Educating The Digital Native

Recently I explained to my daughter what the three primary colours of light were, and how they formed all the other colours in combination. I told her about the boxy, square television sets I grew up with and how if you stood too close you could see the tiny red, blue and green dots that made up the larger image. Of course, she has never seen a television set that wasn’t a flat screen. More importantly, she has rarely watched television. Not free to air, analogue television interrupted by adverts. At eight years old, she has a completely different experience of consuming media to me, living in a world of tablets, and touch screens and direct streaming digital content. If she wants to know something we google it. If I talk about an animal she wants to see a picture of it – immediately. I didn’t own a mobile phone till I was seventeen, she is asking for one already.

When I was eight we got our first computer. You needed to log in through c prompt, and the screen was full of green lettering on a black screen. A year or two later we were the first family in town to get the internet. I remember an amusing afternoon ‘surfing the web’ looking for information about seahorses with my Dad. In 1995 if you typed ‘seahorse’ into AltaVista you found yourself in chat rooms for trans men. You can imagine the conversation!

I don’t go anywhere without my phone. I study online, work in front of a computer screen, and spend large portions of my leisure time engaging with social networks, blogs, webcomics, playing computer games, streaming content. If I want to find out about the world I have a news app on my phone, when I read a book it is on a Kindle, I listen to music on Spotify, and I learned to play the Ukulele through Youtube tutorials.

As Jennifer Howell points out in ‘Teaching ICT,’ much of our engagement with the ‘digital world’ is through play. Students are digital natives, and they expect the learning environment to be ‘digitally rich.’ (Howell, 2012) However, I can’t forget an amusing anecdote from a friend who teaches Information Technology. He asked his class to enter a web address into the browser, with the address up on the smart board. The entire class opened Google search engine pages and then painstakingly typed the entire web address, down to every last forward slash into the search box.

I can use a spreadsheet, touch type, work front end and back end on WordPress, have learned HTML, JAVA and even a little bit of Python and C Sharp. When I started teaching my daughter to touch type at home she told me that she wouldn’t need to type when she grows up because she’ll be able to speak and the computer will write it down for her. I pointed out that we have that technology and it is inefficient because people can type faster than they speak, and to replace typing we will need computers that can read and interpret thought waves. As she has a connective tissue disorder and will be using a keyboard in year five, I think we can safely say she is going to need to touch type.

Howell talked about digital learners relying on parallel processes, multi-tasking, and the gamification of learning. Something I am familiar with as a writer who has worked on computer games, and alternative reality games in the entertainment and adult education industries. Mark Prensky in his landmark article on ‘The 21st Century Digital Learner’ begins with a critique of ‘these old folks’ who attempt to design the education of the future without input from young people. (Prenskey, 2018) Perhaps the biggest change in the way we learn in the third millennium is driven by direct, and almost constant access to a global information network, digital collaborative communities and the capacity to easily create and disseminate content.

The term ‘produsage’ was coined by the Queensland University of Technology Professor Axel Bruns and is used to define the user-generated content that has come to dominate the internet in the last twenty years. (Bruns, 2007) I have taught after school drama to children as young as seven who have their own Youtube channels. Young people may not understand that their digital world is made up of zeroes and ones, but they certainly know how to navigate it. Educators need to be both aware of their own ‘digital as a second language’ status in comparison to their students and be prepared to meet these digital natives on their own ground. Old school colonial approaches will fail to compete with collaborative student-led models. Digital Pedagogy isn’t just a helpful technique, as one student quoted by Prensky stated, “You think of technology as a tool. We think of it as a foundation — it’s at the basis of everything we do.” (Prensky, 2008)


Howell, J. (2013). Teaching with ICT: Digital Pedagogies for Collaboration and Creativity (1st ed., pp. 4-15). South Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

 Prensky, M. (2018). The 21st-Century Digital Learner | Edutopia. Retrieved from

Bruns, Axel (2007) Produsage: Towards a Broader Framework for User-Led Content Creation. In Proceedings Creativity & Cognition 6, Washington, DC.