Thoughts on teaching, technology, learning and life in an era of change.
Digital Natives or simply Digital Dilettantes?
September 16th, 2007

I have just read a telling post by Sue Waters in her informative Mobile Technology in TAFE blog regarding the skill set of Generation Y or the Digital Natives.

This very point has come up in staff meetings and during IT workshops, etc. Sure there are students who may know a few more keyboard shortcuts and can type much faster than I. Their use of mobile phones is impressive. Yet, there are a wide variety of IT skills lacking.

They can all make an iMovie or Windows Movie Maker project but they exhibit little creativity with their editing, timelines, etc. They do not explore the technology. They may apply special effects but they do not know why they are applying the special effect. They produce a video then what next? Teachers then have to share the technological possibilities that are available to allow online publication or dissemination of the product.

Even use of tools like Word or Powerpoint is quite basic on the whole. Rarely does a student show an eye for good design or layout. These skills need to be taught by a teacher with the necessary skill set.

I am trying to encourage the student population at our school to avoid wasting endless hours with MSN Chat, MySpace and the like and steer their energies towards the construction of blogs and web sites that are beneficial for themselves and the wider community. It is an uphill battle. Some of my students have produced worthy web sites. One is actually earning about $20.00USD per day via Google AdSense on their site. Great way to earn money while still a Year 10 student.

Perhaps they are not Digital Natives at all but simply Digital Dilettantes… they are, and I quote from a dictionary, an amateur or dabbler; especially, one who follows an art or a branch of knowledge sporadically, superficially, or for amusement only.

13 Responses to “Digital Natives or simply Digital Dilettantes?”

  1. cole Says:

    “They can all make an iMovie or Windows Movie Maker project but they exhibit little creativity with their editing, timelines, etc.”

    I would say that these students are still Natives simply because they are able to attain a certain level of technical proficiency relatively easily.

    Being creative in applying their technical abilities is a matter of creativity and artistry, a very different matter.

    A professor in English Literature may know everything about the classical styles, but that has little to do with whether they can create a classic or not.

  2. John Larkin Says:

    Thank you for your comment Cole. I can see your point.

    Certainly being creative with the technology is a different matter. Perhaps I should express myself differently. Perhaps proficient would be a better term to employ.

    There are commentators that emphasize the technological abilities of the current generation of children in our schools.

    The children are technologically proficient. They certainly lack a fear of technology, in the main.

    Yet, I and others feel, that they do not possess the high level of mastery expressed by those commentators who seek to distinguish the children from the adults in this area. The children are indeed technologically capable but not as capable as some commentators would have us believe.



  3. Sivasothi Says:

    Messing around with various tools mindlessly in one’s youth is a good thing. We need not waste curricular time there.

    Exposure to challenges help them find purpose later. When a problem or opportunity arises, they should be able to respond and adapt and they will need help from educators at this point.

    So presumably in a class of digital natives, I can use tools without having to conduct a tutorial first. Like reading and writing.

    My intern started a blog under five minutes when I sked to start one. Her ability to adopt the medium with minimum instruction and her familiarity with some tools like IM and GMail was a big help in project we worked on later.

    She required substantial training about communication and various techniques and short cuts. These independent issues are pretty old school in any field.

    So I can use web tools more easily with a class today, then with an older group. But they will require basic training in other aspects to make it effective and meaningful.

    I do understand your post; some proponents of the term are blinded by the ability to use a tool. Educators still need to focus on the basics within these new tools as well. E.g. how to search and how to cite!

    I myself prefer the word web-savvy. You find individuals in different age groups who fit this term, and when enough exist in a group, things can take off meaningfully and with little fuss.

  4. John Larkin Says:

    Hi Siva,

    I agree with your points. There is a cohort among the students I work with who are not even willing to “mess around with various tools mindlessly”. They do not desire a challenge.

    Of course I teach other students who have easily set up blogs, modified the template and the like and really get a great deal out of the entire experience. These indivdiuals certainly fit the moniker “Digital Natives”.

    During the last few years educational technology evangelists have been flag waving about the digital natives that inhabit our classrooms. The digital natives are certainly there but not in the numbers and the depth that we are led to believe.



  5. Ivan Chew Says:

    Hi John, I feel whether one is a Digital Native or Digital Dilettante, is a separate issue of why they are exhibiting little creativity. You might be a true Digital Native and still not be motivated to be creative. So the issue of “motivation ” and “incentive” will be common to both a Native and a Dilettante. But a Digital Native will likely be able to adopt digital tools much faster than a “non-native”, once they see the value of doing so. So the crux is really addressing the motivation and convincing them what might be “valuable”.

  6. icarm Says:

    The digital natives are very good using tools socially – but in the realm of education, the tools need to be put to use in a very different way, for very different purposes.
    As I see it, the ‘natives’ are good at socialising, gaming, and finding “stuff”, but learning something, evaluating information, reflecting on behaviour, developing character are generally foreign skills for them. Our challenge is to take the tools existing so that they can frame these aspects of life, learning and personal growth.

  7. Brian Van Dyck Says:

    Having read the posts and articles referenced on the Digital Native debate, it would seem that this is an issue of semantics. If the terms “Native” and “Immigrant” are perceived to create some sense of distance or insurmountable chasm between student and teacher, then the discussion surrounding the trends, observations, and opinions on this subject will break down. I agree that perhaps the terminology needs to be revamped, yet my experience with educating middle school students would suggest that the digital age has had a profound impact on the way students approach their learning experience. I do not feel that being a “Digital Native” suggests any level of mastery or proficiency, rather a shift in the manner students approach learning. My observations from my classroom experience confirm this suggested shift. I agree that my students, be they “Digital Natives” or “Digital Dilettantes”, demonstrate a wide range of ability, creativity, understanding, and proficiency when it comes to the use of digital tools in learning. The diversity of digital proficiency in the classroom only makes the task of differentiated instruction that much more daunting. I agree that the use of technology must be aligned to the curriculum and learning outcomes within a unit of study. When technology is used to teach students how to learn, how to problem solve, and how to create new content from their newly acquired knowledge, then the technology becomes valuable in creating meaning and understanding for our our students. This is a discussion that needs to continue for the benefit of every classroom teacher faced with teaching in the digital age.

  8. John Larkin Says:

    Thank you for the comment Brian. It is much appreciated. Your thoughts are welcome and I agree that differentiated instruction is indeed a challenging prospect for all teachers. As teachers we need to reflect with our students to ensure that they are aware of the ‘whys’ and ‘hows’ of the technology as a medium when we have the opportunity to mix it in with the curriculum.

    During the last few years there has been a lot of hype connected with the terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’, particularly during conferences. Even history will show that I was caught up in that hype at one stage. I feel we need to step back and reflect on the situation and consider meaningful next steps. I am still taking those steps personally and professionally.

    Cheers, John

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  10. Rob Jones Says:

    Let them play with their MySpace and chat proggies. What isn’t beneficial about them getting extra typing practice in by using the internet that way?

    I mean…unless any of you can type 140 wpm like me, then you don’t really have any meaningful skill to compare with college kids anyway.

    And stop being a Digital Dick. Dilletantes? Quit trying to sound smart. I assume that employers would rather their entry-level personnel play games and socialize instead of their proactive, professional senior staff envying entry-level personnel for having meaningless cultural titles.

    But you guys go right ahead and fight over the turd. It’s fun to watch.

  11. John Larkin Says:

    Thanks for the comment Rob.

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