Thursday, November 3, 2011

Digital Natives


Although digital natives (Prensky, 2001a, 2001b) possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with technology (Bennett et al., 2008:777) and use technology on a daily basis (Thinyane, 2010), digital natives are not necessarily digitally competent (Li and Rznieri, 2010). The term digital natives is used to describe modern students who are said to be native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet (Prensky, 2001a:1). The term also describes those born during or after the general introduction of digital technology, and through interacting with digital technology from an early age, have a greater understanding of its’ concepts (Wikipedia, 2008:1). A digitally competent learner is one that has developed communicative and interpretive ability using electronic media (Bucek, 2010:9). The essay analyses the opening sentence and then discusses the implications for education by considering the context in Zambian educational institutions. The essay seeks to support the opening statement through critical analysis and discussion.


From the opening statement and the definitions of a digital native and digital competent person, it can be noted that digital competence requires development of communicative/ interpretive ability in using electronic media (Bucek, 2010:9). From the writer’s teaching experience of grades 8 to form 6 (digital natives) born between 1978 and 1985, it was noted that most of the students were not digitally competent. They required guided instruction from teachers in order to develop communication skills and interpretation in using electronic media. Most students would use computers for Computer related studies and not for getting information and as a learning tool for other non-computer related subjects. The students would also mostly play games on the computer and use e-mail to communicate with friends and family.

It needs to be noted in supporting the opening statement of this essay that not everyone agrees with the language and underlying connotations of the digital native. It suggests a familiarity with technology that not all youths who would be considered digital natives have. In its application, the concept of the digital native preferences those who grow up with technology as having special status, ignoring the significant difference between familiarity and creative application (Wikipedia, 2008:2). Bennett, Maton and Kervin (2007:778) note that research findings suggest that technology skills and experience are far from universal among young people. At a high school where the writer taught from 1996 - 2002, all students from eighth grade to sixth form did compulsory computer literacy lessons. This was due to the policy of the owners of the school, Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines to have all students have basic computer literacy. Most of the students came from what could be considered middle class families and had knowledge of ICTs. However, these students were not digitally competent as they had challenges in for example adapting to different models of computers and getting information for various study subjects. Bennett et al., (2008:778) observe that research evidence indicates that a proportion of young people are highly adept with technology and rely on it for a range of information gathering and communication activities. However, there also appears to be a significant proportion of young people who do not have the levels of access or technology skills predicted by proponents of the digital native idea.

The proponents of the digital native theory argue that the education of tech-savvy students is a major issue for education (Bennett et al., 2008:780) and today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach (Prensky, 2001:1). It is argued that educational systems need to reconsider their methodology and content. Today’s teachers have to learn to communicate in the language and style of their students (Prensky, 2001:4). While the above arguments may have strength in a few cases, they are not backed by exhaustive research. Li and Ranieri (2010:12) observe that Digital competence stands as a global challenge for the educational systems of the new century. A wider analysis of the content of this competence shows that it involves relevant cognitive and metacognitive capacities that the new generations, the so-called ‘digital natives’, do not necessarily possess. Therefore, to develop appropriate policies towards digital competence and to design adequate curriculum to promote digital culture, we need to better understand the characteristics of these new generations and also to provide more empirical evidence on the real status of this competence among today’s teenagers.


The digital competence of digital natives has a number of implications for education. Educational technology is intended to improve education over what it would be without technology. Some of the claimed benefits are: easy-to-access course materials, student motivation, wide participation, improved student writing, subjects made easier to learn and differentiated instruction (Wikipedia, 2011:4-5). The increase in the availability of low cost computers, mobile phones and data storage devices makes it easier for students in educational institutions to learn e.g. learning materials available on CD-ROMs and on the Internet make it possible for more learners to access these materials where text books are not adequate. However accessing learning materials on the Internet poses a challenge on the learner’s digitally competence. In order for learners to maximise on the benefits of educational technology, educational institutions need to put in place measures to ensure that students have adequate ICT skills to enable them use whatever skills they may have effectively. This could be done by having computer literacy classes for new students.

A second implication for education is the need for research to ensure that teaching methods are abreast with the development of technology. Institutions should not stick to traditional teaching methods when they can improve their teaching by adopting and adapting digital technology. Use of technology is meant to make teaching easier and provide numerous benefits for learners (Wikipedia, 2011:1). The curricula of teacher education colleges and schools of education needs to spearhead and promote research in the use of technology so as to produce graduate teachers that are digitally competent.

A third implication for education is the need for policy makers and training institutions to ensure that they get adequate and appropriate technology for learning purposes. Institutions should avoid acquiring technology in order to keep up with other institutions without them having a clear direction on how that technology. Educators and Higher education administrators must take into account the diversity of student populations when deciding how to use technology in different learning environments (Thinyane, 2010:413).


It has been noted above from literature and examples from educational institutions that although digital natives possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with technology and use technology on a daily basis, digital natives are not necessarily digitally competent. Implications for education have been discussed. These were educational institutions having computer literacy lessons, the need for research to ensure that teaching methods are abreast with the development of technology and the need for policy makers and training institutions to ensure that they get adequate and appropriate technology for learning purposes get adequate and appropriate technology for learning purposes.


Bucek, O. (2010). Development of the Digital Competence. [Online]. Accessed on 2011/02/25. Available at:

Bennett, S., Maton, K. and Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786.

Li, Y. and Ranieri, M. (2010). Are ‘digital natives’ really digitally competent? – A study on Chinese teenagers. British Journal of Educational Technology. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2009.01053.x

Prensky, M. (2001a). Do They Really Think Differently? [Online]. Accessed on: 2010/10/4. Available at:

Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. [Online]. Accessed on: 2010/10/4. Available at:

Thinyane, H. (2010). Are digital natives a world-wide phenomenon? An investigation into South African first year students’ use and experience with technology. Computers & Education, 55, 406-414.

Wikipedia (2008). Digital Native. [Online]. Accessed on: 2011/02/22. Available at:

Wikipedia (2011). Educational Technology. [Online]. Accessed on 2011/02/26. Available at:

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