In his article for On the Horizon back in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the terms digital native and digital immigrant. Prensky refers to our students as Digital Natives – “all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” Digital immigrants, on the other hand, are referred to as “those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology.”

Unfortunately, too often is Prensky’s work misrepresented in claims that digital natives are more competent with technology than digital immigrants. This has profound implications when such a sweeping statement is applied in education with learning engagements that assume our young digital natives have a firm grasp on using and applying a wide range of technologies that they were born with. Explicit instruction of how to use a word processing application properly to write an essay or construct a report is commonly lacking in schools, as is instruction to support students in using software competently and effectively to deliver a presentation. Subsequently, there are a lot of our students, our digital natives, using technology poorly and we need to do something about it.

The schools and teachers that have wised up to this shortcoming, have developed vertical articulation documents, such as the ISTE standards, describing the technology skill development that their students should experience as they move through the school. Some school’s have set technology standards for their teachers and provide short courses to support learning mastery of particular skills and applications. Resourceful teachers who work in schools where a more coordinated approach is lacking, have taken it upon themselves to learn the skills necessary, so that they can better support their students with technology. There are schools that have identified students and staff who are experts and can share their skills and train those less competent in developing the necessary skills need to flourish in today’s world.

If we do not tackle this misleading notion that many have formed of the digital native, we will allow them to fall behind in essential skills necessary to be confident participants in society. However, it requires the digital immigrants to take the challenge to learn new things with technology and not opt out.

photo credit: Gideon Burton via photopin cc

Published by Richard Bruford

Richard is currently Secondary School Principal of Suzhou Singapore International School, one of China's leading international schools. He leads workshops across the Asia-Pacific region for the International Baccalaureate in the areas of pedagogical leadership and approaches to teaching and learning. Richard consults with schools on the topics of school improvement and effective implementation and use of technology. With a background in public and independent school education in the UK and Australia, Richard is enjoying his international school adventure in China. He is passionate about developing and supporting educational leaders, as it is essential to improving all schools. Richard is a proud family man and feels lucky to be married to Kim and father of their son Austin. In his spare time Richard enjoys to swim, bike and run and is a now retired football player and coach (with occasional guest appearances)

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  1. We know what we use or what we are taught. Being a digital native means knowing about, and being comfortable with, the possibilities of hardware and software. It implies familiarity with fundamental concepts of interface design and use. However when it comes to heavyweight software use – and office applications are a great example of this, the skills need to be learned and practiced. By analogy with other technologies, being a ‘car native’ implies familiarity with the possibilities of cars – actually learning to drive one does not come automatically!

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