The term “digital native” – popularised by education consultant Marc Prensky in his 2001 article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants – refers to people born after 1980-1984, who are thought to be more proficient with technology than those who came before them and had to acquire all necessary familiarity as adults.
Since then, many people came to see the general idea behind the term as self-evident and requiring no further elucidation. Insurance companies and even many schools and universities went on to adopt various policy changes to cope with kids and young adults born in the digital age.
A new research review by Paul Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere (published recently in the journal Teaching and Teacher Education), however, challenge this notion by showing that most young people are no more tech-savvy or different in any significant way than people born after the advent of digital technology.
Studies show that “digital natives” are no better at retrieving, seeking and assessing information – their knowledge is usually limited to basic office suite skills, emailing, texting, social media, and surfing the Internet.
People born even later – in 1994 and 2004 – do not fare any better. While they do use a larger quantity and variety of technologies, they use them primarily for personal empowerment and entertainment, rather than for content creation, interaction with others and the sharing of resources.
With this in mind, the authors note that “the skills and competences attributed to this generation of students are the same as any other skills and competences, namely that they need to be properly taught and acquired before they can be applied”.
The study also shows that people do not actually rely on different “learning styles” (tackled in the 2011 literature review commissioned by the Higher Education Academy, UK) and challenges the notion that young people are capable of “multitasking”.
Literature on the latter is also clear – due to the cognitive architecture of the human brain, multitasking (understood as the capacity to carry out several different objectives at the same time) is simply impossible. One might be somewhat adept at rapid “task switching”, but that does not constitute multitasking and is actually harmful in several different ways.
The authors propose educational policy-makers to rely more on research than “common sense” notions that can do more harm than good.
The full text of the paper can be accessed on Science Direct before 04 August.