Digital Natives and the Learning Divide


Ever since the term digital native (and its “opposite” digital immigrant) appeared on the radar back in 2001, the question on everyone’s minds is whether there really is a difference in how the former’s brains are wired and, if there is, what are the implications for teaching and learning. Are adult learning and education really so different?

Some would say yes. Others would say no. There is no definitive answer. But research has come a long way since the original publications on the matter, and now we have a clearer picture of how the new generation is different from the previous one. Spoiler alert: it’s about confidence with technology and not much else.

Going back to the theory, an approximate cutoff date for determining whether a person is a native or an immigrant is 1983. This is based on the idea that before 1983, the primary entertainment source for individuals under 18 was just watching TV. But after watching TV, entertainment came from multiple sources, helping them to develop multitasking skills as they switched between the TV and other entertainment sources with ease. This means that this generation was the first to have “hyperlinked” minds.

Putting this in the context of learning and education, this means that traditional models of learning by rote just simply aren’t fast enough for the natives. They need more dynamic models for learning to take place. And this is where technology comes in. Where else can teachers have the world’s knowledge at their fingertips but the internet? And it’s more than just an electronic book. Just think of all the wonderful things that tech-savvy teachers can do to help others learn by using the amazing range of software packages available; a large number of which are freeware simply because the world loves helping people learn.

If the native versus immigrant theory were to be believed, using these tools to complement learning would be useless for immigrants who need one source of information if they are ever going to retain anything. Yet, this doesn’t appear to be the case. Yes, adult learners are generally more resistant to using technology for learning, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t learn using them. It’s a shift in paradigm for them; their expectations of learning have been altered slightly. Let’s remember that changing minds in society takes some time. The recent furore over Jodie Whittaker’s casting as Dr. Who is a testament to that. Accepting changes in education will probably take just as long. Anything that isn’t learning by rote, with lots of homework, isn’t going to be taken seriously, at first. Obviously, the new generation can’t learn if they’re playing all day or doing projects instead of sitting down at a desk and learning the 3 Rs. Or can they?

Whatever generation you look at, there seems to be a common factor: More learning takes place if the learner is enjoying it, if they’re engaged, and if they see the relevance to their lives. Natives, who in theory spend their lives interacting with technology, are engaged when learning by using different technology complements. But they also focus well when they know they have an important exam on the topic. Or even when they collaborate. Adults might not feel as comfortable with an onslaught of technology in the classroom — especially without careful scaffolding by the teacher — but again, they become involved when it’s something of special importance or relevance to them.

Forget catering to alleged hyperlinked minds, the key is to engage learners. And for that, we need to turn to something that is fundamental to us humans: we are social beings. We like collaborating. We like working with a team to beat the other team. Learning by rote and lecturing does nothing to take advantage of this. It never has. Perhaps one of the ways to engage digital natives and their digital immigrant predecessors would be to take advantage of the wide range of competitive games that are so ubiquitous in popular culture and introduce them into the learning environment. No major overhaul needed; just some good, focused teaching. Who needs to reinvent the wheel when a small adjustment of a tire makes it ideal?