Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Digital Natives Revisited

About a month ago I said I was writing about Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (Digital Natives: Fact Or Fiction?). This was the start of the writing project that caused me to put my life on hold (We interupt this service...) but as I said (Normal service will now be resumed...) I got there and thought it was time I told you some of what I found.

When I first heard the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant idea I was really taken with it. It has been criticised (quite rightly) as being an inadequate, incomplete or even misleading description of what can be observed but you have to remember that it is a metaphor. When the phrase “Digital Native” is introduced, almost immediately the hearer will start to make connections with examples from their own experience. However, like all metaphors, it can break down when asked to support too many concepts. As a shorthand for introducing ideas such as the technology rich world in which young people live it works. As a way of stimulating debate on educational issues related to teaching technically proficient students, it has been very useful. However, to use it to extrapolate that everyone born after a certain date is a competent and confident user of technology is probably pushing the metaphor past breaking point. Where the metaphor is used to make less confident young people feel inadequate or to provide an excuse for the disinclined (see Jenkins), the metaphor has ceased to be useful.

Therefore, as I said, I wanted to look for evidence of Digital Natives in the PGDE(S) cohorts of student teachers. However, I expected from Rebecca Eynon's presentation at CAL 2009 that other factors would be important in predicting student attitudes to and uses of technology. Specifically at age, previous experience and breadth of use.

When I analysed the results, I wasn't surprised that experience and breadth of use were important but I was surprised at how unimportant age seemed to be. In fact on a couple of occasions, the older students expressed more Digital Native like opinions than the younger students. I hope to formally publish the findings elsewhere, so I'll just mention a couple of the things that surprised me just now.

It appeared that older students enjoyed learning to use a computer more than younger students. This seems counter intuitive since it might be expected that digital immigrants would dislike having to learn how to use new technology and resent the difficulty and effort that they have to put in to do what Digital Natives are supposed to be able to do without effort. Part of the explanation however may be that it is a non-issue for younger students. Do children "enjoy" learning to walk or is this just something they do and what they enjoy is the increased mobility and independence walking brings? Perhaps learning to use a computer is something younger students just do and what they enjoy is what this allows them to achieve.

I was also surprised by how many younger students' experience of technology seemed to coincide with the start of their undergraduate degree. There were 24 of the youngest group of students (12%) who had four years or fewer of experience with using computers. While this is not a huge number of students, it shows that we should not assume all young people are familiar with computers and confident in their use of technology. Perhaps it also says something about the use of ICT in secondary schools that so many could have come through school education apparently untouched by technology.

There's much more of note but I think that will do for now. :-)


Krysia said...

Interesting stuff, David. I look forward to you being able to publish your work. How many students did you sample altogether?

David said...

There were over 450 this year and I had five years worth with similar sized cohorts. Thank goodness for statistics applications that could do the hard number crunching for me!

Steph Disbury said...

Great reading.
I made a dreadful mistake with an S1 maths class last week. I handed out graphic calculators and expected them to be flying through their mental maths practice games within minutes. Instead, as punishment for my unforgivable assumption, I spent the whole lesson explaining how to turn it on and which buttons to use.

Our new cohorts may well be familiar with 'technology' but we must remember that they probably won't be experts unless we continue to point them in the right direction.

David said...

As a Computing Science undergraduate I once spent the best part of half an hour trying to turn on a microcomputer before having to admit defeat and sheepishly ask for help. :-)