Differentiated View

All Youngsters Are Digital Natives, Aren't They?

Helsinki (FI), November 2012 - Tore Ståhl taught ICT throughout the 1990s and has been practising eLearning and developing the prerequisites for eLearning in higher education since 2001. One of his special interests is the question of what the young generation actually look like in terms of ICT and media skills and habits, especially the so-called NetGeners, in relation to other subgroups.

The question in the title of your presentation indicates that you have a somewhat differentiated view of "digital natives."

Tore Ståhl: Yes, I'm glad you noticed that a differentiated view is exactly what I'm getting at, as opposed to the stereotypes that are now dominating the discussion.

What classifications decide who is or isn't a digital native? What criteria do you use to determine this?

Tore Ståhl: As far as I know, there are no actual classifications for digital natives. Instead, various authors and sources describe different attributes that are very common within the young generation. For instance, "They have spent their entire lives surrounded by ... computers ... and all the other toys and tools of the digital age." "They are just in-time-learners". "They are connected".

I can agree on those attributes, but I want to be cautious about what to include in "they".

How high do you estimate the percentage of "real" digital natives among today's adolescents and young adults to be?

Tore Ståhl: This, of course, depends on the definition of a "real digital native." Actually, I don't want to use any definition. Rather, I'd like to identify those attributes that are most significant in the sense that they influence the way of being and thinking, of relating to the world, and especially relating to learning and knowledge.

The data I have been looking at suggests that around fifteen percent of the youngsters are definitely NOT digital natives, but this does not mean that I would define 85% as digital natives. I don't want to suggest an exact percentage, but I have an inkling that the number is considerable.

What particular problems are young people who aren't digital natives confronted with?

Tore Ståhl: I want to draw attention to the problems they are facing at a time when higher- education programmes are developing so quickly in a direction that demands digital literacy. Utilizing digital services to support learning, knowledge building, and research is indispensable, and it is also crucial to developing the competitiveness of our students. But there's the point: if some students lack digital literacy, they will have difficulties in achieving the same competencies as their fellow students. Thus, primary and secondary education should really take charge of preparing all youngsters on an equal basis for today's higher education.

Is the percentage of young people who are and who aren't digital natives comparable to the overall percentage of the population who do and who don't use the internet?

Tore Ståhl: That's an interesting question, and I have to admit that I cannot provide an answer based on my material. However, if I manage to identify factors that lie behind the lack of digital literacy, it would be a topic for further research to explore the differences within and across different age cohorts, not to mention across cultures - which makes the whole thing even more difficult.

But still, I suspect that the factors that lie behind digital literacy or lack of it within our current adult cohorts may be very different. Throughout history, researchers have made the mistake of developing instruments and categorizations - maybe caricaturing - within a white, Western, male population and then applying it to some other culture or population. The same risk is also obvious in this topic, so I think that even if we identify factors among the young generation, we should look for those factors among the other age cohorts with a very open mind, without being bound to factors identified in a young cohort.