Challenges of studying digital literacy

The term digital native was coined and popularized by Marc Prensky in his 2001 article titled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In this he posited that the contemporary decline in American education was due to educators’ inability to understand the needs of modern students. Students were labeled digital natives and said to have an insider’s perspective on the web literacies and tools that inundate our society. Adults on the other hand, and more specifically educators, are relegated to the position of immigrants or outsiders in these practices.

It should be noted that Prensky’s original paper was purely theoretical and no empirical data has yet proven his claims. In fact, a growing body of research has steadily cast doubt or entirely disproven the existence of the digital native. Put simply, there is no proof that one is more or less digitally savvy based on their born on date. Prensky has since changed his metaphor of the digital native to instead describe digital wisdom, and yet the belief in the digital native still exists.

In this context, we believe that a 21st century educational system must educate all students in the effective and authentic use of the technologies that permeate society to prepare them for the future. A central challenge in this is that educators have little or no guidance in how to embed these practices into their current work processes. Conducting research in these spaces is a challenge as educators may be unsure of their own skillset, while needing to build these skills in their students. There is not only a need to use these texts and tools in our work, but also guide students in this process. 

Despite the transformative possibilities associated with the inclusion of the Internet and other communication technologies (ICTs) in instruction, relatively little is known about the regular use of these technologies in our daily lives. Perhaps educators need not resign themselves to life as an exiled digital immigrant and instead should identify opportunities to empower themselves.