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Can we please stop taking about Digital Natives

March 16th, 2009 by Graham Attwell

Just finished our latest Jisc Evolve / Educamp online seminar. This one was on the topic of Enterprise 2.0 and featured presentations by Pat Parslow and Willms Buhse. I thoroughly enjoyed Pat’s presentation which should be online tomorrow.
But Willms’ presentation and the subsequent discussion became bogged down over the issue of digital natives (which he defined as anyone born after 1980) although he later agreed that the term was possibly not too useful.
I would go further than that. The term was dreamed up with no research to support it but became popular in the media. OK – these things happen. But it is totally useless for trying to discuss any real development and use of new technologies.
Repeated research has shown that age is not the only or even the main determinate in patterns of uptake and use of technologies for learning and exchange of knowledge. My own modest research into the use of ICT for learning based on case studies in 106 enterprises in Europe suggested that older workers were more likely to use social software for developing and exchanging learning and knowledge. This, we hypothesised, was because they often had more autonomy in undertaking their work and in using learning in the workplace. If that is true, then work organisation would seem to be the most important factor in introducing social software in enterprises. Amd that has nothing to do with digital natives!

6 Responses to “Can we please stop taking about Digital Natives”

  1. Keith Lyons says:

    Thank for this post (accessed via Twitter), Graham. I think the combination of autonomy and experience is very important. 106 cases seems more than ‘modest’ though as a foundation for the discussion!

    Best wishes


  2. Agree with the Digital Natives nonsense, even if the premise had validity (that is the neurological makeup of people exposed to the digital world from a young age in some way are different) it isn’t at all useful in the same way that research into race and intelligence can only be divisive and dangerous.

    However, I don’t necessarily agree with the assertion that “work organisation would seem to be the most important factor in introducing social software in enterprises”. My experience in running large scale (hundreds of students), work-based, online degree programmes is that need overcomes perceived barriers. This is based on working with students with an average age of 40, 80% o them being female – a very unlikely group of technology adopters from a Digital Natives perspective!

    Cheers, Stephen.

  3. Benjamin says:

    “The term [digital natives] was dreamed up with no research to support it but became popular in the media. OK – these things happen. But it is totally useless for trying to discuss any real development and use of new technologies.”

    I´m not sure I would agree that the term “digital natives” is nonsense. Whether biological or social, I think most would agree that technology has changed how Generation Y receives information (i.e., learns) as opposed to earlier generations. If most learners born after 1980 are learning from current technologies and teachers are not tapping into these technologies in delivering information in schools, well, isn’t that a basis for development in teaching and learning circles? This doesn’t necessarily mean that the younger generation is automatically more technologically savvy than the older generation, however. It only means that the younger generation grew up with technology and the older generation did not. It means, in my humble opinion, that teachers that ignore technology are doing a great disservice for not facilitating the development of learners using tools they will certainly need later on. And even if learners have certain technology skills, educators are still needed to design assessment and instruction that provides educative experiences that are aligned to a particular curriculum.

    If the term “digital natives” serves as motivation for teachers to get training on technologies to be used in their classes, I´m all for keeping it in our lexicon. For teachers who already use technologies in their classroom, the delivery method of learning in the future will depend a lot on how the younger generation chooses to use new technologies.

  4. Chris says:

    I’m glad someone with a bit of clout has said this. I think it’s a term, with as you mention no evidence to back it up, which is generally used by people who don’t know what they’re talking about and who will also use a series of other meaningless phrases to make it look as if the do – journalists, policy makers, managers and other pseudo-intellectuals.

  5. Good article, Graham. Really struck a chord. The places of work and education (locus of learning) are far more important than any other more accidental attribute of the individual. There was a real chime with a piece of work done by colleagues at Brookes, similarly calling the “Google generation” into question


  1. […] Attwell makes an important point here, which resonates with work done on university students’ use of the Internet for learning by […]

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