Digital Natives were something I heard about a while ago at various library conferences and in various library publications. It was supposed to refer to all the kids growing up with technology that my generation (Generation X) found ourselves merely ushered into. Some of Gen X were “Digital Natives” while others weren’t. It all depended on your definition of the terms. Me, I certainly didn’t grow up with a computer in the house. I didn’t get my first computer until I was ten.
I still remember TV remotes that had five buttons: power, channel up, channel down, volume up, and volume down. The kids a few years behind me, those who are teenagers now, were to be the true digital natives as they grew up with a lot of the “new tech” in their very own households.
Thing is, they’re not. At least not around here and not around the areas of many of the other people I’ve discussed this with. I regularly help teens discern the difference between a browser’s URL bar and a search engine. I’ve helped them learn that typing someone’s email address into that URL bar doesn’t actually send them an email. Yes, to search Google, you kind of have to go to Google. No, Google doesn’t really search our library catalogue, you’ll have to go there. No, typing the name of our library into the URL bar won’t take you directly to our website.
Many of them know what the Internet is, what it does, and what its for. The problem is that many don’t have any idea how to make it go, let alone what makes it go. I’m not saying they have to, either. I’m a very competent driver of automobiles and I only have the basest knowledge of how a car actually works. They don’t need to be geeks, sure, but there are so many that just don’t get it. The computer is a magic box full of YouTubes and Facebooks and the Net is a vast network managed by sorcery and fae creatures.
Then I look at the children of my generation. My own kids and the children of people roughly my age, let’s say 30 – 40 years old. They have a very different technology at their fingertips than today’s teens did and what makes that technology different is that it is literally at their fingertips. We, and by “we” I mean my generation and before, grew up with computers and tech where we are actually physically removed from the computer by at least one step.
Whatever do I mean?
I mean that I’m removed from the very computer on which I’m typing this post by a single physical thing, actually make that two physical things. I’m controlling, editing, and creating text on this computer via a keyboard, a physical object removed from the computer itself by a distance of, oh, perhaps six feet of USB cable. If I want to manipulate other things on screen, like buttons or check boxes, I need to rely on yet another physical thing removed from the computer by at least six feet of USB cable – the mouse.
My kids, and perhaps your kids too, aren’t so removed from their tech. When I handed my (at the time) three year old daughter an iPad, she figured it out within half an hour. She knew what the NetFlix logo looked like and she knew how to find videos she wanted to watch by looking at the covers. She didn’t even need the ability to read to successfully navigate the device. Sure, she wasn’t firing off emails or hitting up Reddit. Still, she was delighted to discover Dora the Explorer videos and was equally happy when she discovered that there’s this book-like thing that involves Winnie the Pooh. She started turning pages on the Pooh eBook with absolutely no prompting at all.
My seven year old son is even more mind bending. He reads and he’s doing pretty well with the whole reading thing. Typing isn’t a strong suit but he knows what the letters are and how they form words. So he and I watch this awesome Minecraft series called Coe’s Quest. Now, Coe’s Quest is a series on YouTube and there’s a lovely YouTube app that comes stock with the iPad. Thing is, he’s not 100% sure how the app works. But he does know that if he goes to Safari, does a search for “Coe’s Quest 132″ (no quotes, and the 132 is the episode number) he’ll get a list of results and the first result is usually what he wants. He’ll tap that, the iPad launches the YouTube app, and brings up the video.
I’ve never taught him how to do any of that stuff.
I’m certain my children aren’t wunderkinder so I asked others and, sure enough, their kids totally “get” their iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, and things like that. And, it just so happens, I have a theory as to why.
You touch them.
They aren’t removed at all from their tech like we normally are. They’re not even used to being removed from their tech. My son can use a mouse and keyboard, and you can tell that he finds it to be a clumsy experience. He wants to touch the screen on my laptop and have something happen. That makes sense to him.
Picture this – you have have a counter top and there’s a empty cup and a full pot of coffee on the counter top. You want to move the cup to the coffee pot, take the coffee pot off the heater, pour yourself a given amount of coffee, replace the pot, and then pick up the cup and drink it. Got that in your mind? Good. Now, you have two choices to make this fairly simple series of events come to fruition you can:
A) Have someone do it for you, all the while you’re giving them directions about the cup, its placement, how much coffee to pour, and all that. Or you could-
B) Do it yourself.
The way I see it, my generation and before have gotten used to, and very good at, option A. The mouse and keyboard are our ways of directing someone else to pour our coffee and how much. Yet we’re still removed from that tech just as much as we are from our (hypothetical) coffee. Our kids, they’re used to option B. They are, in a very real way, touching their data. You want to make a video full screen on the iPad. Do you click the maximize button? No, you simply take two fingers, place them close together on the video, and then move them apart like you’re expanding something tangible in the real world. Do you want to type something on the iPad or Android tablet? Fine, you physically type on the tablet.
Let me give you one more example you can see between the two generations. If I’m listening to something on my phone, or on the iPad, or whatever; I want to change the volume, what do I do? Without fail, I almost always reach over to the side of the device and fiddle with the physical up and down volume buttons to adjust the sound.
My kids, and I bet yours too, will tap the screen and use the on screen volume adjustment to fix things they way they like. And you know what? They’re actually more correct in doing so because, at least on an iPad and my Droid X, you can make very minute adjustments using the on-screen sliders. If you use the physical buttons, they adjust things by percentages or by a standard amount. There’s no precise adjustment like you get with an on-screen slider.
Like the other digital natives, today’s children don’t really understand what’s going on behind the scenes. My kids, and yours, haven’t the foggiest idea what a DNS is. They have no idea the difference between a static and dynamic IP. HTML 5? CSS 3? What?
But just like I have barely any idea how my car can turn my pushing down on a pedal into forward momentum, they too don’t need to know how everything works to use it well. And that’s the point, they’re using it far better and far more intuitively than the previous natives have been.