Portrait of a Digital Native

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Meredith Fear sits in her room doing her homework. Books are scattered about, and a computer monitor glows before her. She is working on two Word documents and has four Web sites open. She checks her school e-mail account, her Bloglines news aggregator, and Furls of an online article for her independent study. She quickly transitions from this to respond to group members on Instant Messenger who have attached PowerPoint slides for an upcoming class presentation.

"The computer gives me a contact to all the people I need to talk to," Fear says. "It's a gateway to the world."

Today's secondary and even elementary schools are filled with students like Fear who are adept at multitasking and using technology in exciting new ways. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation report, "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8- to 18-Year-Olds," found that students who use media the most also spend more time with family, friends, and other activities. That may explain the need to do many things at once.

"It's the way we've all come to be raised," says Fear, a senior at Hunterdon Central Regional High School in Flemington, New Jersey. She is a member of the National Honor Society, student leader of the local Amnesty International chapter, and president of the school's International Thespian Society. "There's a lot of work we're expected to do. You have to multitask to get everything done." That is particularly evident when doing homework. The Kaiser report, which surveyed more than 2,000 3rd through 12th grade students, found that almost "one third of young people say they either talk on the phone, instant message, watch TV, listen to music, or surf the Web for fun most of the time they're doing homework."

Consultant, author, and educational software designer Marc Prensky, who coined the term digital native, believes these students are fundamentally different.

"They've had digital technology surrounding them from the time they were infants," he says. "That digital world affords them many things that the previous world didn't." In his article, "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," Prensky describes these students as wanting their information extremely fast and being experts at multitasking and networking. Yet he sees schools lagging behind, still tied to an antiquated system that rewards staying on task and on pace with others above more individualized education plans. He says children want to be more engaged in school. Yet despite such calls to action, no clear agreement exists on how to meet this generation's needs, what those needs actually are, and how they differ from those of previous generations.

Jane Healey, an educational psychologist and author of Endangered Minds: Why Our Children Don't Think and What We Can Do About It, believes that it is impossible for children to focus in a deep, meaningful way on more than one thing at a time. "We may be creating a culture composed of people who can't sustain the attention to solve a deep and complex problem," she states.

Fear disagrees. "If I'm doing some extensive work at home, I can carry on a conversation with friends and read a deep article," she says. "I can jump from one thing to another very easily. Most kids can."

The Kaiser Report tends to agree with Fear, at least as far as success in school is concerned. It found that "most young people indicate that they have lots of friends, get good grades, aren't unhappy or in trouble often, and get along pretty well with their peers."

New research also suggests that brains can be trained to multitask. A study conducted by Monica Luciana, associate professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota (published in Child Development, May/June 2005) found the brain's ability to effectively self-organize competing information remains in the developmental process until 16 or 17 years of age. Perhaps the digital generation has developed multitasking prowess beyond that of its parents.

Even within the same age group, however, it's important to remember that there are differences in multitasking abilities and comfort levels with technology. Liz Derr, 17, a student at Central Bucks South High School in Warrington, Pennsylvania, doesn't see the push for new technology as necessarily positive. "Kids don't even want to use books anymore," says Derr, who limits multitasking during homework time to listening to music. "I find that looking in a book first for research projects gives you more of a broad basis to start with."

But what if technologies like IM were part of the educational process instead of a distraction from it? Will Richardson, supervisor of instructional technology at Hunterdon Central and the founder of www.weblogg-ed.com, a leading site on technology in education, believes it makes sense. "Schools don't use IM. It's unbelievable," he says. "Everyone in the business world uses IM."

Whether the technology is IM, video games, or cell phones, Prensky encourages teachers to get to know their students and play to the environment in which they grew up. He sees gaming theory and kids' interest in video games as one area for educators to explore.

Schools will also need to come to grips with the explosion of the Internet and all of the new ways to deliver its rapidly expanding content. Wireless technology and new gadgets are creating an increasingly mobile world, and devices such as iPods, portable video games, and cell phones vie for students' time.

As technology evolves, these devices will also become increasingly capable of delivering and creating content for educational purposes. Prensky is already exploring some of these options. In his article, "What Can You Do with a Cell Phone?" he states that "to most educators, computer means a PC, a laptop, or, in some instances, a personal digital assistant; cell phones, on the other hand, are more often regarded as bothersome distractions to the learning process." However, Prensky says, "today's high-end cell phones have the computing power of a mid-'90s personal computer."

Despite all the gadgets, it still comes down to providing students with relevant and exciting content. A Pew Internet and American Life Project, "The Digital Disconnect: The Widening Gap Between Internet-Savvy Students and Their Schools," reports that students find their Internet-based assignments generally "uninspiring."

Fear is now working on her independent study for social studies; she has chosen a topic that is important to her, the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. She catalogs her research through Furl and bookmarking and follows the news and Web logs about Sudan through a news aggregator. She finds this process to be very different than her classroom experience.

"What I make of it is entirely dependent on me and the effort I'm willing to put into it," she says. "It's a much, much more specialized and detailed level of thinking than I've been exposed to in any of the classes the school provides."

Tom McHale is an educator in New Jersey.