Within the context of our twenty-first century society, technology has penetrated every aspect of our lives, be it personal or professional. The education system has not been exempt from the emergence of digitalization. Schools in our country are in a constant state of modernization in terms of using the new technologies in the process of teaching. Slowly but surely, teachers are adapting to these changes, as they find themselves surrounded by new teaching tools that they must make use of within their lessons. The immersion of the students in the digital world has prompted out the usage of the term ’digital natives’ in the process of teaching.
The concept of ’digital natives’ started to be used at the beginning of the twenty-first century, reflecting the idea that younger people today have been brought up in a digital, technology-saturated society. As a result of being raised in such a world, many of them have become proficient users and consumers of technology. The set of skills they have acquired through extensive usage of the digital tools at their disposal has led to a different way of perceiving online technology and different expectations when it comes to the role that technology plays in their learning. Upon closer inspection of their competences, they are natural multi-taskers who tend to be native speakers of this new digitalised world. Their expertise ranges from the use of computers, the internet to all the latest social networks and mobile technologies.
The questions that arise in the case of these digital natives from the perspective of learning-teaching are as follows: ’How do they feel about the learning process in schools?’‚ Do they learn differently?’ and finally, ’Are they truly native?’
To answer these questions we must first look at the main characteristics that can be identified with the digital natives. Firstly, they live in a world of computers and video games, which makes them highly susceptible to any teaching stimuli related to the topics of gaming or computer usage. Thus, lessons that have components where the students play some topic-related games are highly appreciated by the digital natives. Secondly, they are permanently connected to the online world, having access to any information they desire and being reliant on online content to provide them with anything they require. At the same time, they express themselves in ways mediated by technology by using platforms and networks where they communicate their thoughts freely. They equally have a large number of friends on the social networks (sometimes people they don’t even know). Being completely immersed in multiple online activities at once (playing games, watching videos, listening to music, talking to friends) they have developed the ability to multitask. This provides them with the ability to process information at a rapid pace, while also making them prone to being superficial when solving tasks. Finally, they are used to sharing photos and videos with their friends, which make them great candidates for audio-visual approaches to teaching. Their ability to react to online content and comment on various materials (Youtube videos, vlogs, etc.) creates the context for efficient English language learning, provided that technology is present during the learning-teaching process.
According to Jukes, McCain and Crockett „the digital generation has adopted a mind-set of rapid-fire trial-and-error learning. They’re not afraid of making mistakes because they learn more quickly that way’’. In this respect, digital natives are accustomed to making mistakes from their online activities, failing to accomplish certain objectives in games and so forth.
As concerns their learning preferences, they enjoy receiving information as fast as possible from diverse multimedia sources, they like to process pictures, sounds, video before written text, they want instant gratification with immediate rewards when they complete any task successfully and they prefer the type of learning which is active, relevant, useful and fun.
This leads us to believe that an engaging, interactive and entertaining style of teaching is greatly valued by these students. Recent surveys into the frequency with which digital natives make decisions have revealed that students are often bored at school due to the fact that they are asked to make decisions during classes at an average of one decision every twenty-five minutes, while they are accustomed to making decisions every ten to fifteen seconds when playing various computer games built to elicit a series of quick responses from the gamers, who are constantly rewarded for their reaction time. So, when it comes to succeeding at digital tasks, students can be extremely dedicated and tireless in their effort. Video games, as well as other digital technologies have taught the users that as long as they are willing to sacrifice enough time, they will be rewarded with the next level or a higher rank online, which demands the respect of their peers.
Lee Crockett, in his book Understanding the Digital Generation, considers that ’the digital generation is very much an intellectual problem-solving generation. Challenging puzzles, spatial relationships and other complex thinking tasks are built into the computers and video games they enjoy’. As a result of this, digital natives have their brains perfectly synchronized with the digital environment. Their life experiences are shaped by their experiences with digital technologies, which come naturally to them.
However, there is another aspect that needs to be addressed. Although we live in a digitalized society, not everybody has access to the available technology. There are students who live in villages that have no internet connection, or whose families do not afford to purchase the devices that would enable them to familiarize themselves with the digital world. Thus, we cannot imply that every student is a digital native. It often happens that teachers bring new technologies to their classes and they come to realize that their students are not as captivated as they hoped and the integration of a technology-based teaching style may not be as simple as initially anticipated. As Marc Prensky points out in his book, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, „…by virtue of being born in the digital age, our students are digital natives by definition, but that doesn’t mean that they were ever taught everything (or anything, in some cases) about computers or other technologies, or that all of them learned on their own’’
In short, digital natives constitute a vast majority of our students and we need to be aware of their needs and be able to exploit their digital skills within our lessons.
Teaching is a complex process, its main features being flexibility and adaptability. In the present-day teaching environment, technology is no longer optional within our lessons; it is a must, as it has the potential to greatly enhance the quality of the learning-teaching process and keep the students engaged and active during all stages of the lesson.