Digital Natives, Or Digital Citizens?

I often hear adults describing today’s young people as ‘digital natives,’ usually with a tone of resignation or acceptance: “They are so far ahead of us, but we can turn to them for help,” is the general message I hear.

My reaction is “Whoa there, Nellie,” because to me that kind of thinking smacks of abdication of adult responsibility. Yes, most young people know more than we adults because the fast-changing world of modern technology is alien to us, wildly different from the one we grew up in. But being a ‘digital native’ is not the same as being a ‘digital citizen.’ Young people have always needed ethical guidance and the security of rules and boundaries. That’s more true now because today’s technologies have unprecedented power to harm, as we have seen in documented cases of cyber-bullying and harassment.

I accept the general truth of what someone called the “Three C’s 1-9-90” rule of thumb, sad and depressing as it is. Only about ONE percent of young people are using today’s technologies to create; NINE percent are curating, collecting and critiquing, while NINETY percent are consuming.

If most youth — 90 percent — are texting, playing Angry Birds and Grand Theft Auto, and linking up on Facebook and Google Circles, then we adults should be ashamed.

Unless, of course, we are equally guilty.

And we are.

I would bet that the education community’s use of technology follows a “Two C’s 10-90” rule: TEN percent to create, and NINETY percent to control. I mean ‘control’ broadly, everything from keeping the school’s master schedule, monitoring attendance and grades, tracking teacher performance, and imparting the knowledge we believe kids need to have.

Our children may be digital natives, but we still need to channel their efforts.

If an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically. We need to find ways to move kids out of the 90% and into the 1%.

If, on the other hand, a central purpose of school is to produce willing consumers, well, we’re doing fine.

What about Sal Khan and his burgeoning Khan Academy? Doesn’t his approach blend technology and traditional learning in ways that are to be admired? Yes, of course. However, at least so far most of the energy has been devoted to helping kids master the required curriculum. I think that’s necessary, but it’s not sufficient.

Schools today must provide opportunities for young people to create knowledge out of the swirling clouds of information that surround them 24/7. You went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

(I speak about a lot of these themes at greater length in The Influence of Teachers.)

Here are a few ways to harness technology and foster creativity.

1. Every middle school science class could have its own hand-held air quality monitor (under $200). Students could take air quality measurements three times a day, chart the readings, share the information in real time with every other middle school science class in the city, region or state, and scour the data for consistencies and anomalies. That’s creating knowledge out of the flood of information, and it’s real work, not ‘homework.’

2. Students could use their smart phones’ cameras to map their own neighborhoods, documenting (for example) the number of trash cans on street corners. That information could be plotted and shared city-wide, and the data could be examined for patterns and anomalies. Are there more trash cans in wealthy areas? If so, ask the Mayor, the Department of Sanitation and the City Council for an explanation. Again, students will be turning information into knowledge. I wrote about this a while ago in more detail.

3. Why not measure water quality? A hand-held monitor/tester of Ph costs under $100, and the instrument that tests conductivity (ion levels, which relates to purity) is available for under $100. Turbidity — how cloudy the water is — is important to measure as well, and that can be done with an inexpensive instrument and a formula. Students could also measure the speed of the current and keep track of detritus. Then share all the data with other science classes around the city, region and state. Everyone could dig into the information looking for patterns. If one river’s water seems relatively pure until it passes point X, students could endeavor to find out why.

4. Teams of students with held-held Flip Cameras are invited to participate in our Shared Poetry Project and become producers for our YouTube channel.

If you click on the link above, I suggest you watch example #3, which was created by some middle school students in New Jersey.

Work like this is, well, real work. Students are creating knowledge; they are designing projects and seeing them through from beginning to end. These projects have to meet real-world standards because the results are in public view.

These young people will be learning (or reinforcing) real-world skills that will help them once they move out of school. They’re working together, they are gathering, assimilating and analyzing data, they are learning how to present what they are learning, and so on. This is career-track stuff, 180 degrees different from much of the ‘regurgitation education’ that is the hallmark of too many of our schools.

And here are two final benefits: the time they spend doing projects like these (and there are many more good ideas out there) is time they cannot spend playing games or otherwise consuming technology. And because they are using technology to create and are enjoying the fruits of their labor, they will be, I believe, less likely to use technology’s power negatively. Strong in their own sense of self, they are less likely to feel the need to bully and cyber-bully others.

Technology is not value-free. We have choices to make, folks.

16 thoughts on “Digital Natives, Or Digital Citizens?

  1. This is an interesting blog. However, the author maintains a mailing list that does not contain an UNSUBSCRIBE option. I believe that is illegal under the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003, 15 U.S.C. 7701, et seq., Public Law No. 108-187.


    • I just love it when people cite codes. Digital Citizenship is more complicated than Mr. Wang seems to realize, since it implies a digital government, and an openness to information rare at local, state, or federal zones. All it takes to make it work, however, is net citizen sophisticated enough to set his spam filter rather than rely on a piece of legislation.

      There’s also a whole world of digital citizenship built on social networking – Steve Clift’s e-democracy ( for just one example. Involving kids – at any age – in this kind of dynamic documentation is both fun and socially powerful. Locally, kids find their power and influence through the multiculturalism of public schools.

      While organizing minority voters is almost impossible for adults, engaging kids across the many minorities of our community assures some levels of parental involvement in what the kids produce. Our forums on city changes, transportation, housing, economic development and even the schools are far more diverse when kids realize what they can do to mobilize opinion. And their use of technology is lots more aggressive than Alinsky and old style community organizing, although both styles complement each other. The social digital network is a lot more accessible than the social physical network, but the physical one causes changes a lot more substantial.

      On the last day of the first successful Red Sox World Series, the state’s transportation planners scheduled a public hearing on a billion dollar expansion, intending a minimal turnout. When 600 people packed an auditorium build for 500, they got their billion dollars. And that took remarkably few phone calls, since it worked through about six major community email lists. And those lists were invented largely by 15 to 19 year olds.


    • I normally include a line inviting people to comment on the blog or to write me directly to be removed. Guess I forgot it this week. But your name has been scrubbed, hopefully in time to avoid litigation….


  2. John- Thanks for this thoughtful piece. Our team has been talking a lot about the difference between creating and consuming. Our students should be creating and writing everyday- not just consuming content on a high tech device.


  3. John, Why are you limiting students to the sharing of knowledge with their “city, region, or state?” Why not the world? The issues of water quality and air pollution (among many others!) are international and the solutions will not come from one city, region, state, or country. There are many examples of schools that are doing these types of knowledge creating projects either on their own with sister schools or through established projects like iEARN and GLOBE (where students contribute to NASA data).


    • No limits intended or desired. Paris, Texas and Paris, France. Greenwich in England and Connecticut, and so on….


  4. Love these comments but also the idea of helping young people see the value of “real work.” Homework has largely become a stick that no longer has meaning either by those giving it out without much focus and those being assigned it without much respect for asking why–they just don’t bother doing it any more.

    Having observed at a number of schools around the country, it is a critical difference with these natives we want to grow into citizens to make the work valuable. When students are focused on projects that they feel ownership for, that they feel are valued by others, and that causes them to grow in ways no assessment can truly measure, but that gives them a genuine sense of accomplishment, watch out! It never ceases to blow my mind. And it never seems to be limited by nomenclature traditional, charter, magnet, virtual, private or home school.

    Lastly, there is just something powerful about the creative process, which I believe you tapped into with this piece (as did the thoughtful posts in response). When kids of any age create knowledge or art or science projects or whatever, there is something amazing that is transacted. Watching them sustain their own learning this way is really awe-inspiring. I feel blessed to witness it more often than not, but still too little for the transformative effort we need to see in education.

    As John ended so well, “we have choices to make, folks.” Better make them count.


  5. Thanks for this thoughtful post on the difference between creating and consuming. Schools play an important role in helping kids use technology effectively, but most of kids’ media consumption happens outside of the classroom. In the expanded learning field, we (after-school educators, teachers, leaders) try to create more time for active learning, which includes not only using technology to reinforce classroom lessons but also to ignite creative thinking. Our young people are spending their out-of-school time telling their life stories through their avatars, designing solutions to common systems problems, and getting excited about using online content to teach their peers about everything from math to music. We are eager to find more ways to infuse creativity and active learning into schools, communities and homes—thanks for your ideas.


  6. You went to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. That was yesterday. Think how different today’s world is. Today’s young people need guidance in sifting through the flood of information and turning it into knowledge. They need to be able to formulate good questions–because computers have all the answers.

    I totally don’t buy this. People didn’t go to school because that’s where the knowledge was stored. If that had been the case, everyone would have been going to university libraries — they weren’t. Heck, we could have just sent kids home with good textbooks on the first day of school and called it good — we didn’t do that either. Things aren’t new. They really aren’t. I wish I could understand what all the hubub was about.

    Technology has made it easier to find more information more quickly, but much of the information that is online is superficial, lacking in authority, and repetitive. Most don’t have access to academic journals, for which you still must pay a fee to access. What, really, is the difference? Please, someone, explain it convincingly.


  7. You say “If an important purpose of school is to help ‘grow adults,’ then the creative use of technology — by adults and young people — must be ramped up dramatically. We need to find ways to move kids out of the 90% and into the 1%.”

    I agree but digital citizenry is not part of any high-stakes-test. Therefore, it will not help a teacher gain a better evaluation or a school “improve” by showing higher average test scores. Hence this “important purpose of schools” won’t come close to universally happening. Of course, today’s ideas on what accountability and achievement could change but don’t hold your breadth.


  8. Your recent blog post,“Digital Native or Digital Citizens?” really resonated with me. I applaud your push to get young people beyond consumers of information to creators and would suggest you go one step further – young people should be creators and USERS of information.

    At Earth Force, we encourage young people to use that knowledge to actually try to solve some of those community issues. Take your 3rd example, which talks about sharing water quality data. A laudable goal, but why shouldn’t young people use that data to improve their communities? One of our programs,GREEN (Global River Environmental Education Network program), provides opportunities for young people to learn more about their watershed and to use their findings to develop a project helps create lasting solutions to a pressing water quality issue.

    Earth Force has been running this program for the past 12 years, in a long standing partnership with General Motors. GM employees serve as mentors for young people, not only around water quality monitoring, but also as professionals who can ignite excitement and interest in STEM related careers. Together, with the help of local partners, youth learn to use water quality testing kits to analyze several variables in their local water systems. They use that data to help inform the issue they decide to address. Students acquire essential academic skills — critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving and decision making — while actively engaging their communities on water quality issues.

    We have found helping young people move from creators of knowledge to users of knowledge has an overwhelming positive impact. In 2011, 85% of students reported having a better understanding of environmental issues in their community as a result of their experience. 72% of students felt like part of a larger effort to improve their communities.

    Our young people are in a unique position, having grown up with access to technology and resources that many of us could not have imagined two decades ago. Organizationally we could do a lot more with technology and you have inspired me to add to our push to do just that.

    I agree with you that itis the responsibility of our communities and our education system to make sure students are armed with the civic skills necessary to harness these opportunities and become active, contributing citizens, no matter what their age.


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