The Myth of the Digital Native

babyKids today are born with a mouse in their hand, right? They navigate websites intuitively, clicking their way around the Internet with their eyes closed. Their teachers are stuck in the binder-paper-and-#2-pencil routine, while the students go home to blogs, wikis and websites. Our students are the digital natives, while we are the immigrants, relying on pre-teens to show us how to tweet and upload… right?

Well, no, not really. While kids today may be less intimidated by technology than their older teachers, they are no more likely to be competent with technological applications than a child growing up in a kitchen is a competent chef.
A few years ago I decided to introduce my 8th grade students to blogging. I suspected the on-line factor of the assignment would make writing more appealing to these digital natives. I was right about that — they were indeed very excited about posting their work on a blog. However, what I wasn’t prepared for was how much I would need to teach them about basic Internet use. Most of these students were from educated, upper middle class homes, and they had years of online experience, yet they needed plenty of instruction in basic technological applications. As a result, I offer you some myths of our so-called digital native generation:
Myth #1: Students will know how to set up an on-line account.
Whether it’s for e-mail or blogging or shopping, setting up an on-line account is a literacytask that a teenager will not knowinstinctively how to do. Choosing an appropriate user name and a password that can be remembered is not simple; remember when you opened your first account and had to click the “forgot password” link? Teens will need their teacher’s help to:
  • choose a user name. No, “hotchick69″ is not an appropriate user name for an academic e-mail account, but that is what middle school user names look like. It is up to us to teach them the difference between a social e-mail account (kootchiekoo@mail) and an academic one (joe.smith@mail).
  • choose a password. You’ve seen the news — a frightening number of passwords for personal banking accounts are “password.” Or “12345.” Or “qwerty.” Students need direct instruction in how to choose both letters and numbers that they will remember, yet will not be easily stolen. Today it protects their e-mail and blog; tomorrow it will be their bank account and personal privacy.
Myth #2: Students will know how to use e-mail.

emailMy students needed to have an e-mail account in order to join our class blog, but applicants for most e-mail accounts have to enter their birthdate. If they are under 13 years old, they are denied an account. Assuming that my 8th graders would know how to use e-mail was obviously off the mark. They needed explicit instruction in:
  • choosing user names and passwords (see Myth #1).
  • accessing their e-mail accounts. Students would assure me that they had an e-mail account and that they knew how to use it, but then we would go online and the truth was revealed: “Um, it just comes up on the screen at home…” Since their parents usually set up the accounts at home, many of my students didn’t know how to get to the webpage and log-in. They needed explicit instruction in how to access their e-mail home page, and how to log-in to their accounts.
  • sending an e-mail. OK, for real? Surely today’s teens know how to send an e-mail. But here’s the reality: the current generation has bypassed e-mail altogether and opted for social networking, chatting sites and texting in order to stay in touch with their friends. Until now their Internet use has been all about friends, not about school work. So many of them need basic instruction in composing an e-mail, proofreading it and, yes, sending it.
  • sending an e-mail to themselves. I know, pretty obvious, right? But I had students who didn’t realize they could send an e-mail to themselves. Since this is a surefire way to save a document in progress, our students should know how to do it.
  • attach a document. Again, this was a great way to save their document when their flash drive failed, yet many didn’t know how to attach their latest document to an e-mail. A simple task to teach.
Myth #3: Students will know that school work posted on a blog should meet academic standards.

One would think that if a teacher assigns it, students will know that “OMG… JK… textc u l8r” would not be appropriate. But if they have only used their computer for chatting, they may not realize that yes, all 26 letters of the alphabet are indeed on the keyboard. Integrating technology into schoolwork actually provides a nice opportunity to teach our students the difference between informal (chatting, texting) and academic writing. In fact, I think that students today are writing MORE than teens of my generation did. Instead of trading gossip verbally on the phone, my students are writing their gossip on a tiny screen on a cell phone. It is up to us to make sure they understand the difference between chatting with their friends and posting an academic piece.
Myth #4: Students will know that their comments on a blog are seen not only by their peers, but also by their teacher (and possibly parents).

If their computer use has primarily been chatting one-on-one and texting with friends, teens today may not realize that comments posted on a blog post are seen by anyone who happens to stumble across that website. While teens take great pleasure in commenting back and forth on their classmates’ work, they often forget that their comments are visible for all the world to see. Students need to know that anytime they comment on a post, the website will record the origin of the comment. The temptation to bully other students on a blog is great; students may feel anonymous when they are posting behind a computer screen in the safety of their home. Teachers who bring blogging to their students need to be clear about this up front so that students aren’t caught after the fact.
Myth #5Teens today are using the Internet to expand their world.

techteenThe potential for expanding one’s world via the Internet is infinite: websites, blogs, wikis and nings allow us to meet, talk to, exchange ideas with and learn from people from all over the world, not to mention read about and view local and international news items as they are happening. But are teens today taking advantage of the word-wide-ness of the web? I don’t think so.
In my own home, reading the newspaper is a daily breakfast ritual. My own children started by reading the comics, and gradually worked their way up to reading articles they found interesting. But just when their little world should have grown through reading newspapers and websites, social networking exploded on the scene. Instead of going online to expand their world, they logged on to MySpace, Facebook and YouTube to see what the kids at school were saying, to watch videos that their friends liked, to reinforce their social circles. The Internet replaced the breakfast table newspaper, and their sphere of influence was reduced to the people they were already seeing at school everyday. Kids today use the Internet to socialize; they need to be taught how to take advantage of the web for discovering people and places and ideas outside of their own.
Although my students and I ran into these myths when we started our own class blog, we found the benefits of blogging far outweighed the missteps we took. Now I blog with my students with our prior year’s myths demystified. Next week, for instance, we will take time to read and understand Google’s G-mail Terms of Use agreement… after all, it’s only 17 pages of tech-speak and legalese. No problem.
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6 thoughts on “The Myth of the Digital Native

  1. Tara Nuth Kajtaniak says:

    Myth #6: Teens know how to find good information on the internet.

    Students do not know how to employ search engines and evaluate the credibility of websites used for research. No, you cannot cite about.com. They need to be taught explicitly and thoroughly.

  2. This holds true at the community college level as well, but it is tough convincing the administration and IT folks of this. My colleagues go on and on about how many messages their students send and receive daily via their cell phones, but my students have to learn to check their email accounts because they are so conditioned to using instant message features. New technologies are introduced every year it seems, but training sessions are sorely lacking. And I completely agree with Tara that they simply don’t understand how to tell the difference between credible and questionable sources.

  3. susan hirsch says:

    This is great. This determination becomes a manual for both student and teacher alike. No moralizing or proselytizing. These are the issues that unattended are the barriers separating a great idea from realization.
    And, crystal clear, a model of what expert teachers do–you– and a lead into how we can do it too.

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