Are all the children we teach really digital natives?


Ozge Karaoglu – English teacher, Foreign Languages Department K-12 technology integration specialist, author and freelance teacher trainer – explores the belief that implementing technology is easier with young people.

The term “digital native” was coined at the beginning of this century. It reflected the idea that young people today have grown up in a digital, media-saturated world. According to the theory, these young digital prodigies should have a different way of looking at online technology and different expectations and comfort levels when it comes to the role of technology in their learning. They are connected multi-taskers who are the native speakers of the new digital world, and their expertise extends to computers, video games, the internet, and all the latest social and mobile technologies. We assume that they must somehow have a naturally deeper knowledge and understanding of all of these technologies compared to so-called “digital immigrants”, people like their teachers who weren’t born into this technology and were forced to learn it.

But are they really… native?

In fact, after integrating new technology into my lessons with young learners over the past few years, I’ve discovered that it’s sometimes wrong to assume that our kids are more tech-savvy than we are just because they’ve grown up in an evolving high-tech world surrounded by digital gadgets.

Of course it’s true that many children these days have a rich and varied digital life – they know how to use a lot of different devices and probably couldn’t imagine a world without them. In this context, it seems only rational that we should be integrating more technology into our lesson plans and curriculum. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really work in practice. Teachers are frequently disappointed when bringing new technology into the classroom. It doesn’t take them long to realise that the students aren’t as savvy as they thought and that the integration of the technology isn’t as simple as they had hoped.

Some stumbling blocks to the easy integration of technology in the classroom are:

  • Unrealistic student expectations: When technology is brought into the classroom, students often assume that they’ll be doing the same things as they do outside school, like playing games, checking their Facebook page or listening to music. So they’re often disappointed when they realise they’ll still be doing schoolwork!
  • No email address: Many students, especially younger ones, don’t have an email address or even know how to get one. As it’s nearly impossible to set up and use most apps without an email address, this is a real practical problem.
  • Poor password management: Most students don’t know how to manage their account passwords. Often they’ll forget them or write them down in a notebook, which isn’t very safe. They also don’t tend to know what constitutes a good password.
  • Other logistical problems: Even though we call these students the “app generation”, they often don’t know what an “app” is or how one works. This can lead to an inability to log in (or even know what “log in” means or the difference between logging in and signing up) or to use very basic features such as giving permission to an app to record your voice or even taking a screenshot.
  • Poor digital hygiene: Young students often don’t understand privacy and staying safe online and may allow an application to access all their photos and videos without questioning what this means. They may also have problems grasping the idea of a “digital footprint” and appreciating the permanence of information posted online.
  • Avoidance of critical thinking: One thing they probably do know how to use is a search engine, and they will often just “Google” the answer to a question and copy/paste what they found without considering whether everything Google offers us is true or not.
  • Cursory understanding of application features: Perhaps for the reason that many apps are deceptively easy to use, students often don’t go into much depth when using them, so they never really learn how these apps can assist their work.

So, it turns out that these digital natives aren’t really very tech-savvy at all! They may have certain skills that previous generations didn’t, but they certainly don’t magically know everything they need to know about technology. A more appropriate moniker for them
 might be “tech-comfy” because (unlike many adults) they aren’t afraid of new technology 
and welcome it as integral to their lives. In practice, what we tend to see is that students
 are savvy with very particular uses of technology, for example, listening to music, using Snapchat, Facebook or playing Minecraft. In and of itself, that does not make them tech-savvy, and their comfort is not a guarantee of success.

Download our Fact or Fiction report to find out how Ozge thinks teachers – and others – can help children become powerful and savvy users of technology. Plus much more about English Language Teaching.

Join the conversation on Twitter and Facebook by using #ELTmyths

In this article