Living with Digital Natives and their Technologies

from Educators' eZine

Attending a recent conference dealing with Boys Literacy, I was happily surprised to find that many of the solutions presented involved technology, and not just for their gimmick value. A range of educators had all reached a similar place of integrating technology to increase engagement and learning, no easy task.

These same educators, however, all seemed to have picked up Mark Prensky’s idea of distinguishing teachers from students with his terms “Digital Native” and “Digital Immigrant.” We heard those terms several times, and they elicited nods of recognition as well as collective sighs. It was if those who considered themselves Digital Immigrants now had a name for their ‘condition’ that excused them for being outside the new world created by the Information revolution. Terms such as these, when used broadly, can end up causing harm if they are accepted as mono-cultural, rather than just as useful lenses through which to see current issues.

Many of the presenters also spoke about inclusive practices and taking into account the damage that separating out one group can do. So, as educators, let’s not create a them-and-us mentality when it comes to technology in the classroom. When a show of hands was solicited in one session asking who understood the meaning of several newer ICT terms, only about one in ten responded. If you fear you may have been one of those excluded, you can start gaining a passport to the world of the ‘Digital Native’ right away. ‘But how’ you may ask? Outlined below are just ten names/sites/programs/devices that currently mark the digital world in which our students exist. The socialising technology of Tamagotchi is nothing compared to the revolutionary nature of these:

Nintendo DS: I’ve sighted this handheld gaming device several times in the playground of my school. The Nintendo name may be familiar to you, but the DS is something else, and, rather than the usual shoot-em up games associated with such devices, Nintendo’s tend to have less-violent characters, such as Mario.

The DS opens like a clam- shell, has Dual-Screens (hence the name), a built in microphone and packs a PDA-like stylus (kids’ toys are growing up). Its unique features means it can offer software like ‘Nintendogs’, a digital pet game where users view the top screen, can tap commands on the lower screen, and even speak commands to their pet. It also has wireless capabilities for messaging other users with the unique write and draw ‘Pictochat’. Watch for the new ‘brain age’ game full of puzzles and brain-challenges.

With a street price of around $180, and a new, more compact model on the way (the DS lite), this is one device guaranteed to be high on the wish list of most students, girls included. Launched only it seems like yesterday, Myspace is an all in one Webpage service with over 50 million users worldwide. That’s more than the population of some countries! It provides a free (but with advertising displayed) homepage where you can have a blog, photo gallery, songs etc. displayed. This is one of the sites whose combination of many features is increasingly being described as an example of Web 2.0.

With so many users, it is also a community unto itself where one can easily get in contact with other people who have the same music or hobby tastes. You can view other peoples ‘profile’ or homepages and even leave comments or add someone whose site you like as a ‘friend’. It’s been hugely popular with high school students overseas (although the minimum age requirements have recently been tightened due to concerns about Net predators) and there is now an Australian-hosted chapter to further add to the phenomenon. A free photo-sharing site where you can search for images on any topic imaginable – all uploaded by people just like yourself. The breadth of images available is quite staggering – one of my favourite sections is the one-letter and number group where people all over the world have uploaded pictures of single letters and numbers taken from signage, and advertising. One can then go to an associated site and spell out words or sentences using the hundreds of various pictures.

There is a monthly limit on the free account for how many megabytes you can upload, but no total limit on how many images one may have. (There is also a Pro account available with no limits).

Like MySpace, its members number in the many millions. You can comment on the photos you like, and in turn have yours viewed by others from the flickr community. The site keeps a record of how many times your photos have been viewed, and you can add friends, join groups based around photo themes, and even send internal Emails to other members. Again, the emphasis is on the creation of a social space. A free video-sharing website doing for video what flickr has done for photos. Upload your holiday or podcast video and instantly have access to a potential audience of over 35 million other users. The site keeps track of how many times your collection has been viewed, and who has rated your creations with stars, or left you a message.

Fitting in perhaps with the reality TV trend that so many students seem to love, it really is a ‘power to the people’ site, where the most viewed video (close to 3 million) is from a comedian parodying different dance styles. Recently a British singer has gained a record deal and top-ten debut solely by building a huge fan base with video recordings of herself performing. It has even become a site for ‘street’ journalists who record video of important events, speeches and the like and upload it so it becomes immediately accessible to anyone around the globe.

RSS: Really Simple Syndication. With so many news and info-tainment web diaries (blogs) and podcasts being published these days, it’s easy to do a Google search and find someone writing just about that obscure hobby you have. RSS was developed for use on handhelds or laptops in the pre-always-on internet days so that news could be downloaded when one was connected and read later, but now is used as well to keep track of audio and video podcasts.

With RSS software you can paste in an RSS address and set your computer to automatically download the blog or podcast entries as they are published. Podcasts can be searched at many sites including from within iTunes, which will keep your ‘feeds’ organised and updated for loading onto a portable mp3 player for later listening or viewing.

Skype: Like the sound of free phone calls? Skype software (in conjunction with a microphone) allows you to call any other Skype user for free using an Internet connection. Like the IM (instant messaging) craze in which many students spend their home hours participating, it’s a way of communicating with their friends that doesn’t add $ to the family phone bill. Skype even has the option to purchase call credits and call landline phones at discounted rates.

Xbox Live: Ok, you know the Xbox is a gaming machine, but it now comes with an Internet connection to the Microsoft Live service. Xbox Live “provides voice communications [and] … a console-related friends list of other selected online players, as well as a messaging system of either text or voice messages” (taken from As long as you are signed in to Xbox Live, while either playing a game, watching a DVD (with the DVD playback kit) or navigating the dashboard, you have access to view all your friends, see what your online friends are doing, and send messages via the dashboard or the Xbox 360 guide. You can send either written messages or voice messages to other players, even if they aren't online.

Leapfrog: A maker of game and quiz inspired education toys - everything from talking storybooks to handhelds that mimic adult PDA’s. They seem to have found a way to make basic learning tasks fun, and at a decent price point too. Their audience base begins at about three and up, but for school-age children they market the ‘Leapster’ handheld which accepts cartridges like a Nintendo but with a more educational bent.

iPod: Ok, you know it plays music. But these days, an iPod (or other mp3 player) can play video, display maps and images, and hold your calendar and address data. It can hold literally thousands of podcasts, becoming a portable audio (or video) library with accessible information on the hundreds of topics on which podcasts are now produced. It can also be used to record audio for later moving to a pc for using in producing your own podcast!

There are many uses that a creative teacher can make of these capabilities. For example, educational videos or school-slideshows can be displayed directly on the classroom TV or data-projector without the need for a Laptop or DVD player. Interactive step by step guides can be produced with hyper-linked sections that can be taken on field trips or even used to facilitate independent learning tasks.

The iPod is also about a new concept that is revolutionizing modern life – that being the ability to carry previously unimagineable amounts of music, video and data in your pocket. For adults who have spent years carefully building up a CD or a video collection, the concept of it all fitting into one pocket-sized rectangle may seem hard to grasp, but it is something that today’s kids are already used to.

Keen readers who have got this far will have noticed just how many of the current technologies mentioned above have something to do with social networking. I have had conversations with parents recently who are concerned that computers are stopping today’s kids from interacting with their peers. These same parents also marvel at how their children’s use of Email and instant messaging means they now know more about what’s happening with other family members (via their computer-using children) than they ever did before. In a world of sometimes increasingly fractured families, this is one positive of technology worth noting.

There are ways for teachers to also make use of students’ affinity for this networking technology. I have just begun encouraging students to Email me their written work as computer files so I can correct them whenever I have time, an innovation too which they have taken well. Students working on group projects can message their notes to each other, and if each student adds his contribution in a different text colour, teachers can keep track of who has written what.

Now, you may have also noticed that, although I promised ten, I’ve only listed nine examples that mark out just what makes our students such ‘digital natives’. This is not because there aren’t many more, but because I’m challenging you to ask your students for the tenth. Open up a discussion and you might find a new way into their world, or better yet, be inspired to become a part of it yourself. After all, how can one teach students and yet know so little about the world in which they are immersed? Is it enough to seek to bring them only into our ‘adult’ world, and not be willing to enter theirs? Surely that is the learning contract we make with our students – to expect from them only what we first show ourselves – which is, hopefully a willingness to be involved in each other’s world and to set a learning example.

And get started right away; after all, any passport to the digital world is likely to stay current for ten months at best. Then you’ll again have to ask your digital native students about the latest hot trends.

For more on all this, visit my Blog, M-Learn.

Email:Jonathan Nalder


Prensky, M. (2005/2006). “Listen to the Natives”. Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, December/January, pp8-13.

Wikipedia: Xbox Live. Retrieved 12 August 2006.