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Teacher: Beware the 'Digital Native' Stereotype

Technology teacher Mary Beth Hertz writes on Edutopia that teachers need to beware of the "dangerous" stereotype that all students these days are "digital natives." She says that just because students know how to use technology doesn't mean they understand how to "create, read critically, use online content responsibly," and be respectful of others in the digital world. And those skills are necessary to be truly digitally savvy, she contends.

Hertz cites a study in which the nonprofit organization One Laptop Per Child left pre-loaded tablets with illiterate children in remote Ethiopian villages. The children quickly figured out how to use the applications and began teaching themselves to read. Within a few months they'd overridden the software meant to freeze the desktop settings, and customized their devices. (Pretty unbelievable. Check out the Mashable article on it.) But Hertz says this proves her point that being able to use technology does not make you proficient:

Sure, we can place a tablet in the hands of children who have never seen a package label or a sign, and they will learn on their own. But what happens when and if those children become connected to the larger, global online community? It is not guaranteed that they will be ready to navigate etiquette and intellectual property rights on their own.

Instead, Hertz writes, we should call students "digital citizens," which implies a more complicated relationship with technology—not innate proficiency.

Hertz is not the first to argue that teachers cannot assume students know how to properly navigate the digital world. Jody Passanisi and Shara Peters said in Scientific American that students struggle with basic Internet searches, and a majority of teachers in a recent Pew Research Center survey said students need more training in finding credible information online.

So perhaps Hertz' claim boils down to semantics. In fact, I've always thought of "digital natives" simply as those who've only known a world in which electronic devices are the primary means of accessing information. (While I know it's a bit hyperbolic, the term brings to mind this video.)

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