Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Digital Native or Digital Naive

Digital Native or Digital Naive

Serendipity leads to many of my blog posts, and usually the trigger is something simple. My daughter could not find her photos on her cellphone. She was not aware that most camera applications store images in a folder called DCIM. I knew the folder name but had to look up the acronym: Digital Camera IMages.

As we continued the conversation, she mentioned that she is one of the few of her friends that is able to move files into folders or onto a USB stick. 

Odd, these kids know everything… right? These are the Digital Natives… right? 

Several articles have hit my blog feed with the term "Digital Natives". A recurring theme is that the term might be used as code by recruiters to discriminate in favor of younger workers. Maybe the discrimination runs even deeper than age? What skills are "signaled" by the moniker "Digital Native"? Is it even a clear signal?

Three Real Underlying Problems

Most work requires the ability to analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and organize. The experiential knowledge and "Lifestyle Skills" of the millennials do not match up with competency knowledge and "Workplace Skills". Let's review three key problems.  

  1. Education systems and employers assume Digital Natives are capable and competent 
  2. Employment - skill set mismatch, weak skills overall, and very weak soft skills 
  3. Discrimination beyond the age demographic - embedded gender and socioeconomic issues

What is a Digital Native?

Let’s start with a clear definition from the Oxford Dictionary: "A person born or brought up during the age of digital technology and therefore familiar with computers and the Internet from an early age".

Setting the “Age” Boundaries

If "Digital Natives" can be represented by an age group or demographic, let's consider this Deloitte grouping. Of course, experts will argue about the exact cut-offs, but consider this age-based framework.
  • Matures (68+)
  • Boomers (49-67)
  • Gen-X (32-48)
  • Leading Millennial (26-31)
  • Trailing Millennial (14-25)

Hiring Discrimination Articles


Recruiters are looking for specific credentials when they ask for digital natives. Are recruiters looking for educational credentials, specific job skills – specifically computer literacy, or some other hidden, devious attribute? The argument for age discrimination, or at least strong signaling for age preference, seems to map towards the Leading Millennial demographic. That argument is simple and easy to understand, but may mask a deeper agenda.

Digital Native Claimed Expertise:
  • Browse and Search the web
  • Download an app, music and books
  • Watch a Video
  • Play games
  • Hail a cab
  • Make dinner reservations
  • Take a photo
  • Text Message
  • Post/Check social media
  • Multitasking

Digital Naive Hidden Weaknesses:

  • Search
  • Data Analysis (Excel)
  • Leading a Meeting or Team (Communication)
  • Managing Time (Prioritization, Focus) 
  • Constant need for approval, high self-assessment
  • Multitasking (Yeah, Stanford says "Not so much")

Problem 1 - Education - Lack of Curriculum and Tools

The MyMiolos (My Brain) blog lives… as web-based media. MyMiolos has the goal of showing techniques to leverage technology to improve learning. I use the Microsoft ecosystem (I’ll be on the lookout for Google and Apple ecosystem bloggers), create simple workflows to discover content, then provide users with plenty of use cases, examples, and templates. 

Unfortunately, the world still needs to build solutions for end users that need paper based solutions. The reality of the situation is that not all kids have access to technology resources, not all kids have a supportive after school learning environment.  

My daughter’s 6th grade assignment, the "Universe", will be expanded in the 8th grade. How can she carry the lessons of today… two years into the future? How do other kids, without access to computers, or to the internet, or to parental resources, manage to complete the assignment today?


School districts are adopting STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. In our area, The Austin ISD, Round Rock ISD, and Pflugerville ISD are up and running (Community Impact: “Local Schools Invest in STEM”. Teachers are scrambling to build curriculum for STEM. Decidedly missing is “Art” which lends to the STEAM acronym. Art in the broader sense, music, graphic arts, writing, are all pushed aside for the guaranteed future STEM careers.

Also missing is the basic study of how computers work -- as the local school district jumps directly into STEM classes for Architecture and Engineering. Maybe STEM is a new wrapper for existing curriculum. But, if foundational understanding is missing, then limited STEM focus is not built on the Monte Python Doune castle foundation, but is built like the Monte Python swamp castle.

Does Wide Range of Ability = Wide Range of Grades

We discussed the Science project at recent meeting with our middle school vice-principal and counselor. How were other kids able to complete this assignment?  The range of skills and knowledge would seem to indicate a wide range of execution. The assignment might be completed in 2-3 pages with simple definitions and small drawings. A better solution might have a separate page for each definition, graphics from online resources, etc. An electronic version (using the new Microsoft Mix product) might include embedded videos and quizzes - a multimedia smorgasbord. 

How does a teacher grade an assignment when the range of responses run from simple to exotic? 

What if the learning process is inverted (Flipped Classroom model)? Or, what if Seymour Papert’s book “The Children's Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer” (published April 1994) gains traction? Why study books when the computer allows serendipitous learning about anything?  (Amazon link at the bottom of the post). 

In 1993 Papert published "An Obsolete Skill Set, the 3-Rs" in Wired Magazine. He criticized books and book learning and the “practices, schools reflect (and amplify) the poverty of media that has plagued society in the past.” We have more access to more media types. Books, well they force kids into bad behavior. “Literacy should not mean the ability to decode strings of alphabetic letters.” 

Who needs a solid foundation, let’s build castles in the swamp!

Moving the spotlight from the 6th grade to college, the New York Times interview Arthur Levin in an article "Digital Natives and Their Customs", introduces the modern student -  pragmatic and emotionally fragile. Can you be passionate about your career if you start compromising on your major?
    “They’re much more pragmatic. They say their primary reason for going to college is to get training and skills..." that will lead to a job, and let them make money. They’re willing to have a major they’re not really interested in if they think there will be job growth in that field."
    "They’re much less likely than their predecessors to say they’re in college to develop their personal values, or learn to get along with different people."
"...And they have a great fear of failure."

Online Learning Example – A Personal Story 

Stanford Advance Program Management (SAPM) lectures are delivered via video, case studies, PowerPoint decks, PDF files and practice sheets. I took notes in OneNote while watching the videos, capturing key ideas, collecting screenshots, etc. I went the extra mile to purchase and read the two book that were part of the class (by Gerstner and Moore, linked below).

So, how did it go? Crappy. I failed the final exam for the Stanford SAPM class (multiple times). The Association for Psychological Science recommends the BIC method for taking notes… as in, get a BIC ballpoint pen and a pad of paper. 

The 6th grade teacher asked for hand-written definitions and drawings in full color -- employing the BIC method, forcing creative synthesis, and adding color for impact. My own Copy and Paste, and typing are not very successful. My daughter did hand-write all of her definitions in her class notebook. But, would she have learned anything if she had completed the project entirely in digital context.

Is there any truth to the idea that engaging more of the senses and motor skills will improve learning?

Problem 2 - Employment Mismatch

Employers want the perfect employee. Whether you consider soft-skills or hard skills, a corporate job description covers a range of the key attributes. Pull any job description and break down the employer requirements. Can you see how soft skills are required in combination with technical skill? Do millenials have all, or part of these skills:
  • Communication - listening, communicating, verbally and in writing, confident presentations. Must be able to contribute to innovative ideas; provide thought leadership to greater team
  • Computer Literacy - demonstrate intermediate level Excel skills, including the ability to quickly generate pivot tables, charts coupled with business analysis and, formulate recommendations based on data.
  • Time Management / Organization - Flexible, ability to juggle priority, multiple assignments, goal setting, project execution
  • Interpersonal, Cultural and Leadership skills - Ability to work in multicultural, globally dispersed workforce, able to motivate oneself and a team
  • Analytical Skills / Problem Solving Skills- Ability to identify, evaluate, and improve, using innovation creativity, and reasoning. Strong problem solving skills using complex tools and technology systems
  • Attitude - Ability to properly criticize and take criticism, dedication, passion

If computer literacy is air for the digital native, then the hard and soft skills required for success need to become air as well. Some companies emphasize the soft skills right in the middle of the hard skill requirements. For others you might find clues to the soft skill requirements listed in the Additional Qualifications section, or the Our Team Values. But it seems clear that the filter "digital native" does not satisfy  If the overlap of technical and soft skill is clear. 

Millennial Mismatch

It’s not hard to find evidence of the mismatch. BusinessInsider highlights the expectations gap of soft skills and unreasonable expectations by both employer and employee.   Forbes points to mismatch by describing the importance of texting and creating the perfect playlist. USA Today asks the basic question, “Aren't these kids well educated, with technology expertise and social networking skills like no other generation?” Then provides a firm rebuttal citing “poor work ethic and a lack of critical thinking and problem solving “.  Fox News reinforces the soft skills gap - if only the Digital Natives had soft skills. If. Only.  

Problem 3 - Race and Gender - Into a Dark Place

Alarms are sounding about potential age discrimination. After all, digital natives tends to be young. But a more subtle discrimination lies just below the surface.  The mainstream media has fixated on age, but academia is digging much deeper. 

The Evidence

ECDL.org provides computer skills certification. Their article “The Fallacy of the Digital Native” defines the digital native, then makes several clear points about the fallacy of the term. They highlight “Economic barriers to PC and Laptop ownership (access to resources), and “Gender differences in PC/Laptop ownership and time spent online.

WebUse.org points to an established handicap – socioeconomic privilege. Ignore the hot button term privilege, and consider "parental education... matters in explaining variation in user skill."

InsiderHigherEd.com provides precise examples of failure to leverage the expertise of librarians, and BoingBoing drives the final stake, "...at Illinois Wesleyan University, “The majority of students -- of all levels -- exhibited significant difficulties that ranged across nearly every aspect of the search process…” ...  "in other words: Today’s college students might have grown up with the language of the information age, but they do not necessarily know the grammar." 

A useful example, again from my daughter. Band assignments change in the 7th grade. After testing into advanced band, we received a nice note that said we should continue with summer tutoring sessions as condition to stay in advanced band. $45 a month for instrument rental and $125 for lessons - or, more than $2000 per year. This is a pretty high hurdle for some families to clear - regardless of race.

Author comment: I have a BA History, and spent many hours in cohort with Librarians whose brilliance is only exceeded by their patience. Tools, no matter how useful, cannot replace mentorship, cannot replace the expert, cannot replace people that care.

Why so much Ego Frailty

Why is the college to work transition so hard? Let’s go back to  “Generation on a Tightrope” by Levin and Dean (2012).

"This is a generation that was not allowed to skin their knees. They got awards and applause for everything they did, even if it was being the most improved, or the best trombone player born April 5. So it makes sense that they think very highly of their abilities, and expect to go on getting awards and applause."

It's only a short intellectual leap to see how the digital natives are attracted to the nacent social justice arguments for improved human rights (everything is becoming a right), living wages, non-discrimination, mass-surveillance, and privacy (please feel free to add to this list). The Matures and Gen-Xs are oppressing everyone!

The Bottom Line

The term "Digital Natives" may include embedded social barriers based on age, race, and gender. Educational assumptions about computer competency are too large, creating a digital effectiveness gap. At the same time that Digital Natives are considered “connected”, they lack the face-to-face soft-skills needed for workplace and the real world. No tool (not even the internet) can replace the underlying knowledge required for social and workplace success. Searching for the self-declared and self-absorbed digital native to fill a career opening is ineffective, and probably discriminatory – beyond age discrimination. 
Reading, Writing, Arithmetic, personal values and inter-personal interaction must resume their place as "core skills". Substituting “Digital Native” attributes will be a disaster. 

P.S. Put the phone down, and engage. 

[This blog has been reposted from MyMiolos, original post 05/20/2015]