are incredibly adaptable. We adapt to technological change, absorbing it into our lives as though it was always part of our reality all along. I might redub “digital natives” with the term “digitally acclimatized,” and apply it to almost everyone in Canada (apart from those demographic groups noted in Stanford U’s “digital divide” research, which shows not necessarily a generational divide but a socio-economic one).
This leads to another criticism I have with the implications of the moniker “digital natives” being applied to all young people; my experience as an educator for over fifteen years have taught me that “young people” are not necessarily as tech savvy or tech literate as the label “digital natives” implies. Although our students are growing up in a sea of technology, not everyone can swim. There are still varying degrees of aptitude at all age levels. Some grandparents have no trouble using Facebook or Skype to connect with grandkids; whereas, some students in high school can’t figure out how to insert page numbers or centre a title in a Word document. Add Google docs to the mix, and you might as well be speaking in Greek. I have students who cannot create a blog, upload a video to YouTube, or use a Smartboard. One’s age bracket does not validate or negate one’s “tech savviness.”
The consequence of all of this is simply to say that training learners to use their technology and capitalizing on those students who are tech savvy is becoming as important as teaching learners how to use the language they speak in. Just because you are born into an language-speaking context doesn't mean you know how to speak or write well. I have taught many second language students who were more fluent and erudite than their "native-speaking" peers. The same is true with technology literacy. All learners, whether they are digitally acclimatized or not, still need guidance on how to be effective and efficient with new technologies. This means that teachers themselves need to become tech savvy. For all of you "non-techies" out there... become co-learners with your students and discover the joys (and trials) of living in a technology saturated world.