Wednesday, 3 April 2019

The Digital-Native-Nonsense

"There are a number of labels to describe the young people currently studying at school, college and university. They include the digital natives, the net generation, the Google generation or the millenials." The concept of the digital native - "native speakers" of the digital language and computers -  is solely based on the criterion when a person was born. Supporters of this notion, such as Prensky, say that those born in the last two or three decades have always interacted with technology, that they "are used to receiving information really fast", prefer their graphics before their text than the other way round, and function best when networking.

Those born before 1980, on the other hand, are so-called digital immigrants. And it gets better: These digital immigrants somehow manage to learn to use technologies but cannot get rid of the past and remain "unable to fully understand the natives". Digital immigrants are, for instance, characterised by a tendency to read manuals before finding solutions online. Prensky draws parallels between digital natives and native speakers (Helsper & Eynon, 2009), the latter being another myth.
(...) linguists, applied linguists and language teachers all appeal to the native speaker as an important reference point and a benchmark for knowledge of a language. But who exactly is the native speaker? Alan Davies, The Native Speaker: Myth and Reality
The native speaker is "a scientific concept, rather than a flesh and blood creature", a social construct. In the 1980s, the non-native speaker was a deficient native-speaker. This notion was called into question in the late 1990s.
In sum, the attempts that have been made to describe the 'native speaker' in applied linguistics are inadequate, and based on unjustified assumptions drawn from flawed 'common sense' conceptions of speakerhood, or the misapplication of a reductive linguistic concept. Whatever the 'native speaker' might be, we have yet to reach a satisfactory scientific description that can be applied not only to concepts, but also to real people, with all their attendant inconsistencies and imperfections. The question Paikeday and his correspondents struggled to answer still stands, leading us to suspect that the 'native speaker' is not a scientific classification at all. Lowe

Back to the digital native, a term that is widely used in both public and political debate. It is, by the way, also frequently used in job advertisements as an obvious code for "we only accept young applicants". It is nothing but "a pretext for age discrimination" (via).
There is a growing body of academic research that has questioned the validity of the generational interpretation of the digital native concept. Those in support of this digital native / immigrant distinction tend to assign broad characteristics (e.g. a specific learning style, amount and type of technology use and / or set of learning preferences) to an entire generation (Bennet et al., 2008) and suggest all young people are expert with technology. Yet, while the proportion of young people who use the Internet and other new technologies is higher than the older population (...) there are significant differences in how and why young people use these new technologies and how effectively they use them (...). Indeed, a number of writers have highlighted the complexity and diversity of use of new technologies by young people which tends to be ignored or minimized in many arguments in support of the digital native.
The line between age and generation is blurred, digital native is about the year of birth rather than the amount of exposure, the experience or expertise with technologies versus the ability to post selfies on social media. This approach has serious implications as it also suggests that a "digital disconnect" between "young" and "old" is inevitable (Helper & Eynon, 2009).

Helsper and Eynon (2009) conducted a survey (n = 2.350) in Britain, analysed the data and came to the conclusion that it
is very clear (is) that it is not helpful to define digital natives and immigrants as two distinct, dichotomous generations. While there were differences in how generations engaged with the internet there were similarities across generations as well mainly based on how much experience people have with using technologies. In addition, the findings presented here confirm that individuals’ Internet use lies along a continuum of engagement instead of being a dichotomous divide between users and non-users. (...)
This research adds to existing research by showing that a generational distinction between natives and immigrants, us and them, is not reflected in empirical data. Therefore, the distinction is not helpful and could even be harmful.
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- Helsper, E. & Eynon, R. (2009). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 1-18.
- images via and via


  1. Replies
    1. Thanks, Kenneth! I've wanted to post this for a while; felt it was necessary ;-)

  2. Thanks for sharing this, very interesting indeed!

    1. Many thanks, Derek! I do hope we will soon get rid of this label; as if we didn't already have enough labels that make little sense.