True digital natives

Authors: Jonathan Grudin
Posted: Tue, April 22, 2014 - 12:49:32

They’re coming. They may not yet be recognizable, but some are walking—or crawling—among us.

The term digital native was coined in 2001 to describe technology-using youths, some of whom are now approaching middle age. At an early age they used family computers at home. They took computer skills classes in school. They met for other classes in computer labs or had device carts wheeled in. They acquired mobile phones as they approached their teen years.

They are not intimidated by tech. But they aren’t fully digital. Paper and three-ring binders are still alive and well in schools. Last September, Seattle was plagued for weeks by a shortage of bound quadrille-ruled notebooks. Many schools still ban mobile phone use, reinforcing students’ longstanding suspicion that school has little to do with the phone-tethered world outside. Scattered reports of BYOD in the workplace alarm IT professionals, but employers generally assume that new hires will adopt the technology that comes with a job. Enterprises see the disappearance of technophobia as a plus, failing to anticipate the new challenges that will accompany greater technophilia.

Today, a different cohort is starting to emerge. Psychologically different. Not the final stage of digital evolution, but a significant change.


A previous post described forces behind the spread of device-per-student deployments: changes in pedagogy and assessment methods, sharply declining prices resulting from Moore’s law, manufacturing efficiencies, and the economies of scale that accompany growing demand.

“One laptop per child” visions began almost half a century ago with Alan Kay’s Dynabook concept. Kay pursued education initiatives for decades. The nine-year-old OLPC consortium aimed unsuccessfully for a $100 dollar device, encountering technical and organizational challenges. The site’s once-active blog has been quiet for six months. Its Wikipedia page reflects no new developments for two years. Media accounts consist of claims that OLPC has closed its doors; these are disputed, but the debate speaks for itself.

I don’t question the potential of digital technology in education. Yes, pedagogy, compensation and ongoing professional development for teachers, and infrastructure are higher priorities to which OLPC might have paid more attention. But digital technology is so fluid—when there is enough, it will find its way. OLPC was cycles of Moore’s law ahead of itself—but how many cycles? If nine years wasn’t enough, might another two or three suffice? Pedagogy is improving and infrastructure is coming into place. Support for teachers is the one area of uncertainty; let’s hope it picks up.

Insofar as technology is concerned, the light at the end of the long tunnel is getting bright. Capability grows and cost declines. For the price of several laptop carts five years ago, a school can provide all students with tablets that can do more. And 1:1 makes a tremendous difference.

The obvious difference is greater use, which leads to knowledge of where and how to use technology, and when to avoid using it. Students who use a device for a few hours a week can’t acquire the familiarity and skills of those who carry one to every class, on field trips, and home.

Some features make little sense until use is 1:1. Consider a high-resolution digital pen. Most of us sketch and take notes on paper, but for serious work we type and use graphics packages. Education is different: For both students and teachers, handwriting and sketching are part of the final product. Students don’t type up handwritten class notes or algebraic equations. They draw the parts of a cell, light going through lenses, and history timelines. Teachers mark papers by hand. When lecturing, they guide student attention by underlining, circling, and drawing connecting arrows.

Only when students carry a device can they use it to take notes in every class. When everyone has a high-resolution digital pen, a class can completely eliminate the use of paper. It is happening now. It would happen faster were it not for the familiar customer-user distinction. The customers—such as school board members deciding on technology acquisition—think, “I don’t use a digital pen and I’m successful; isn’t it a frill that costs several dollars per device and is easily lost or broken?” They don’t see that reduced use of paper and substantial efficiency gains will yield net savings. They don’t realize that students who are familiar with the technology will use it to become more productive workers than their predecessors, including those who are today making the purchasing decisions.

There are unknowns. We have learned that when everything is digital, anything can appear anywhere at any time, for better or worse. But in the protected world we strive to maintain for children, digital technology can and I believe will be a powerful positive force. The world’s schools have started crossing that line. A flood will follow.

Leveling the field

When prices fall and other features come into alignment, future use will resemble today’s high-functionality tablets with active digital pens. These devices are not over-featured and are already much less expensive than a few years ago.

The flexibility of well-managed digital technology supports a range of learning styles. An elementary school teacher whose class I visited last week said that her greatest surprise was that struggling students benefited as much as or more than very capable students: The technology “helps level the playing field.” This echoed other conversations I have had. A teacher who was initially skeptical about a new math textbook remarked that after a year he was convinced: The adaptive supplementary materials accessible on the Internet “keep any student from falling through the cracks.” He still felt the textbook was weak on collaboration and other “21st century skills,” but concluded “a good teacher will add them.” In a third school, a teacher recorded parts of lectures as he gave them, using software that captured voice, video, and digital pen input. He then put them online for students who missed class, were not paying attention, or needed to view it a second time. On some occasions when he was not recording, students asked him to.

The most dramatic leveling occurs when technology allows students with sensory and other limitations to use computers for the first time. When I first saw a range of accessibility accessories and applications in active use a year ago, it was eye-opening: Children who had been cut off from the world of computing that we take for granted could suddenly participate fully. It took me by surprise. The tears streaming down my face were not of joy—I felt the isolation and helplessness they had lived with.

Only a device that supports keyboard, pen, voice, and video input along with software that supports a range of content creation, communication, and collaboration activities will realize the full potential. However, 1:1 deployment of any device—tablet PCs, kindles, iPads, Chromebooks—when accompanied by appropriate pedagogy, professional development, and infrastructure not only provides benefit: It is fundamentally transformative, as described in the next section.

From direction to negotiation

When a computer is used in a lab, delivered by a device cart, or engaged with for part of a class period in a station rotation model, the teacher controls when and how it is used. When a student carries a device everywhere, use is negotiated. Students can take notes digitally in a technophobic instructor’s class. Student, teachers, and parents decide, with students often the most knowledgeable party.

The psychological shift with 1:1 goes deep. Students can and often do personalize their devices in various ways. Their sense of responsibility for the tool and its use creates a symbiosis that didn’t exist before. New hires today might use what they are given—that is how they were trained in school! Tomorrow’s students who arrive with years of responsibility for making decisions will bring a knowledge of how they can use digital technology effectively and efficiently. They will expect to participate in decisions. They may or may not use what they grew up with, but they’ll know what they want.

1:1 classroom experiments are underway and succeeding, even in K-5. These kids may not take devices home, but when they are not reading books, playing outdoors, and interacting with family members, they will probably find a device to use there as well.

Born digital

What next? These could be early days. Moore’s law hasn’t yet been revoked. Harvested energy R&D moves forward. Imagine: An expectant mother swallows a cocktail of vitamins, minerals, proteins, and digital microbes that find their way to the fetus. In addition to monitoring fetal health, will the sentinels serenade it with Mozart, drill on SAT questions, introduce basic computing concepts? Born digital—the term is already in use, but we have no idea.

Thanks to Clayton Lewis for comments and discussion.

Posted in: on Tue, April 22, 2014 - 12:49:32

Jonathan Grudin

Jonathan Grudin works on support for education at Microsoft. Access these and related papers at under Prototype Systems.
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