5 Myths About Digital Natives

By: Tiffany Ford

Today, there are seven billion people on the planet and 363 million of them fall into a demographic called digital native. Digital Native is a term used by Marc Prensky in 2001 that is being used to label the group of students born after the introduction of digital technology. These students have grown up being connected to the world, using touch-screens, and finding new ways to share the experiences they are having. Their devices are almost an extension of themselves and many of the online activities they participate in seem to be centered on narcissism or social activity.

Those of us who grew up in the time before the Internet are not sure how to connect with these new kinds of students. Digital natives often have trouble communicating, consider themselves global citizens without knowing much about the world, and question social constructs like love and dating. Despite what we as professors think we know about digital natives, there are clearly some myths being perpetuated about what these students know about technology and what they expect out of their educational environment.

Myth #1 — Digital natives can use all kinds of technology

Since these students have been using technology in so many aspects of their lives, the assumption is usually made that students are capable of handling technology that has been integrated into their education. This could not be further from the reality. Research into the academic performance of digital native students shows that we are overestimating the abilities of these students and the tasks they normally perform on social media sites do not translate into what we expect them to be able to do with the technology in the classroom. Technology integration can confuse or stress them out if they aren’t sure how to use it. Don’t assume that digital natives can just jump right in on a new piece of software–take the time to explain what they need to know.

Myth #2 — Digital Natives want all content digitally

It’s a common mistake to think that this breed of digital student wants all of their course materials digitally. There are some pros and cons to e-textbooks and some students are still on the fence on whether they prefer traditional books or want digital editions. Don’t fall into the trap of only providing content in one format or content that can only be consumed one way.

Many students who have been using technology to read online want to use digital textbooks in your course. There are a lot of benefits to e-textbooks such as easy searching and variation of presentation, but the big benefit that students like is adaptability. Many e-textbooks allow for the book to be reconfigured based on the information that students need and the items they have already mastered are shown less prominently. This idea of adaptability is appealing since students find textbook reading to be boring or difficult and adaptable books put the key information right where they need it.

Despite the benefits, some students always say they prefer paper textbooks. Some of the reasons students cite for wanting a physical book are: it’s less distracting, reading on a screen creates eye strain, and physical books are more comfortable to use. However, students do like options and some of the new publishing and sales concepts involve giving students access to e-textbooks through online portals or through a code available when purchasing the physical book. Consider making textbook decisions for your course that give students options on the way they get the material.

Myth #3 — Digital native students are aware of their online presence

Despite the fact that these students have grown up tweeting their life experiences and Facebooking with their friends, they are not always aware of their digital presence. During an exercise in my classroom on personal digital safety, students are paired up and try to find as much information about their partner online that they can. Embarrassing photos, unflattering statements, and private information is often uncovered during this exercise. It can be an eye-opening lesson for many students who do not understand that information on the Internet can persist forever, reflecting poorly on them to potential employers.

Myth #4 — Digital natives are lazy

Since as many as 90% of the students in the digital native demographic love video games, it’s easy for professors to get the feeling that they are stereotypical, lazy couch potatoes. This could not be further from the truth. These students are the ones that made games like Dance Dance Revolution so popular! Research shows that while students in this demographic are more likely to question why they are being told to do something, it doesn’t stem from laziness, but a drive to question and negotiate their daily lives. Digital natives are looking for a more active learning environment that models the real world. Remember how they like to question their experiences?

Authenticity is the key to engaging this demographic of students. Try adding a lesson that contains a real-world problem or hands-on activity to get them excited. Active learning lessons can also focus around collaboration and by helping each other, students can solidify course objectives in their own minds.

Myth #5 — Digital natives need a lot of Ed-Tech

Teaching digital natives does not require that you go out and purchase a bunch of new devices or technology for your classroom. This myth seems to come from educational consultants and high-priced speakers who tell us that the only way to reach these students is through the technology they are used to using. Even though I teach computer science, I try to keep the ed-tech to a minimum in my classes simply because it can become very overwhelming for me to maintain and for them to learn. There are also a lot of implications that come from adding technology into your classrooms such as ongoing maintenance costs and questions like: who owns the data the students are uploading? The ed-tech that my students gravitate towards are interactive and support ongoing study. Websites with flash-cards or supplementary activities get most of the attention. Many students want to study through sites that allow easy access and repetition of the study items.

Clearly, there is a fundamental mismatch of expectations taking place between the students we teach and the classes we offer. After China, the U.S. has the largest population of digital natives so it is highly likely there are several in your classroom right now. Between now and 2017, the number of digital natives is expected to double, so it is critical we find ways to bridge this gap and begin to reach these students on a level they are prepared for. In a previous article we looked at how the attention economy is transforming education for digital natives. If we do not re-evaluate our teaching methods we will see the growing trend of disinterested and disengaged students continue to grow. Some fields like Computer Science are already seeing a growing gap between the number of students graduating with degrees in CS and the number of people leaving CS related jobs. If we are not producing graduates with the right skills, hundreds of thousands of jobs will go unfilled.

Some key ways to prepare to connect with digital natives right now are to evaluate the technology in your classroom and review how it’s presented. Look at how you’ve integrated technology into your curriculum and see if you are expecting more from digital natives than they are prepared–or able to give. Consider adding more social or active learning activities that can engage students on a different level. You don’t have to make a lot of drastic changes in your curriculum or pedagogy to make your class more friendly for digital natives. In a time when students have news and content from all over the world 24/7, should we focus on becoming curators of that information instead of trying to bring that flood inside?

Top Hat is designed to connect professors and students in the classroom and to create a more engaged and active learning environment. If you’re interested in a demonstration of how Top Hat can be used in your classroom, click here.

Originally published at blog.tophat.com on September 30, 2015.