The death of the digital native

“The ‘digital native’ is a generational metaphor. It’s a linguistic metaphor. It’s a ridiculous metaphor. It’s the notion that there is a particular generation of people who are fundamentally unknowable and incomprehensible.”

So says Donna Lanclos, an anthropologist working with ethnographic methods and analysis to inform and change policy in higher education. See her at Jisc’s Digital Festival 2016, 2–3 March.

Original post on the Jisc website.

The original formulation even posited that there is something biologically different about the brains of these so-called digital natives, because of their early and frequent interaction with particular types of technology. It’s not true and anybody who connects with students and members of academic staff in any kind of practical way knows that people who engage with technology are not motivated by their age category.

Dangerous assumptions

There are very real dangers in adhering to this sort of generational narrative of disconnection — it’s an argument that says we’ll never understand them and, furthermore, that we cannot teach them.

There are policy implications: if your university philosophy is grounded in assumptions around digital natives, education and technology, you’re presupposing you don’t have to teach the students how to use tech for their education. And, furthermore, it will never be possible to teach that faculty how to use that technology, either on their own behalf or for their students.

So you’ve set up at least two different barriers. You’ve set up a student barrier and you’ve also set up a barrier for members of academic staff who are then being fed a line about how they’re dinosaurs and will never get it. It cuts both ways and it’s disenfranchising across the board.

Visitor and resident

A very different paradigm is ‘visitor and resident’. Instead of talking about these essentialised categories of native and immigrant, we should be talking about modes of behaviour because, in fact, some people do an awful lot of stuff with technology in some parts of their lives and then not so much in other parts.

Each person’s choices are embedded in a very particular context and each person is going to have different reasons for that behaviour. And that’s going to inform the nature of their practice. That’s going to inform the frequency they’re in that place. Indeed, it’s going to influence whether they think of the internet as a tool or a place.

Give people freedom

The workshops we’re developing with Jisc are around helping people to visualise their practices so that if they do want to change, at least they know where they’re starting from. It’s so much more empowering a metaphor than native/immigrant. It’s about what you do and why you do it, not about who you are as a person. It takes some of the value judgements out of descriptions of modes of behaviour.

They are descriptions of a range of possibilities and I like the idea of giving people the freedom to figure out where they fit in that range of possibilities instead of categorising and pigeonholing them and making them feel limited based on some kind of bogus identity category.

The views expressed by contributors are theirs alone and not necessarily those of Jisc. You might not agree with everything that the contributors say but you are guaranteed to read something that will raise questions and spark debate while you’re at Digifest — and beyond.

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