How Do We Teach Digital Natives?

They’re here.

Digital Natives – also known as Generation Z – are people born between 1990 and the late 2000’s. They have never known a time before computers and video games. Most have never known a time before the World Wide Web.

They are sitting in your classroom.

I teach technology, so it’s possible that I come at this from a slightly different perspective than say, a Math teacher (but maybe not). In the three years that I’ve been teaching in the regular full time curriculum, I’ve seen a dramatic shift – as the early Gen Z’ers graduate and the later ones – those kids who truly don’t know a time before words like “Internet”, “online”, and “cyberspace” – take their seats. The courses I taught 3 years ago are much different than what I am teaching now – it’s the same curriculum, but I have had to make some major adjustments to how I’m teaching.

I see the blank stares in their eyes when I try to explain things like social media, engagement, and connectedness. I hear them snicker when I struggle to figure out why they changed the group function on Facebook again, or when I ask them if they’ve ever uploaded a video to YouTube.

They are wondering why I’m telling them this stuff.

Back in my day, sonny… Some days, I really do feel like an old lady. I am at the age now that, when I was 18, was by and large considered “ancient” by me and my friends. The average 40 year old in my day was so disconnected from my reality. They didn’t understand my music (Cyndi Lauper, Depeche Mode) or my favourite TV shows, (The Simpsons – well ok, maybe we have common ground with Gen Z there!). The point is, if I thought my 40 year old teachers were so “lame” when I was a kid, what are my Gen Z students thinking of me now?

If some of my younger students were forced to read half of the blogs about social media that I wanted them to, they’d probably be bored silly. Engaging? Connecting? You want to teach me how to use Facebook? Twitter? a Blog? Lady, I’ve been doing that since I was 12 (rolls eyes).

See where I’m going with this?

Don’t be so irrelevant irreverent. Oh sure, there is still lots to learn. Applying online communication in a business or marketing context still involves skills that can be learned in school. But what I’m feeling is that as teachers, we are jumping into those lessons at a much more basic level than is required. Gen Z doesn’t need to be taught how to set up a blog, any more than our generation needed to be taught how to dial a telephone.

We need to respect the fact that, in some cases, our students know more and are more comfortable with technology than we are. More importantly, we need to stop assuming that we have the only way and the right way to use technology. We need to accept that, in some cases, we’re now the students. They are the teachers.

Generation Gap. As with most post-secondary situations, I have a tremendous range of ages in my class. Most students are just out of high school or 1 or 2 years removed from high school. There are a handful of early/mid career folks who are eager to upgrade their skills or move into a new career. And there are always a few who are my age or older.

I can tell you with authority, that explaining social media to your average 45 year old is one thing – explaining it to your average 18 year old is another thing entirely.

So, if we need to start shifting our focus from the “how-to’s” of technology to the “why-to’s” and “what-to’s”, how do we make sure that the Gen X, Gen Y, and young boomers in our classes don’t get left behind?

In my experience, there isn’t a cut and dry solution. The majority of my students are digital natives. For the ones that aren’t, I’m aware and respect that it might take their digital immigrant minds a bit longer to wrap around the concepts I’m teaching. The good news is, their brains work like mine, so I totally get where they’re coming from. I try to provide those people with the extra information required to fill in that gap, whilst minimizing the eye-rolling from the younger crowd. That’s ironically where online tools come in handy…I can share bookmarks on Delicious, or links on Facebook to everyone – and my students get to choose what’s relevant to them and ignore what they already know.

Down the road, I see that an interesting shift may happen again. Fast forward 10 more years, when my digital native students are now teaching the younger generation – Generation Alpha – born entirely in the new millennium. Those kids will be that much farther removed from us. What kinds of conversations will be happening in those classrooms?

Who’s relevant now?

[photo credit: cesarastudillo on Flickr]

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  • October 27, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I was in high school in the late nineties/early 2000s and it was already like this. I remember our IT teacher asking us to make a HTML file and getting confused when I was linking to websites. He thought anything ending in .com should have been a DOS executable.

  • October 28, 2010 at 2:31 am

    I disagree: not all students know their stuff about technology. For example yesterday I met a student who should urgently need a basic computer cursus.
    Secondly I’m really wondering about the sense of teaching stuff people already know. Might be interesting for you to reflect about this, and make thoughts about changing this. For example talk about web safety and privacy aspects.

    • October 28, 2010 at 5:23 am

      Thanks for your comment, Bert. I’m sorry if my post wasn’t clear – I certainly wasn’t assuming that all students under a certain age are comfortable with computers. As I mentioned at the beginning of my post, I teach technology, so most of my students are coming into my classes with some sort of predisposition to computers. That could be influencing my opinion to a certain extent – but it’s been my experience that by and large (there are always exceptions) my students are now coming in armed with a certain level of knowledge and experience that simply wasn’t there a few years ago. This does change the way I need to approach teaching – and while there are many things still to be taught in relationship to emerging technologies, like privacy issues, and business communications, there are many others that may need to be re-thought.

  • January 22, 2011 at 6:45 pm

    […] How Do We Teach Digital Natives? ( […]



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