The myth of the ‘digital born’

Generation-V-Using-Technology%20copyAre children really “digital born”? ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK argues that this fondly held belief is a myth. He suggests a tool used by kids that adults can also embrace to become “digital made”.

How is it possible that the typical child is so much more adept at using gadgets than the typical adult? How did we come to stereotype the neighbour’s 12-year-old son as the expert who will sort out our computers, cellphones and TV programming? And why are teachers terrified of exposing their ignorance to their hyper-connected students?

The answer, we are told, is that this generation of children came into the world already adept at using technology. They were “digital born” or“digital natives”. The rest of us are “digital immigrants”, who have had to learn the art, science and reality of gadgets through blood, sweat and embarrassment.

It only takes a few moments of vigorous application of common sense to lay waste to this myth. A child is born today in much the same manner as a hundred years ago, before the concept of consumer technology had been imagined. Some may be surrounded, at birth, by machines that go ‘Ping’, but the sound of electronics does not imbue a comfort with electronics.

A child today grows up surrounded by consumer technology, but that is the technology that we adults placed in their environment. We didn’t buy the computer when the child was born in the hope that it would wean them off the breast. We were already using those devices.

So where do we find the answer to this most puzzling generation gap of our times?

We found one explanation in a research project conducted among school children at both private city schools and township government schools in South Africa. We asked the children how skilled they believed they were in the use of various computer, Internet and cellular applications.

You might expect the children to exaggerate their abilities and rate themselves highly across the board. Instead, we found they were happy to give an honest account of themselves, as they themselves wanted to know where they fitted into the bigger picture. When it came to business applications, they were clueless. When it came to gaming and social applications, their scores shot through the roof.

The most fascinating aspect of all was how familiar children across the board were with special networks like MXit and Facebook, with cellphone features like e-mail and Internet browsing, and with specialist tools like advanced searching.

We asked teachers the same questions and, in most of these areas, they were way behind the children.

We then, informally, watched children and teachers using computers and cellphones. It became clear, almost instantly, how the kids pick it up so fast, and why teachers remain so far behind.

On the one hand, the kids are both fearless and curious. The idea of being scared of technology strikes them as absurd. They have a deep curiosity about the way things work. Probably the same as kids did a century ago.

The teachers, on the other hand, have a deep fear that they may not be able to work out how things work. As a result, they seem to imagine, they will show themselves up to their colleagues and students. Moreover, their own self-confidence will take a massive knock. For adults, all of those are serious consequences. The result: they would rather shy away from the new technology.

On the other hand – and this is the big discovery – children naturally do something that adults tend to avoid. They share their discoveries, and they ask each other about the tipis, tricks, shortcuts and workarounds they have found. Adults – teachers and parents alike – tend to keep the good and the bad to themselves.

Children are in effect engaging in good, old-fashioned peer group learning. We can call this 21st century version Digital Peer Group Learning.

That is the key to the digital age, and the tool that teachers can embrace to bring themselves up to digital speed. It’s unlikely to happen by itself, so schools could introduce programmes and processes that not only encourage, but rely on sharing knowledge.

Teachers may not be digital born but, as with children, they too can become digital made.

* Arthur Goldstuck heads up the World Wide Worx market research organisation and is editor-in-chief of Gadget. You can follow him on Twitter on @art2gee