Digital Natives vs. Digital Virgins



by Dianne Hermann

In 2001, educational visionary Marc Prensky coined the phrases “Digital Immigrants” and “Digital Natives” to describe people born before and after the Technological Age. Those born before the explosion of technology, like me, had to learn how to use various types of technology as they were invented, while those born after were integrated into technology as part of their daily lives. Various technological terms, devices, and programs were already part of the new generation’s daily vernacular.

Learning styles evolved as the age of technology evolved. While I, as a “Digital Immigrant,” learned through lectures, reading books, and doing independent work the “Digital Natives” in my classroom learn through working cooperatively with technology as the common denominator.

But what about those children without access to technology at all, such as those in underprivileged countries? In 1999, Dr. Sugata Mitra placed a single computer in a wall in the slum of Kalkaji, New Delhi, India. He wondered how disadvantaged children would react to computers without supervision or direction from adults. Dr. Mitra based his idea on the following hypothesis:

“The acquisition of basic computing skills by any set of children can be achieved through incidental learning provided the learners are given access to a suitable computing facility, with entertaining and motivating content and some minimal (human) guidance.”

He simply showed the children how to turn on the computer and then stepped back to observe. What happened was nothing short of remarkable.

Within a few hours these illiterate and uneducated children taught themselves not only how to use the computer, but how to learn using the computer. Then they taught their friends through peer teaching. The “Hole-in-the-Wall” project, as it was called, showed how the natural curiosity and problem-solving ability of children could lead them to direct their own learning.

The “Hole-in-the-Wall” project was expanded to include 23 remote villages all over India with similar results. Comprehensive data collection and analysis from 2000-2004 showed that children who participated in the “Minimally Invasive Education” project dramatically outperformed children receiving a formal education without technology. And the improvement in academic test scores is most conspicuous in primary grades, dropping in growth as students increase in grade level. (hole-in-the-wall)

But this is not just a problem for underprivileged third-word-countries. European Union Commissioner Neelie Kroes said during a 2010 “Techonomy” conference in California that 30 percent of Europeans are what she called “Digital Virgins.” The barriers to getting Europeans connected to technology, however, have more to do with maneuvering through a labyrinth of independent governmental agencies than with economics.

But what about Digital Natives who have the benefit of learning in computer-based classrooms like mine? Do they have an advantage over the Digital Virgins who have little or no formal education or exposure to technology but are highly motivated to learn? The “Hole-in-the-Wall” project suggests that Computer Based Learning classrooms rely on a one-way transmission of ideas led by a teacher, while this new learning paradigm taps into children’s natural curiosity to stimulate, motivate, and direct their own learning.

Education has gone through many transformations over the years. “Why Johnny Can’t Read,” written in 1955 by Rudolph Flesch, revolutionized how reading is taught. TED Talks (Technology, Entertainment, and Design) began in 1985 and revolutionized how we exchange ideas electronically, view educational practices, and solve the problems of the world.

Studies have been conducted ad nauseam on educational “Best Practices.” Nobody asked the children what they wanted to do and how they wanted to learn. Generations ago children were self-educated or home-schooled and went on to become projective members of a traditional industrial society.

But technology now increases exponentially so that students are being taught archaic skills in order to solve problems we don’t know about yet using technology that hasn’t even been invented! And we do all this during a school year based on a pre-industrial agrarian calendar.

So now, what about the elephant in the room? The Common Core national standards seek to “provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn” by regulating and controlling the education of every child in America so they all learn exactly the same thing in the same way at the same time. How is this “Best Practice?” In what way does this allow the natural curiosity of children to stimulate, motivate, and direct their own learning?

Marc Prensky believes that 21st Century students can be motivated to learn through their passion for technology. That certainly proved to be true with the “Hole-in-the-Wall” project in India. But how can we as educators prepare students to be global problem-solvers in an uncertain future when we put them in a standardized one-size-fits-all box?

This is the new challenge for America’s Digital Educators.