ATD Blog

What Do You Know: Should We Train “Digital Natives” Differently?

Thursday, October 27, 2016

You may have heard that younger workers should be trained differently because they’ve grown up with technology. Marc Prensky coined the term “digital natives” to describe young people who have grown up with technology infused in their everyday lives, with ever-present access to the internet and information through their smartphones and other devices.

As a result of his work and others’, people are calling for changes in the way we reach and teach people who have always had technology, digital interactions with others, and information literally in the palm of their hands.

I am discussing this topic because it came up again and again at a conference I attended recently. People told me that their companies were requesting changes to L&D processes to meet the needs of the younger workforce. They were happy to hear that there was excellent research on this topic.

As we usually do, before we talk about the research, I’m hoping you’ll take a stab at what you think the research shows. The question is just for fun. See if you can guess what the research has to say.

Should we teach our younger workers differently because they are digital natives? Select all that are correct.

  1. No, younger workers don’t learn differently so we should use the best instructional methods with them and others.
  2. Yes, younger workers naturally understand digital technology, computers, and the internet so we should use methods that are tailored for their needs. 
  3. Yes, younger workers process information differently so we should use methods that are tailored for their needs.  

Many have said that these new technologies have caused a fundamental shift in how younger generations communicate and get information, and this shift has changed how they need to learn.

This last point (in bold) seems common sense, but research helps us verify these claims as common sense can be filled with errors in thinking. Below I list the two primary assumptions that need to be tested in order to answer the question and test what the research says about each of them.

Is there a uniform group of digital natives with the attributes and skills that have been attributed to them?

This first assumption asks whether there is a uniform group of young people who have grown up with technologies infused in numerous aspects of their everyday lives. Smith reviewed the digital native debate and found eight digital native claims:

  • They possess new ways of knowing and being.
  • They drive a digital revolution that is transforming society.
  • They are inherently tech-savvy.
  • They are multi-taskers, team-oriented, and collaborative
  • They are native speakers of the language of technologies.
  • They embracing gaming, interaction, and simulation.
  • They demand immediate gratification.
  • They reflect and respond to the knowledge economy.

She cites study after study critical of these claims, showing evidence for wide variation in this group of young people in the United States and around the world. Bennett, Maton, and Kervin, likewise found little evidence to support Prensky’s and others’ claims. Instead research shows a far more complex and diverse view of how young people actually use technology in their lives. Bennett, Maton, and Kervin’s work found that a significant portion of this audience had lower skills, and this is consistent with other studies. Plus, the skills they had may not transfer well to other areas of life.

For example, there is a world of difference between reaching out to buddies on Snapchat and asking a colleague for information or help (or disagreeing respectfully).  (See my recent article on the increase in need for social skills.) There is also a wide gap between finding information online and analyzing its credibility, a critical information literacy skill, but one that many struggle with.

Other evidence shows that the primary predictor of digital competence is socio-economic status rather than age. Brown and Czerniewicz’s analysis shows only a small percentage of young people meeting the criteria and they were from higher socio-economic groups.

Does immersion in technology environments dictate a need to change how we train younger people?

The second assumption claims that because of their experiences with technology, digital natives learn differently than from earlier generations.

Claiming that an entire generation of people needs to learn a new way is, on its face, absurd, say Bennett, Maton, and Kervin. The idea of learning styles has been clearly debunked (see the Pashler reference) and the call for special learning styles for this group makes little sense. The best training primarily takes into account the needs of the tasks and people who will do them, not the age of the learners (there are limited exceptions where age may matter).

Prensky asserts that digital natives multitask, learn quickly, and process information differently.  Research has already negated these assertions. We don’t multitask when we think we do; we switch tasks and lose time while doing so, even though we don’t realize it. The assumptions about learning quickly make little sense when understanding limitations on working memory.

Perhaps we should be changing how we teach/train, but it’s not because of age. Yes, most training could be designed better (problems with too much content and not understanding what people already know, for example) but jumping on yet another foolish and non-useful bandwagon will not be helpful and will waste resources.


So now we can add the term "digital natives" to the pile of learning myths and silly terms that are used to sell ideas and programs to business and training folks, (Step right up!) along with neuroscience and learning styles. Caveat emptor.

Further Reading 

Bennett, S. J., Maton, K. A. & Kervin, L. K. (2008). The 'digital natives' debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5), 775-786.

Brown, C., & Czeriewicz, L. (2010). Debunking the digital ‘native’: Beyond digital apartheid, towards digital literacy. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), 357-369.

Pashler, H., McDaniel, M, Rohrer, D, & Bjork, R. (2008). Learning Styles: Concepts and Evidence. Psychological Sciencet in the Public Interest, 9(3), 103-119.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Smith, E. E. ( Fall 2012). The digital native debate in higher education: A comparative analysis of recent literature. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 38(3).

About the Author

Patti Shank, PhD, CPT, is a learning designer and analyst at Learning Peaks, an internationally recognized consulting firm that provides learning and performance consulting. She is an often-requested speaker at training and instructional technology conferences, is quoted frequently in training publications, and is the co-author of Making Sense of Online Learning, editor of TheOnline Learning Idea Book, co-editor of The E-Learning Handbook, and co-author of Essential Articulate Studio ’09.

Patti was the research director for the eLearning Guild, an award-winning contributing editor forOnline Learning Magazine, and her articles are found in eLearning Guild publications, Adobe’s Resource Center, Magna Publication’s Online Classroom, and elsewhere.

Patti completed her PhD at the University of Colorado, Denver, and her interests include interaction design, tools and technologies for interaction, the pragmatics of real world instructional design, and instructional authoring. Her research on new online learners won an EDMEDIA (2002) best research paper award. She is passionate and outspoken about the results needed from instructional design and instruction and engaged in improving instructional design practices and instructional outcomes.

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