Digital Natives, Digital Learners

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The article focuses on the transformation of (adult) education and training. In addressing the word digital native, the article advocates a more reflective examination of our implicit basic assumptions about digital learners.

The Digital Learner

The digital learner is learning accompanied by technology or by instructional practice that makes effective use of technology. It includes various practices including blended and virtual learning. Digital learners realise the possibilities and potentials of digital technologies in their environments. They recognise the opportunities technology presents in their working and private life.

Development of digital technology provides also opportunities for creating appealing and enhanced learning processes. There is a shared agreement that if approached correctly, digital learning can enhance learning in three main dimensions: deliver more, cheaper, and better learning (Beblave et al, 2019, p. 8). Digital learning offers the opportunity to learn “old” subjects with new methods so people can learn, through a structured and systematic method, but also new subjects and new skills (e.g., coding), which are increasingly important for working and taking part in society.

The Digital Native – A Myth?

There are still widespread perceptions that digital learners are the so-called “Net generation”, technology-savvy students who have grown up immersed in technology and whose way of learning is shaped by this.

Millennials, Net Generation, Digital Natives and Digital Learners are concepts put in circulation mainly to underline the facts that the rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century created a generation that have spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, videogames, digital music players, cameras, cell phones, and all the other tools of the digital age. Even at the beginning of the century the average college graduate spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games. Computer games, emails, the Internet, cell phones and instant messaging became integral parts of their lives (Prensky, 2001).

And while students changed radically, the educational system was slow to adapt to them, their capacities and needs. That is why some observers of the early years of digital technology point to the disconnection between what students wanted and what they received.

Marc Prensky defines the students born in the digital era as “digital natives”. They are “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet. He suggests the concept as an alternative to the concepts of N-generation/N for Net/ or D-generation/D for digital. Those who were not born into the digital world yet are fascinated by it, he labels as “Digital Immigrants” (Prensky, 2001). Harnessing that fascination to advance training delivery should be the focus for those less familiar with technology‘s impact on training.

There are critical voices in the current discussions about educational policy and practice that challenge the mind-set which considers students who were born in an age of digital media to be fundamentally different from previous generations of students. Critics argue that there is not convincing data showing that students that have been labelled digital natives and have been ascribed the ability to cognitively process multiple sources of information simultaneously (i.e., they can multitask) are radically different from that of previous generations.

Paul A. Kirschner and Pedro De Bruyckere (2017) present scientific evidence showing that there is no such thing as a digital native who is information-skilled simply because they have never known a world that was not digital. The authors also present evidence that one of the alleged abilities of students in this generation, the ability to multitask, does not exist and that designing education that assumes the presence of this ability hinders rather than helps learning. These and other studies hint that the “Digital Natives” perspective seems to be inappropriate and insufficient at describing the current learners. Some features of the widespread expression “Digital Natives” and many associated assumptions have been demystified (Rapetti & Cantoni, 2012, p. 9).

Studies: Generation is not Central

Literature reviews of the concept of “Digital Natives” and related terms (Gallardo-Echenique et al., 2012) explore how viable the idea of a homogeneous generation of prolific and skilled users of digital technology born between 1980 and 1994 is. The authors conclude that on the basis of the findings,

  • there appears to be no commonly-accepted definition of a “digital native”.
  • there are a number of variables other than age that may help us understand the nature of students’ use of digital technologies.

The so-called “digital native” literature demonstrates that despite students’ high digital confidence and digital skills, their digital competence may be much lower than those of their digital teachers. Most students are comfortable with computers and smartphones, they know how to interact with technology and participate in the digital culture but being digital users is different from being technology creators.

Toward digital literacy

To prepare students for future jobs, some educators advocate focusing mainly on practical digital skills, including coding or at least knowledge about the software they use in order to be able to take full advantage of the technology available. Students have to learn how cloud data storage works, what technologies should be in place for basic cyber security, how to use current technology, such as choosing the right tool for a particular task or how to incorporate digital media into a specific presentation in order to become a more knowledgeable future workforce, even if they don’t have coding skills.

Thus the concept of digital skills is expanded to “digital literacy“, which reflects the importance of asking questions and examining how technologies impact culture, communication, creativity, and social interactions. Digital literacy teaches students to think critically about how technology impacts their world. This way, the term “digital literacy“ encompasses 21st-century skills related to the effective and appropriate use of technology. It is the “ability to use information and communication technologies to find, evaluate, create, and communicate information, requiring both cognitive and technical skills” (ALA). Digital literacy builds upon and expands the skills that form the foundation of traditional forms of literacy.

Instead “digital native”, “digital immigrant” and “digital literacy”, several authors propose to centre on the concept “digital learners”, where the focus is on a person, capable of learning and engaged in learning processes accompanied by technology.

Studies are showing older adults or elderly people learning and acquiring digital literacy skills, especially when they are strongly motivated or they know the functional benefits related to ICT (Martínez-Alcalá, 2018). Learning digital skills helps them to enhance their everyday life, to remain independent in their own home. It generally has a positive impact on their lives, from sending emails and online banking, to carrying out tasks around the home, connecting with family or playing games with friends online. Digital activities in everyday culture such as food shopping, keeping track of appointments, controlling home temperature, checking the weather and getting prescriptions motivate adult learners to acquire skills that make their life simpler, easier and more interesting. Learning new digital skills has a positive effect on their mental and physical health and general well-being and enables them to live independently for longer. Being aware of how digital learning improves the quality of life of the elderly, many organisations such as Digital Boomers, UK (Digital Boomers), provide services to help elderly people learn technology, and results show that their ability to learn is very high.

There is also a growing understanding that digitalisation in the everyday life of all generations has become a particularly pervasive influence on culture due to the internet as a mass form of communication, and the widespread use of personal computers and smartphones. Digital technology is so widespread around the world that the study of digital culture potentially encompasses all aspects of everyday life. As a set of values, beliefs, artefacts, rituals, etc., digital culture starts to distinguish itself from other forms of culture. For example, values such as efficiency, connectivity and more networked, collaborative and participatory forms of “doing things” become distinct characteristics of digital culture in comparison with its predecessors, like the print or broadcast cultures. From an educator’s point of view, to design a learning methodology within this new culture context means to create an open and dynamic process based on interactive communication and to create conditions where digital creative processes of different media could converge.

Traits of Digital Learners

Digital learners are technical and well-positioned to use internet and technology in learning. They are looking for possibilities to use digital technology and to realise its potential. They are also busy and impatient. Studies show the workload increase after the recession of 2007-2009, when managers and employees were under pressure to learn and adapt quickly to new realities by reading and absorbing a vast amount of information (Worrall & Cooper, 2014). Most learners of online courses are impatient and intolerant to complexity, they demand the information to be split up into manageably sized pieces and the content to be digestible: avoiding long texts and having images and videos that present the information in an easy to absorb manner.

This fast increase in the use of digital technology has led to negative health effects, including addiction. In 2010, the term “digital detox” was introduced as a form of coping with overload through periods of time away from technology. The expectations towards digital platforms are related to smooth operation and quickly loading, offering help when necessary and accessibility from everywhere and at anytime using various forms of equipment like laptops, desktops, tablets or smartphones.

Most digital learners are impartial to which kind of equipment is used. What they want is the flexibility to learn when it is convenient for them. Studies by the Pew Research Center suggest that more than half of adults in the USA and Europe use two or more devices every day and more than 20% use three or more (Pew Research Centre, 2019).

Digital learners are social – many of them use various social platforms to gather information, exchange opinions, present their work or follow important sources. This type of learner is always connected and seeking information from many sources. They are textual as well as highly visual, processing pictures, sounds and video along with text. Digital learners are experiential, social learners. They like to interact with other learners to explore and discuss information, have higher trust in other users’ experiences, and draw their own conclusions.

Other key features of digital learners are the skills and confidence to become a competent and autonomous learner in a digital age. Learner autonomy is presented as the ability to take charge of one’s learning, to hold the responsibility for all the decisions concerning all aspects of this learning, i.e.: determining the objectives, defining the contents and progressions; selecting methods and techniques to be used, monitoring the procedure of acquisition, speaking properly (rhythm, time, place, etc.), and evaluating what has been acquired (Holec, 1981). Another association is that of self-determination or authentic engagement on the part of the learners to proceed with learning and in agreement with the learning contexts (Willems & Lewalter, 2012). The digital learners often are independent learners who are able to teach themselves with guidance (e.g., YouTube videos) and expect learning technology to be intuitive.

This means that the digital learners nowadays are not merely users or consumers of technology. Their technology experience becomes more and more complex and their participation in the learning process becomes more autonomous and focused on areas that they find significant and responsive to their needs. Digital learners prefer to construct their own learning; they may enter into learning at any point in the process.

It is clear that the current concept of “digital learner” rejects generational boundaries and generally accepts all learners - indiscriminately and without prejudices. It adopts a socio-cultural, anthropological, communicational and pedagogical approach through learners’ perspectives. Digital learning is multi-generational, encompassing all ages and taking into account situational realities regarding access and participation levels.

According to Dan Pontefract and his Digital Quadrants Model, to create equal opportunities for learning, it is important to create equality in the opportunity to access digital environments and participate in the digital world. The four quadrant classifications are based on the learner’s willingness to participate in the digital world and the degree to which they choose or are able to access and use the digital environment.


While this model underlines that learning occurs with the aid of technology regardless of age, it also pays attention to the reality of unequal access to digital devices and internet, which is the situation of millions of people in the world – disconnected nomads who need the biggest level of assistance from a global perspective. The other group of willing participantsare engaged in the learning process, but for them technology access becomes a burden due to lack of devices to get online or lack of skills and confidence to connect to the internet and use technology. On the other side, the connected lurker is a learner who has a number of technologies and levels of access at their disposal, but they consciously decide to be an infrequent participant and consume, absorb and interpret available information rather than actively participate with others or contribute back. Finally, the collaborative learners have access to devices and the internet most of the time, if not always, so they have the opportunity to be connected and to participate in the learning process. They seek out content and knowledge and are willing to contribute back to their networks.

Digital Competences

Development of digital competences is a key to enhance the abilities of the digital learner. The digital competence is one of the eight key competences for lifelong learning recommended by the European institutions (EU 2018/C 189/01). It refers to the confident and critical usage of the full range of digital technologies for information, communication and basic problem-solving in all aspects of life. More Digital Competences

Professional Competence

The European Framework for the Digital Competence of Educators (Redeckers, 2017) is directed towards educators at all levels of education, from early childhood to higher and adult education, including general and vocational training, special needs education, and non-formal learning contexts.

It presents a scientifically sound background framework to guide policy and to implement regional and national tools and training programmes

Application of the Frameworks

These frameworks are already in use in most European countries. For example, students in the final grades in their secondary education are tested for their digital competence. The results of European studies regarding digital competence highlight conclusions of particular interest to policy-makers (Eurydice, 2019). Despite the challenges related to the acquisition and assessment of digital competences, it is clear that the frames are facilitating the development and application of digital skills among students and educators.

Conclusions for Education

It is important to notice that digital learning is meant to enhance learning, not simply continue it via digital means. Technology represents means for more engaging learning opportunities for all. From the perspective of education for democratic citizenship and human rights education (EDC/HRE), developing digital competency means supporting citizens to participate safely, effectively, critically and responsibly in a digital world. Improving the effectiveness of such education in formal and in-formal settings means organizing it in a manner that is accessible, sustainable, participatory and of high quality. EDC/HRE educators need to understand and empower today’s digital learners and to make effective use of technology, including applying practices related to blended and virtual learning.

Being part of and understanding the everyday digital culture puts educators in a position to design learning processes and guide students to acquire a range of competences, attributes and behaviours that utilise opportunities of the digital world while building resilience to potential harms. The EDC/HRE educator needs to guide learners to make sense of the ocean of information, to be critical and selective and to know how to engage effectively and responsibly, exercising their rights and participating in the affairs of the community.

The concept of “digital citizenship” views education as a continuous process of lifelong learning taking into account the context in which learning takes place. Students are trained to engage positively, critically and competently in the digital environment through responsible use of technology. They are also given an opportunity to be autonomous in some parts of their learning process by selecting devices of their choice or by studying and exploring issues using their choice of methods and techniques.

Teaching EDC/HRE to digital learners in a digital environment becomes an open, creative and interactive process that relies on use of different media and on the engagement of collaborative learners.

Daniela Kolarova

Daniela Kolarova, has an MS in Psychology, PhD in Sociology and teaching experience in civic education and conflict transformation. Her recent interests are in communicating, thinking and learning in a digital world.Managing director of Partners Bulgaria Foundation.


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Education and Learning


This text was published in the frame of the project DIGIT-AL - Digital Transformation Adult Learning for Active Citizenship.

Pirker, G. and Martínez, R. (Ed.): Education and Learning (2020). Part of the reader: Smart City, Smart Teaching: Understanding Digital Transformation in Teaching and Learning. DARE Blue Lines, Democracy and Human Rights Education in Europe, Brussels 2020.