Teaching the Digital Natives

If you grew up using computer games, e-mail, the Internet, cell phones, and instant messaging, you’re a digital native. If you grew up watching TV, reading, and dialing telephones, you’re probably a digital immigrant.

This distinction is critical to all educators, especially in nursing. Because digital natives grew up with the rise of digital technology, they are radically different as learners. Today’s average college grad has spent twice as much time playing video games as reading. Studies suggest that their immersion in digital technology has changed their thinking patterns and may have physically changed their brains.

Instead of learning in traditional ways—step-by-step in classroom settings—digital natives prefer to:

  • Receive information quickly
  • Parallel process and multi-task
  • View graphics before text
  • Have random access, such as with hypertext
  • Get instant gratification and frequent rewards
  • Interact with learning experiences, such as by playing games

Although digital-immigrant educators may believe digital natives can’t learn and retain information using these less traditional methods, research shows that’s when they thrive. Unfortunately, traditional teaching methods often don’t motivate or keep the attention of digital natives. All educators—even the most confident digital immigrants—need to provide learning experiences that capture and sustain the attention of digital natives.

Crossing the Digital Divide

Like real immigrants whose children adapt to a new culture rapidly, digital immigrants need to let their “children” teach them how to succeed. And to achieve desired learning outcomes, digital-immigrant educators must be responsive to the digital natives’ learning styles.

Educators need to communicate in the learners’ language and style. This means rethinking how they deliver information. To stimulate and motivate learning, for example, they may replace didactic presentations with learner-directed activities. To engage and instruct digital natives, they may use educational computer-based activities and e-Learning programs, such as Mosby’s Neonatal Nursing Course. Eileen Robinson, Director of Nursing Continuing Education, explains that all Mosby online courses “use creative learning methods, such as video clips and animations, to stimulate learning. They also include interactive exercises with instant feedback to motivate nurses to succeed as learners.”

If digital-immigrant educators are serious about teaching knowledge and skills to digital-native learners, they need to begin crossing the digital divide. For more details, check out Marc Prensky’s Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

Prensky, M: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon 9 (5) NCB University Press, 2001.

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