“Digital natives” – are we being deceived by appearances?

Marc Prensky describes the (young) generation of ”digital natives” as comprising people who ”(…) are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked.” (Prensky 2001, p. 2). He continues to discuss how many teachers, referred to as ”digital immigrants”, struggle to teach students, who speak a different language (op. cit.).

It is true that many of us adults perceive the younger generations of learners as being far more digitally competent than we are. Watching those lithe fingers race across the keyboard/keys and listening to young people being proficient in a language we had to acquire step by step ourselves might instil a feeling of inadequacy in many of us. We might even ask ourselves whether we have something of value to contribute to these “digital natives” or not? Have we somehow been left behind in the digital revolution?

Giæver, Johannesen et al. (2014, p. 14) discuss the concept of digital competence and how it has evolved over the years in the national curriculum, shifting its emphasis more towards attitudes, understanding and communication rather than software and tools, i.e. the instrumental aspects of digital competence. They also raise a valid question: Has this development resulted in the instrumental aspects of this competence not being properly attended to in Norwegian schools today? (op. cit., p. 16). Do we in fact take our students’ digital competence for granted?

The implementation of technology in various school subjects are meant to support the learning processes of students (Giæver, Johannesen et al. 2014, p.15) and prepare them for future tasks as adult citizens and employees. Collaborative tasks and projects constitute a significant portion of these tasks, and it is thus essential that students achieve a broad understanding of how technology works; how we communicate in various digital arenas. Lacking basic instrumental skills might impede such collaborative processes.

The following example might illustrate this point. In an article discussing formative assessment of writing in English, one of the respondents (a Norwegian eight-grader) commented on the use of the review tool “track changes” in MS Word as follows: “If it said that a word shouldn’t be there, then I could just click on the word and remove it (…) then the bubble thing went away” (Burner 2015, p. 9). Here, the teacher uses a software programme to provide feedback to students, employing a review function widely used in joint projects in most professions. Could it be that the teacher in question has simply neglected to provide (or ensure) instruction in the use of this review function, taking it for granted that the “digital natives” must surely know how?

Being familiar with computers, social media, digital games and mobile phones constitutes an important part of digital competence. We use technology to communicate, learn and interact. Students will, however, be required to master a wide range of basic instrumental skills in their future careers. Software and technology will continue to change, and the most fundamental skill we can teach our students is how to learn, how to acquire new basic skills, i.e. learning strategies. It is not a given that introductory courses will be provided; it might be that the only resources available are the “Help” button and digital manuals. If students do not master the art of self-learning, they might not be able to contribute satisfactorily to the dynamic, project-oriented work processes awaiting them in their future careers.

Teachers might easily take the digital competence, skills and learning strategies of their students for granted. Those quick and nimble fingers, self-assured use of digital language and high level of involvement in social media might in many cases hide a vast lack of knowledge where the most basic instrumental skills are concerned. Food for thought?

Burner, T. (2015). “Formative assessment of writing in English as a foreign language.” Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research: 1-23.

Giæver, T. H., et al. (2014). Digitale verktøy i skolen – ferdigheter, kompetanse, dannelse? Digital praksis i skolen. T. H. Giæver, M. Johannesen and L. Øgrim. Oslo, Gyldendal Norsk Forlag AS: 10-23.

Prensky, M. (2001). “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1.” On the Horizon 9(5): 1-6.


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