The Myth of the Digital Native

Angela McFarlane gave a talk at the Naace 2009 Conference which was quite interesting. The full title of her talk was:

"5 year olds never could program the video -- challenging the myth of the digital native".

That's a pretty good title for an opening keynote. Too many people, including teachers, relegate responsibility for learning how to do interesting or exciting stuff because they limit what they ask the kids to do on the basis of what they themselves can do -- a point which was brought out in a recent inspection report into ICT in English schools.

She made some good points, although I'm not completely convinced that she was correct in all she said. In particular, her assertion (or conclusion) that a third of children are not engaged with technology at all seems to me rather suspect.

The key points of her talk, for me, were as follows:

The "techno-romantics" bandy the expression "digital natives" around, but it can actually act as a barrier to learning and can disadvantage a particular section of young people.

Love that description, "techno-romantics"! I think this is largely true, or potentially so. I cannot tell you the number of times I've had this sort of conversation:

Teacher: "The kids know so much more than I do about this technology."

Me: "Well, even if that's true, surely you know more about teaching and learning, and have more common sense and general knowledge, than they do?"

Why are new technologies not always adopted in schools?

They must have the potential for the following:

  • interaction between people and other people, and between people and the technology;

  • it must support the production of something, ie not be merely passive;

  • must facilitate feedback, with gradated content, and play;

  • Personalisation: being able to personalise the technology, and being able to be connected, are key for getting young people to adopt the technology and become proficient in its use.

One interesting thing that McFarlane said was that devices needed to have a battery that would remain charged up for the length of a school day. Pretty obvious, that, once someone has said it!

She went on to say that a third of the kids in the study she undertook are really engaging with the technology, but that a significant proportion are not engaging with it at all. The "low users" don't know how to use the technology, even if they look like they do.

This sparked off quite a discussion with one of my colleagues. As she said, perhaps the reason that the kids were not engaged is that they weren't interested in what they had been asked to do.

Of course, it could be true.  Steve Woolgar, in Virtual Society?: Technology, Cyberbole, Reality , draws attention to the fact that there are sections of society which do not have the slightest inclination to engage with technology in terms of getting online.

Other pressures

Schools are unable to devote enough time, in extended projects, to enable the process of iteration -- production of content, followed by feedback, followed by amendments to the content -- to be exploited to the full. Teachers are under too much pressure to move on to the next item on the curriculum.

I think this is both true and not true. If a project is rich enough, and the teacher creative enough (and the management supportive enough), you can teach quite a lot of a syllabus from a relatively small range of topics.

The importance of the teacher

McFarlane stated that her research indicates a very strong correlation between the teacher's use of the technology in lessons, and the kids' use of technology outside of school. It is essential for the teacher to model not only how to use the technology, but how to learn effectively.

I thought that was quite an interesting observation. It suggests that, as I think she herself went on to say, that whilst running classes for parents in how to use the technology their kids are using is a good thing to do, it is not enough. Parents should also be taught how to help their kids learn from using the technology. An interesting idea.

What also comes out of this is that the kids who are not enamoured of technology will not be persuaded to change their minds only by having a computer at home through the Home Access programme.

Monitoring young people's use of technology outside school

Schools should do so, says McFarlane, in order to identify those who don't make too much use of technology. I'm not I agree with that. By all means seek to find out what your kids are doing and can do with technology, in order to inform your teaching, as Miles Berry and I have encouraged (see this article for relevant links), but why focus especially on those who don't make much use of it? There is an underlying implicit assumption that there is something amiss, something that needs correcting in these cases (her expression in relation to the Home Access programme, according to my notes, was that kids will not be helped by the Home Access programme alone. Why should the concept of "help" come into this at all?)

In any case, I do wonder how many you'd really find who come into that category.

Working together is not the same as collaboration

McFarlane stated that a lot of so-called collaborative learning is not collaborative at all because kids are not taught how to learn together. That's probably true, but whether they are taught it or not they can still do it: they help each other informally quite extensively from what I've read and found out through surveys.


All in all a stimulating talk, though not one I'd agree with wholeheartedly. The video of the first part of the lecture is below.



Wordle summary:

Wordle: The myth of the digital native