Digital Native Does Not Mean Digital Literate

February 15, 2013

Paul CurtisLast week, Alan November came to visit New Technology High School in Napa, California. When he visits schools, Alan likes to interact with students and probe how digitally literate they are. Because NTHS is a school with a long tradition of 1:1 computing and its teachers are very comfortable leveraging the power of technology to enhance learning in the classroom, I had expected Alan to be pleasantly surprised by digital prowess of the students there. Unfortunately, NTHS student did not do much better than the other schools Alan has visited and that got me worried.

Alan has a few standard tests for the students that he uses to gauge the digital literacy of students. First, he asks the students to tell him about the Iran Hostage Crisis. Like most teenagers who’ve grown up around computers, they quickly conduct a Google search and, after browsing the top two or three articles, confidently give a summary of the event. He probes a bit deeper asking them if their search might be missing something critical to understanding how and why the events unfolded. Again, the students confidently confirm that even the fourth and fifth articles reinforce what the first three had said and that they didn’t see anything they were missing. Next, Alan asks if there might be other perspectives about this crisis that need to be presented in order to get a full picture of what happened. At last, the students realized that they needed to learn about the story from the Iranian perspective … but how do you get that?

It turns out that Google has a whole bunch of advanced search options and search operators that allow student to fine tune their searches. One of those option is to filter the search by region. It didn’t take too long for our students to see that they could use country code “IR” for Iran and filter out articles that were not in English. It took them a bit longer to figure out that it might be called the “American Hostage Crisis” in articles written by Iranians, but eventually they were starting to access resources that showed a different perspective. More than just not understanding the technical aspects of advanced internet searching, Alan’s interaction with the students revealed that they are probably unaware of the biases inherent in the searches they conduct and that their confident answers should be presented with more skepticism. Just like textbooks, a quick Google search is just part of the story and students need to know how to find the rest if they are going to be academically prepared for college work and effective global citizens in a digital world.

Alan’s second challange to the students was to find out who “owns” the web site Again, the web has invented tools to help you discover this. One example is, which allows you to enter a web site and learn all sorts of things about the domain including when it was created, the city to where it’s registered and the name of the person or organization that created it. Very quickly you’ll notice that this page is owned by a Don Black of, a white supremacist group.

When New Technology High School first opened it’s doors, most homes didn’t have computers and even fewer had one connected to the internet. The staff would spend quite a bit of time teaching students how to use applications, conduct web searches, and even how to properly save their files. It was assumed that they didn’t know much about computers and we had to spend the time teaching them. As computers became more ubiquitous and schools began teaching computers at younger ages, the need for this intensive tech training seemed less urgent. But, to Alan’s point, this couldn’t be any further from the truth.

I think it is accurate to describe the youth as digital natives, but that doesn’t make them digitally literate. They are natives because they are at ease around technology and aren’t worried about pressing the wrong button or going to the wrong link. For digital immigrants, it seems the young can naturally navigate through computers, touch pads and smart phones with ease and always know the latest tricks. But these same kids are also digitally illiterate because too often they are blissfully unaware of why certain things end up at the top of a google search, of the quantity of misleading or false information they can be exposed to, and how to conduct advanced searches on the web to minimize these risks. The reality is that, as our society becomes more and more comfortable with and reliant on digital media, the need to fully prepare our students to be digitally literate is even greater.

Alan’s solution? We need to double down, not back away from, providing formal instruction on digital literacy to our students. This means getting the teaching staff fully armed with the knowledge and tools that allow them to incorporate digital literacy skills into the curriculum and expecting students to practice and demonstrate those skills regularly. When I was a kid entering high school (and again in college), I was given an orientation to the card catalogue, the dewey decimal system and how to look up things on a microfiche machine. Today, every student needs an ongoing orientation to the power and limits of the web and regular opportunities to develop the skills to navigate it so they can go beyond being digitally native Facebook surfers to become truly digitally literate scholars and citizens.