The harm in classifying students as digital natives

The terms “digital immigrant” and “digital native” have been used to classify the so-called generational divide between individuals who were born before and after the digital technology boom.

Digital immigrants are considered those who were not born into the digital world, and learned and adopted these technologies later in life. Digital natives are today’s student generation — those who’ve grown up with computers, the Internet, social media, video games, cell phones, and so on.

Many think that because students are growing up immersed in these technologies, they automatically know how to use them. I’ve seen some educators assume their students know how to create spreadsheets, conduct complex Internet searches, blog, and interact on Twitter, for instance, simply based on the year they were born.

But the fact of the matter is, many students don’t “just know” how to use these technologies. Innate digital literacy is a myth. Digital literacy is not innate. It’s learned — no matter what your age — just like reading, writing, arithmetic, economics, history, psychology, and any other subject matter. We are all digital immigrants.

Classifying and treating students as digital natives is becoming harmful to their education. Purdue University Professor Mihaela Vorvoreanu said it well in this recent Atlantic article about social media’s slow introduction in academia. “The way it has harmed them is because it has stopped educators from teaching what they need to teach.”

Many students aren’t getting the education they need to understand and use social media technology because some educators are assuming they already know it. However, as I stated in the comment I left on the article, it is incumbent upon educators to open their minds to myriad uses for all technology and help students gain the digital literacy they need to be successful in their careers.

This is crucial to helping students embark upon a path of lifelong learning. Take a look at all the informal social learning opportunities that abound on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites, for example. Students can hone their networking and professional development skills, which are fundamental to any industry.

More on this in the comment I left on the article, as well as how it impacts Post University students. I’ll turn your attention there to pick up where I leave off here.

If you want to learn more about how we’ve been incorporating social media as well as other technologies into our classes, feel free to leave a comment. If you’re a Post University student, what’s your experience been like in the classroom learning and using new technologies?


  1. Hi and thanks for an interesting read. People born after the digital boom have an advantage because they learn it as they grow up and I think that's the main difference between the groups and the reason why these terms were used.

  2. Exactly some students are not aware of social media technology and due to this reason they are not obtaining benefits. Instructor needs to show them and educate them. Very nice and impressive article.

  3. You raise some bright points in this post, and I can relate to being mistaken as a "digital native." My employer (who would be considered a "digital immigrant") usually assumes that I know how to do things like build web pages and create apps for phones. The truth is, I just retired my flip phone less than a year ago, and my new touch screen phone is a strange and scary monster to me.

    I am constantly researching and learning things that, because of my age, people think I should already know. The thing for the older generations to remember is we young folk get older too. We can't keep up with every technical advancement.

    Great post. Thanks!

  4. I had a nurse come to my place the other day doing the usual check ups on my almost 3 year old. She was encouraging me to start teaching my son to use the computer . . I thought this was a little odd as would rather him be running around. But in this day and age you NEED computer skills to get anywhere . . It's an exciting but also frightening time.

  5. I´m 32 and use computers since 6 yo. I don´t know if i´m a native or not, but there´s a huge distance between generations. Anyway, it´s not the same "know how to use a mouse" than "know what to do with it". Skills still must be learned.

  6. I think one of the key factors that seperates the "natives" from the "immigrants" is that the younger people learn a lot of the technology from each other. The latest developments and technology seems to spread like wild fire around younger people with one person who has it showing their friend and so on and so forth.

    For the older generation, I don't think there is the same social buzz and people to learn from. Generally as we get older, our social lives dwindle and we see people less and less compared to school, college and university where people are surrounded by other people and their friends of the same age all the time.

    Just my 2 cents. Good post.

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