Revisiting the Digital Native Hypothesis

Revisiting the Digital Native Hypothesis

some people claim that we're artificial constructs

It is conventional wisdom in many quarters -- indeed, for some people it approaches the level of 'incontrovertible fact' -- that young people are 'digital natives', possessed of some sort of innate ability to understand and utilize digital devices and applications merely because of their youth, because they have 'grown up surrounded by technology', in ways that older folks can't -- and perhaps never will. Anecdotes from amazed and proud parents and grandparents detailing how adept little Johnny (or Gianni, or Krishna, or Yidan, or Fatima, or Omar, or Maria) is at manipulating his (or her) parents' mobile phone or tablet "even though s/he doesn't even know how to read yet!" are commonly heard in conversations around the world.

In a very influential essay that appeared about 15 years ago ("Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" [pdf]), Mark Prensky coined the term 'digital natives', asserting that "students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet" and that, as a result, "today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors". In contrast, "[t]hose of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants." While Prensky's views on this topic have evolved over the years and become more nuanced (those interested in his particular views may wish to visit his web site), this original definition and delineation of what it means to be a digital native and a digital immigrant remains quite potent for many people.

At the same time, and for over a decade, this assertion has come under consistent challenge and criticism from many academics, who contest various aspects of the 'digital natives myth', as well as the policy and design implications that often flow from them. The observable differences at the heart of the digital native narrative relate more to culture, or to geography, to socio-economic status or even just to personal preferences than they do to age, critics argue. No doubt some of these folks may glance at this post and ask: 'Digital natives', haven't we moved on from that stuff? When it comes to related academic discourse, the answer to this question is probably a qualified 'yes, at least in some circles'.

That said, in my experience, the digital natives hypothesis remains alive and well in many educational policymaking circles (as it does with many parents -- and grandparents, and marketers, and with many kids themselves), especially in places around the world that are just now beginning to roll-out or consider the use of educational technologies at a wide scale. Indeed, while meeting with education ministries on three different continents over the course of the last month, I've had very senior education officials in three different governments explain to me how the concept of 'digital natives' was central for their vision for education going forward. These recent conversations -- and many others -- prompted me to write this quick blog post (as well as one that will follow).

There is a middle ground (of sorts) here: It is possible to acknowledge that there are fundamental, easily observable differences in the way that many young people use, and consider using, technology when compared to many of their 'elders', while at the same time recognizing that young learners are a rather diverse lot and that there are important differences between a child's ability to figure out and manipulate what's on a screen (to play a game, to take a picture) and a child using a digital device productively to learn.

Of course, the messy reality of the use of digital devices by children is highly variable and far more nuanced than is denoted by the simple dialectic of digital natives vs. digital immigrants. What might hold true, at least to some extent or at some superficial level, for a child born to affluent parents in Silicon Valley may not hold true for a young person living in poverty in rural Afghanistan (a rather extreme comparison, admittedly).

And: Even where you buy into the digital native hypothesis, it still might be true that today's digital natives will in many important ways be tomorrow's digital immigrants. The rate of technological change could well mean that the approaches to the use of technology that the 'digital natives' of today develop in their formative years -- again, if you believe that such people exist -- may well be different, in ways both trivial and profound, from the approaches and perspectives that subsequent generations may adopt.

side note: About ten years ago I got a rather public dressing down by a rather prominent figure in the U.S. technology industry who mocked my 'infatuation with the potential uses of mobile phones in education' and added that, unlike laptops, such devices would never be really relevant for teaching and learning. This fellow was (and presumably remains) much more tech savvy than I am, and I expect that he grew up from a young age with computers in a way that I decidedly did not. While the term does not appear to have wide (if any) currency within educational technology communities around the world, I do wonder if, at least as it relates to access to various things (although of course mere access to learning tools does not necessarily lead to action, nor does any related action necessarily result in positive impact), there might be some potential utility within educational policy discussions for the term 'mobile native', given that increasingly young people most everywhere will have a personal, connected computing device with them at all times?

These are all just opinions and conjecture, though. The point here is not to summarize related arguments, and how they have changed over time. (You can find lots of good related discussion and commentary, for and against the 'digital natives hypothesis', as well as arguments and perspectives that lie somewhere in-between, at various places on the Internet). Instead of offering any more of my thoughts, it might be useful to ask: What do the related data actually say? A follow up post will explore answers to this question.

You may also be interested in the following posts on the EduTech blog:

Note: The image used at the top of this blog post of three child mannequins ("some people claim that we're artificial constructs") was provided to Wikimedia Commons by the Deutsche Fotothek of the Saxon State Library / State and University Library Dresden. It is used according to the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Germany license.

cross posted at

Michael Trucano is the World Bank's Senior Education & Technology Policy Specialist and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, serving as the organization's focal point on issues at the intersection of technology use and education in middle- and low-income countries and emerging markets around the world. Read more at