Teaching ‘digital natives’

In 2001, writer and former teacher Marc Prensky coined the term digital native in his book Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. A digital native comes of age after a given technology already has become widespread, while a digital immigrant already is familiar with or used to ‘Technology A’ (say, landline telephones) when ‘Technology B’ (e.g., mobile phones) come onto the scene.

Prensky’s argument is that digital natives view a given technology as comfortable, friendly, knowable, and useful in a way that a digital immigrant to that technology cannot ever understand (he cites the analog of a native speaker’s mastery of a language versus the more limited skilled of others who learned the same language as adults). Although this notion is certainly not without its critics (cf. this article from the British Journal of Educational Technology), it has nonetheless captured the imagination of some educators, parents, and technologists.

Apropos of this debate, The New York Times reports:

Students have always faced distractions and time-wasters. But computers and cellphones, and the constant stream of stimuli they offer, pose a profound new challenge to focusing and learning.

Researchers say the lure of these technologies, while it affects adults too, is particularly powerful for young people. The risk, they say, is that developing brains can become more easily habituated than adult brains to constantly switching tasks — and less able to sustain attention…

But even as some parents and educators express unease about students’ digital diets, they are intensifying efforts to use technology in the classroom, seeing it as a way to connect with students and give them essential skills. Across the country, schools are equipping themselves with computers, Internet access and mobile devices so they can teach on the students’ technological territory.

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