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Confessions of a Digital Native

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Call me a millennial, I don’t mind. But call me a digital native, that’s a bit of a stretch.

I was born in the tail end of 20th century, and until recently believed in Marc Prensky’s digital nativity theory. To see my two-year-old niece swiping and tapping and watching her rhymes on the iPad, I felt there is some truth to Prensky’s passionate appeal to modify education to keep education relevant for digital natives. But when I found out that I qualify as a digital native, I said, Homer Simpson-like, “wait a minute.”

To disprove the myth of digital native, let me tell you a story … my story.

I was born in 1985 in a tiny hamlet in the Himalayas. I attended one of the good public schools. It was only in 1995 that I was first exposed to the computer. To get a glimpse of the much guarded machine, students had to remove their shoes before entering the computer lab lest the machine gathered dust. Ridiculous rules.

So what did we do on the school computer? Besides running some long-forgotten DOS commands, we took turns playing Dangerous Dave, if the teacher was generous. She was generous twice a year.

If I recall correctly, it was in 1997 I witnessed Windows 95 for the first time. Once again, in the school computer lab. The computer suddenly looked a lot better with a GUI. The computer education still sucked though. Instead of experiencing MS Office hands-on, we were taught the theory in the class. The whole new terminology comprising of the words like “macros”, “pivot tables” left my little brain fried.

So much for digital nativity that I had no knowledge of Internet as early (or late) as 1999. That’s when I first entered a chatroom on Yahoo Messenger. The prospect of connecting with people around the world was so compelling that I coaxed my folks to get me a PC. In 2000, I can say with pinch of salt, my digital literacy started. I googled for the first time on my super slow internet connection.

Back in those days, Google wasn’t a search engine. It was some sort of mythical all-knowing answering machine (despite not so refined algorithm). As my interest in Yahoo chat weaned, googling things became a favorite pastime. I ascribe my education less to my school and to Google search more. In retrospect, my google searches should’ve been more academic.

Then came my PlayStation phase. I was instantly hooked to Grand Theft Auto. To me, GTA was more than just mindless clubbing of hapless pedestrians with a baseball bat or random carjacking. It was more about visiting an immersive virtual universe of an imaginary city, loosely based on Los Angeles. GTA made me culturally aware, introduced me good music (yes, you can change radio channels in the stolen cars) and improved my critical thinking. I believe strategy games have educational value.

If you’re still reading this you must be thinking that instead of disproving the myth of digital native I’m actually feeding it. Despite fitting the profile of a digital native, why should I deny being one?

For one, I don’t agree with Marc Prensky’s overgeneralizations. He says:

“Today’s average college grads have spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over

10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV).”

Where did he pull that stat out from? True that I got many a red eye playing video games late into the night but I’m sure if I add all that time up it’s nowhere close to 10,000 hours. It’s 1,000 hours tops.

Moreover, most video gamers I know are socially awkward loners (like yours truly). Most of my millennial acquaintances could never understand my addiction to video games. And I couldn’t understand the point of boisterous parties.

Marc Prensky also assumes that we, the digital natives, don’t like to read books. I for one devour more books than average Joe every year. I prefer real books over ebooks. Not that I don’t read ebooks at all, I don’t seem to finish them ever.

I’m not the only one who likes real reading over screen reading. Naomi S. Baron, an American University linguist studies digital communication. In her surveys she found that majority of digital natives prefer ink over e-ink. And most students still buy their books.

reading vs. e-reading

It is also said that digital natives do things intuitively than read manuals. This argument is partly true. In 2009, I was interning for a bank that had just launched a mobile app. I was assigned the task of conducting a study to ascertain people’s willingness to adopt banking technology. But before I started my research, my superior, a quinquagenarian, had to give me a demo of the mobile banking app. To help me get started he produced a tome of a manual. “Woah there, Grandpa,” I thought and took from him the phone with the application installed.

Five minutes later, I was intuitively figuring things out while he looked over my shoulder. In ten minutes, I had mastered the app.

But intuition doesn’t always help. Try using Pen tool in Adobe Illustrator for the first time. No amount of intuition can help you master the tool. So what do we do when intuition fails us?

We watch how-to video tutorials. A new form of user manual, if you like.

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