Debunking the “digital native”: beyond digital apartheid, towards
This paper interrogates the currently pervasive discourse of the “net generation” finding the
concept of the “digital native” especially problematic, both empirically and conceptually. We
draw on a research project of South African higher education students’ access to and use of
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to show that age is not a determining factor
in students’ digital lives; rather their familiarity and experience using ICTs is more relevant. We
also demonstrate that the notion of a generation of “digital natives” is inaccurate; those with such
attributes are effectively a digital elite. Instead of a new net generation growing up to replace an
older analogue generation, there is a deepening digital divide in South Africa characterised not by
age but by access and opportunity; indeed digital apartheid is alive and well. We suggest that the
possibility for digital democracy does exist in the form of a mobile society which is not
age-specific, and which is ubiquitous. Finally, we propose redefining the concepts “digital”, “net”,
“native” and “generation” in favour of reclaiming the term “digitizen”.
The research literature has spawned a great deal of discussion about the age or generational aspects
of young people today, with the dominant labels being used to categorise the present generation of
students including Net Generation (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005 ; Perillo, 2007; Tapscott, 1997),
“digital natives”(Prensky, 2001a), Generation Y (Perillo, 2007), Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000) and Generation C (Duncan-Howell 2008).
When Don Tapscott (Tapscott, 1997), originally coined the phrase Net Generation in 1996, whilst
provocative he wasn’t rigid in his use of the term defining the group quite broadly in terms of age,
generation profile and how new digital behaviours would impact on various aspects of life. The
later term “digital native” followed, originally coined by Prensky (Prensky, 2001a) to refer quite
specifically to young people who have grown up with digital technology and particularly being
used to describe a supposedly new kind of student entering higher education (Prensky, 2001b).
A serious problem with the idea of the “digital native” is that it is an “othering” concept. It sets up
a binary opposition those between those who are “natives” and those who are not, the so-called
“digital immigrants”. This polarisation makes the concept less flexible and more determinist in
that it implies that if a person falls into one category they cannot exhibit characteristics of the other
Whatever the terminology, the argument is that students today enter higher education having been
exposed to a wide range of digital technologies which did not previously exist, which is, of course,
accurate. The leap is then made that students are therefore all technically proficient using a range
of these technologies, and that “they do things differently”.(Prensky 2001a, 2001b) As a result, the
implication is that higher education practices need to change in response to the needs and
competencies of these incoming students. Learning environments should accommodate these
“more technology driven, spontaneous and multi sensory” youngsters (McCrindle, 2006; Prensky,
Within higher education internationally, it has been noted that these concepts have been widely
adopted with little critical reflection (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008; Bullen, Belfer, Morgan, &
Qayyum, 2008). Within South Africa the notion of the “net-generation” has also received exposure in the media as South Africans try to understand the technological habits of children (Clay, 2008),
readers (McLeod, 2007) and citizens (Pandor, 2008). Research on university students as the
“net-generation” has been foregrounded in recent local conference programmes such as e/merge
2008 (Halse & Mallinson, 2008), the First South African conference on the First Year Experience
(Broere & Kruger, 2008) as well as a specific stream on Educating the Digital Native at the
national higher education conference hosted by the Higher Education Learning and Teaching
Association of South Africa (HELTASA 2007).
The study and context
Our observations in this paper are based on an ongoing six-year research project into South
African university students’ access to and use of ICTs. This research has enabled us to explore the range of issues students face in terms of access to physical, personal, social and digital resources
which enable them to use ICTs (Czerniewicz & Brown, 2005a) and particularly how students use
ICT for learning (Brown & Czerniewicz, 2008; Czerniewicz & Brown, 2005b).
The project has consisted of three phases. The first phase comprised a survey conducted in 2004 1amongst 6513 students from six universities in one South African province. The research was 2then expanded to four more provinces; this second phase in 2007 surveyed 3506 students from a
further six universities. The surveys comprised 100 questions in three parts, access to ICTs (47 3questions), use of ICTs for learning (41 questions) and demographic details (12 questions).
Phase 3 in 2009 adopted a nested case study approach (Lieberman, 2005) involving a short survey
of 513 students identified as types through the previous phases across four universities. These
provided the basis for 100 first-level telephone interviews and 38 second-level interviews, and
culminated in six focus groups.
In this paper we draw primarily on data from the Phase 2 survey regarding when students first
started using computers, how or where they learnt to use computers, how they currently solve
computer-related problems, their type of off-campus access to ICTs, their reported self efficacy as
well as their demographic information and use of cell phone for learning. The data reported on is
from Phase 2 unless otherwise stated.
1 Western Cape
2 Gauteng, Limpopo, North West, Free State and the Eastern Cape 3 The full survey can be viewed online at Http://www.cet.uct.ac.za/virtualmobius 2
Using a mixed-method approach (Creswell, 1994), the project need was to collect baseline information across a wide group as well as to move beyond fact gathering to a multi-layered understanding of the issues of access and use for students in higher education. The statistical analysis is descriptive, using the data to contextualise and understand various perspectives as the survey has largely focused on experiences and perceptions. Like others (Bjoern, 2005; Creswell, 1994; Roberts, 2002), we argue that the interpretive approach in which we operate allows for both 4. quantitative and qualitative data
In terms of how representative the 2007 sample was of the national population of higher education students, they comprised slightly more undergraduates (89% in the sample compared to 85% in the 5population), the same gender mix (55% females) and slightly more international students (10%).
As the sample was drawn from only four of South Africa’s nine provinces, the home language mix of sample was not reflective of the national higher education population and was dominated by Afrikaans (23%), isiXhosa (20%), English (15%), seSotho (14%) and seTswana (12%). Context
The study has been taking place in a local context which both echoes and distinguishes itself from universities globally. Like universities world-wide, South African higher education institutions are facing increasing massification, with both more students entering higher education (enrolments increased by 25% between 1995 and 2007) and increased diversity. The increase (22%) in Black African students since 1993 is especially high and due to substantial changes in the sector since the end of apartheid in 1994. Gender is evenly balanced within the sector with only marginally higher male participation in higher education compared to female (53% male) (HEMIS, 2004). Despite challenging and resource-constrained conditions, there are indications that South African universities are investing substantially in ICT infrastructure, either with their own resources or with the assistance of grant-giving organisations. In the light of such investment, knowledge of actual use, especially for educational rather than administrative purposes, is essential. Very little such research is taking place, and none is being funded by the state, or the sector itself, as is the case in other countries.
Debunking the “digital native”
The digital native is problematic as a concept and likely to be offensive as a term. One criticism to be levelled relates to labelling itself. Helsper, for example warns that continued use of this terminology such as “digital native”, as well as the ideas associated with it, could have unexpected consequences for young people in terms of how they do (or do not) manage negative and risking online situations (Helsper, 2008b).
4 The argument presented in this paper is best supported by the quantitative data. While some qualitative data is included here, this is mostly reported elsewhere.
5 The latter perhaps because 3 of the 6 institutions were noted as having high numbers of international students ranging bt 8-10%.
Labeling is indeed problematic and this label particularly so, an aspect that only a handful of
researchers have remarked on. We agree with the argument that deconstructs the discourses of the
terminology as it might appear to teachers and students, with all its the negative connotations.
Bayne and Ross suggest that the terms construct the “native” as the future and in the commanding
position while the “immigrant” is constructed as the old, the past and obsolete (Bayne & Ross,
2007). They go on to explain that such language “inevitably evokes complexities and anxieties
around migration, integration, and racial and cultural difference in Western society”.
However, in our South African context (and presumably other colonised countries) “native” is synonymous with colonialism, apartheid and domination and does not connote images of
superiority and the future. In this situation, it was the natives who were constructed as backward
and the “settlers” who brought civilisation. The irony of this has not been lost on all, as Song (Song,
2008) comments that it makes him “think about how “digital natives” are being marginalised in
Africa”. Indeed, we could adopt a cynical perspective that this westernised digital realm is yet
another colonising attempt to force western norms, beliefs, attitudes and cultural values on the
“natives” in an attempt to get “them” speaking “our” language and thinking the way “we” do.
These observations are especially pertinent given that Prensky is not satisfied with these
metaphors of colonialism and has now created an evolutionary metaphor, homo sapien digitalensis,
which reinforces the linear modernist connotations of backwardness and progress. Thus homo
sapien digitalensis is imbued with "digital wisdom” given, he argues, that digital technology can
make humans not just smarter but truly wiser (Prensky, 2009). These evolutionary connotations of
natural selection and extinction imply betterment, advancement, advantage and opportunities for
the future for those who are evolved, and the opposite for those who have not suitably progressed.
The implications that people are born into something that determines them and which they cannot
change is problematic. Also problematic is the implied power relations and superiority attached to
those with particular sets of skills and dispositions . The positioning of some students as being
better than others evokes a digital digerati – a cyber elite (Levine, 1999).
The concept is not empirically supported
In addition to these ethical and conceptual problems, the concepts and claims about “digital
natives” and the net generation have also been empirically challenged. Indeed McKenzie argues
that the application of concepts such as neuropsychology which underpin the argument for the
“digital native’ is flawed (2007). At the same time Bullen et al (2008) and others argue that there is
insufficient empirical evidence to support the concept. Others contend that whilst there might be
differences between younger and older generation in terms of their use of technology, there is as
much variation in skill within the “digital native generation” (Bennett et al., 2008; Kennedy et al., 2006) as between generations.
In our own work, the concept does not stand the scrutiny of the data itself.
Not about age, experience more important
Age is supposedly a determining feature of the concept of the “digital native” in the net generation.
However age is not a determining factor in our study in the South African context.
We explored the age profile of our students to see how it relates to their access to and use of ICTs
in order to separate out the issues of age and digital practices. Using the commonly applied
chronological scheme pertaining to the millennial generation as being born between 1980 and
2000 (Howe & Strauss, 2000; Reeves, 2008), we examined the generation of university students
born since 1982. Whilst South African universities are dominated by the millennials with 54 % of
students being under 22 years old (drawn from the most recently available data on age from the
drawn from the Higher Education Management and Information System - HEMIS - for contact
institutions), students’ enrolment spans a range of age groupings including a significant proportion of students from the previous generational cohort, Generation X, born between 1961 and 1981.
Table 1: Age profile of South African university students: a comparison of HEMIS 2002
data and the survey data
Age HEMIS 2002 % Survey 2007 %
Total (n) Total (n) < 22 yrs 252837 54% 1804 65% 23-25 yrs 74080 16% 752 27% 26 -29 yrs 19690 4% 108 4% 30-34 yrs 42818 9% 49 2% 35 plus 80723 17% 53 2% TOTAL 470148 2766
This is in accord with other international higher education contexts where “mature age” students also comprise a notable portion of the higher education sector.
An examination of the subset of students from the “millennial generational grouping”, reveals that
half (52% n=926) of this group of students have more than six years experience using computers.
Only 27% of the students might be described as having “grown up digital” as indicated by having
used a computer at least since they were twelve years old and having more than 10 years
experience. In contrast, 32% of students within this group have fewer than four years of experience
using ICTs, with a subset of 17% of students having fewer than two years experience.
Figure 1: Years of experience using ICTs for students under 22 years of age
These findings demonstrate that within South African higher education, students born into the millennial generation cannot be assumed to have grown up digital, nor can homogeneity be assumed in terms of computer experience. Rather, it is evident that the range of skills and experience of the students within “the millennial generation” is diverse.
In addition, an examination of the range of experience across the age groupings shows that within each grouping there are students with low, medium and high levels of experience. Also, a similar percentage of students in the older age grouping (26 to 42 years) has more than 10 years experience using ICTs when compared to the younger age grouping (<22 years old). While this might have been acquired at a different stage in their lives (and could account for differences in cultural values) (Rettie, 2002), it does not provide evidence for younger students being more digitally experienced than their older counterparts. In addition whilst the relationship is statistically significant given the large sample size, its effect (Cramer’s V of 0.08) demonstrates a
negligible association between age and experience (Kotrlik & Williams, 2003).
Figure 2: Range of years of experience using ICTs across all age groupings
These findings concur with research internationally over the past few years which have considered
whether or not one can associate particular characteristics with “the millennial generation”.
Empirical evidence refuting the homogeneity of this grouping is confirmed in other contexts such
as Canada (Bullen et al., 2008), the United Kingdom (Margaryan & Littlejohn, 2008), New
Zealand (Sherry & Fielden, 2005) and Australia (Kennedy et al., 2006).
Not a generation, but an elite
The claim is that students of a whole generation are “digital natives”. We found that only a small
percentage of students met the criteria of the “digital native” as defined by using Prensky: a
person from the millennial generation; one who has grown up with digital technology, one who
comes to university familiar with computers; and one who is purported to learn to use computers
informally - either teaching themselves or through social networks such as family and friends -
rather than needing to be taught.
The specific survey questions from which we draw the data are provided in Table 2.
Table 2: Survey questions used in the paper
Question no. Question Options A8 Do you use a computer off campus? Yes / No A9 If yes, where? (Select between one and Work
three answers) Where I live
Other (please list) A11 Can you connect to the Internet off campus? Yes / No 7
If yes, what type of connection do you most Dial up
often use? (Select only one answer) Broadband (ADSL)
Cell phone (GPRS, 3G, HDDPA)
A18 When did you first start using a computer? <2 years ago
2-4 years ago
4-6 years ago
6-10 years ago
A19 How did you originally learn to use a Taught myself
computer? Learnt from family
Learnt from friends
Training course at university
Formal credit bearing course (eg semester long computer science etc)
Commercial training course (eg ICDL)
Generally as part of my courses
Other (please write) A24 Where do you seek help when you have a (Please rank in order of 1 = first choice, 2 = second choice etc)
problem doing something with ICTs? Problem solve yourself
Ask family .
Ask institutional IT support
Refer to manual/ help pages
Lab assistant/ tutor/ lecturer
Other (please list) .
We therefore linked our data to Prensky’s criteria by considering students who were younger than
22 years old in 2007 (ie born after 1982), had more than 10 years experience using a computer,
indicated they had learnt to use a computer by teaching themselves or through social networks
(family and friends), and who reported being able to solve ICT problems themselves or by drawing
on supportive social networks.
Table 3: How we determined the digital native subset of our 2007 survey data
(n) % of total Digital native criteria
2743 Total sample with age details provided
1804 66% Number of sample under 22 years old
474 17% Number of under 22 year olds with greater than 10 years experience
352 13% Number of subset that learnt to use ICTs themselves of through social
331 12% Number of subset that solves ICT problems themselves or through
We found that these criteria applied to only to a small percentage - 12% - (331) of our students.
Interestingly, if one ignores the age factor, there is an additional small group of students (157
individuals, 4% of the sample), who exhibit “digital native” characteristics but are older. These
would be termed digital immigrants by Prensky as they are aged between 22 and 26 years old.
This shows that in our context, “digital natives” are not simply young millennials as they span a range of ages.
Overall the “digital native” group is comprised evenly of male and female students from mostly
high (45%) and average (36%) socio economic groupings. In terms of home language most speak
English (32%) or Afrikaans (40%). They have excellent off-campus access at home (73%) often
with more than one way of using computers off campus ie an additional portable device (40% of
this group). They acknowledge the benefits of having easy access off campus “quiet location,
resources at my disposal, my own room, as much time as I want, no waiting, my own space to
spread out” Digital Native [S2-I-2599]. They also have high practical access as 41% have sole access to ICTs and of those who share
access 30% are the primary users and 24% share access to ICTs equally. Of this group of “digital
natives” 75% rate their ICTs skills as good or excellent, and they know the value of this as
indicated by this less than modest comment “I enjoy ICT as I'm able to navigate and find all that I
need from the internet and do the required varsity work with ease so yes my knowledge and skills
are perfect.” Digital Native [S2-I-3056] Almost two thirds (65%) have a high social use of ICTs, for some this being a priority: “I enjoy it
not for learning as it is complicated and boring, but for socializing with friends, being updated
with the latest sports news and viewing the latest pictures of items and video clips of them” Digital
Being a digital native in South Africa clearly speaks of advantage. At the same time, this
advantage is relative as in the South African context even “digital natives” are operating within an
environment of serious resource constraints relative to the rest of the world. South Africa has very
poor bandwidth per Internet user. Current ITU figures show that South Africa operates on
852bits/sec compared to 55281 bits/ sec in the United Kingdom and 15341 bits/sec in the United
States (International Telecommunication Union, 2007).
Digital apartheid: deepening divides
The “digital native” literature posits that one is either a native or an immigrant. What if one is not
even in the picture? In South Africa there are groups of students who do not exist in the prevailing
There is an important group in our study of students (22% - 734 individuals ) who lack both
experience and opportunities, as they have been using a computer for fewer than four years; and
have no direct access to ICTs off campus. These students do not fit into Prensky’s notion of “digital immigrants” as they are outsiders to the digital world as it is commonly conceptualised.
We have termed this contrasting group the “digital stranger”.
The “digital strangers” comprise more women (56%) than men, are largely South African (93%) with 80% speaking a South African language of African origin as their home language. Of the
group, 93% describe their access to ICTs off campus as difficult with 49% having no access to
ICTs off campus and a further 28% having very poor access off campus (ie only through a third
party eg Internet café, friends and family or community centre/ library). Students are explicit
regarding how much of a problem this is: “ it’s a disadvantage for students who don’t live on campus & don’t have access to it at home” Digital Stranger [S2-H-1291].
Figure 3: Types of access to ICTs off campus by socio economic grouping
A closer look at how just one of these variables (socio-economic group - SEG) impacts on
students’ off campus access shows that 57% of students with no access to ICTs off campus are
from low SEGs and 44% of those who access ICTs through a secondary source are from that same
group. This does show a statistically significant relationship (Chi-square of 207 p = 0.00) although
the association is weak (Cramer’s V 0.18) (Kotrlik & Williams, 2003). Even for those who do have some level of access this amounts to very low practical access as 68%
share a computer with more than four people and 57% are not the primary user of the computer
they have access to. Eleven per cent of students in this grouping think their ICT skills are poor and
44% think their skills are average. That they are aware of their outsider status is clear from their
comments, of which the following two are typical: I am concerned that my ability, knowledge and access to using computer is very limited. It is important in my course and information about
employment” Digital Stranger [S2-J 353], and don’t feel that enough is being done to assist them, “ I have lack of knowledge and I am concerned about my level of skills/knowledge… the support I
receive does not meet my need and do not receive any training” Digital Stranger [S2-H-1715].