Digital Native Teachers Become the Majority: Now What?

Monday, June 1, 2015 -- Darin Rasmussen

When I sat down to write this post, I intended to share an incredible fact with a surprised world—our country is on the cusp of having more teachers who are digital natives than ones who are analog. Since Marc Prensky first coined the term “digital natives” to describe students who grew up with technology around them, there has been an ongoing discussion about how teachers should teach these radically different students. As his thesis went, teachers were “digital immigrants” or “analog natives” who had to learn the ways of the Web, digital tools, and computers. When our teachers went to school, they had to learn in an analog context with textbooks, rotary phones, slide rules, and horses and buggies. Under this way of thinking, there was a huge chasm between the older and younger generations, and teachers had better learn the ways of their students’ generation to have any luck getting through to them. For a good exposition of this digital divide, check out the Zurn Institute’s frame of reference.

Now, we are entering a golden age where both students and most teachers are “digital natives.” According to the National Center for Education Statistics’ Schools and Staffing Survey, the median age for teachers is now 41. That puts the birth year for about half of America’s teachers at 1974 or later. To put this into context, this means that teachers at the median age were three years old at the time of the release of the groundbreaking Apple II in 1977. It also means that most teachers’ formative years came during the 1980s’ explosion of home computers, game consoles, dial-up services, floppy disks (a precursor to the flash drive), and other digital devices. Although one could put the exact year earlier or later, 1974 seems as good as any for setting the cutoff between the “digital natives” and the “digital immigrants.” The National Center for Education Information’s Profile of Teachers in the U.S. 2011 provides a more complete demographic breakout of teacher age:

Teacher Ages 2011

Digging a little deeper, the best research shows that the world is a little more nuanced than the digital divide and that the teacher is the critical component. It certainly doesn’t hurt a student’s potential for learning if he or she grows up with frequent computer access as the norm. However, there is a body of recent education research that discredits the concept of “digital natives” being the driving force for digital fluency. Instead, the bigger driver is a good teacher who is passionate about using technology for teaching, learning, and problem solving. Left to their own devices (dual-meaning intended), students of whatever age will focus primarily on games, entertainment, and communication with friends. They still need the guidance of teachers to show them how to develop digital skills. 

The teacher is the key to students successfully using technology as a learning and problem-solving tool. Students thrive when the teacher requires technology use not only for researching and writing but also to solve problems, work collaboratively, and develop creativity. This usage has implications for both administrators and teachers. Administrators need to invest in professional development for their teachers and make sure that technology implementation is a priority. For teachers, there is an imperative on using technology tools wherever possible.

Now, here is a concluding thought. There is one clear benefit to the increase in teachers who are “digital natives”—empathy. Teachers who grew up with technology may have had digital experiences as children that are useful—losing a floppy disk with homework on it is similar to losing a flash drive, dealing with a mean comment on a message board or in a chat room is similar to a mean tweet or blog comment, and having an “aha moment” in Lotus 1-2-3 or WordPerfect is a lot like having that experience with something in MS Office or Google Docs. Teachers having those experiences at the same stage in life as students may provide additional insights into generational understanding.