Revisit Our Assumptions About “Digital Natives?”

Posted by Phoebe Bailey on May 8, 2014

I am not an avid subscriber to YouTube channels, but I do have a favorite—TheFineBros.  I love their series Kids React.  Created in 2010, it features Fine brothers Benny and Rafi off camera showing kids, ages 5 to 14, videos or introducing topics for discussion. New clips are released weekly.

Black rotary dial telephone with red indicator light
The rotary telephone – a spiffy model with red indicator light.

In the last month, two clips made me laugh and feel old! The content of the first video dealt with how kids reacted to rotary phones. The second looked at their response to a Walkman. In the discussion of phones, kids were presented a rotary phone. The question was, “Where have you seen this?” Answers ranged from in the movies to reading about it in a history lesson. Most admitted they had no idea how to work the phone and did not know how to dial. It was quickly agreed they would not want to use it because it would take too long. When asked what a “busy signal” meant, one boy suggested it meant something was “loading.” All agreed they wanted to keep their iPhones.

A fan of the classics

As the Fine brothers debriefed, some kids reflected on how technology has advanced. They wanted to know if you could text with a rotary phone, and they felt using one would make it harder to call each other because both parties had to be home. However, one boy did say he liked rotary phones and stated, “I’m a fan of classics!”

Watching the clip, I realized most children have had no exposure to the phone I grew up using. They see the symbol of a handset on their iPhone but do not make the connection of where that icon originated. Yet It was only about 20 years ago that land lines were the standard, because cell phones were too expensive and impractical. DSL or cable Internet was something only the rich families had, so most computers connected to the internet using the same phone line that you needed in order to make calls.

Sony Walkman cassette player with earphones
The Sony Walkman was introduced in 1979.

The Walkman clip was just as funny—and just as depressing! When presented with a Walkman, initial comments included, “What is this, a walkie-talkie?” and, “What do I do?” One girl knew it was a cassette player but needed help to find the on button. They were told they needed a cassette tape but they did not know what that was. When given a cassette, they asked how to put it in. A few of the children stated they were not going to give up but felt it was “so hard.”

You have to do stuff!

After pressing play they were frustrated because they couldn’t hear any sound. They tried to solve the problem by turning up volume but were told they had to have headphones. When given headphones, one girl stated that her grandpa had them. When they finally got the player going, one girl said she felt “so accomplished” but another said it took forever and was too complicated. One of the more telling statements was when a girl said she felt “lazy” saying so, “but you have to do stuff.” One boy remarked that he “could not imagine living in your day.” Others said they “felt bad” for people living in the 90s.

After watching these videos, I thought about the generalizations adults, especially educators, make about “digital natives.” We assume all technology is easy for students to learn since they were born into a technology-focused society. Yet, if we assume students know everything about technology, aren’t we limiting their opportunities to learn and ask questions?

Experience not age?

Maybe it’s time we look at basing the terms digital native and digital immigrant on experience rather than age. Some users over 30 are very technology savvy while we have students that lack tech skills due to lack of exposure in their educational settings or lack of access at home. Educators need to remember everyone has their own skill set and comfort level with technology. We need to be able to meet the learning needs of all. Don’t be afraid to teach technology skills when needed or pair students up for peer tutoring. Perhaps most important of all, make your professional growth goal to become a digital native yourself to better enable you to convert those immigrants in your classroom! While you’re at it, check out Kids React and the other series on TheFineBros.

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Phoebe Bailey

Phoebe Bailey is director of the Southwest Arkansas Education Cooperative in Hope, Arkansas and a member of the Arkansas TICAL cadre.

3 thoughts on “Revisit Our Assumptions About “Digital Natives?””

  1. These are a great reminder that it’s often more about perspective than anything else. Thanks for sharing, Phoebe!

  2. I laughed since I made the mistake of thinking 2nd graders knew how to use the old telephone in the portable building on my campus. As principal I was supervising the playground as well as the painting of a mural going on in the portable classroom. I told them to just call my number and the office would tell me when they ran out of paint. I showed them the phone and the posted number, and had them repeat it so they could call. However, it was a dial telephone. When I returned they were out of paint. They told me they pushed inside the (dial) holes, but nothing happened. We do make assumptions.

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