Life and learning in the digital age

How can we as individuals, particularly those born before the digital age, navigate the technological terrain of today? Cathy Gunn goes in search of some answers. 

Does it worry you that technology is watching (and keeping records) of virtually everything you do? Are you baffled about the difference between Bitcoin and Blockchain; micro credentials and MOOCs? Do you mistrust Internet banking and believe all computer games belong on the list of problem gambling scenarios; or see people staring at smartphones and wonder what happened to social life, and always use a travel agent rather than book a trip online? Does some of this sound like jargon you don’t need to know and aren’t curious enough to find out?

If you answered ‘yes’ to most of these questions, the chances are you were born before Generation Z and their predecessors, the Millennials morphed into existence. Digital literacy is not a function of age, but what was around when you grew up does affect your ability to grasp new technology. If something wasn’t invented until you were an adult, it may not fit into an existing frame of reference - try explaining remote keyhole surgery or drone warfare to a 94 year old, who was a teen through WW11!

The lack of conceptual frameworks doesn’t mean you can’t learn, though it is harder to start from scratch, and work backwards from a visible function to the invisible principles that make technology work.

Anyone born in a developed country after about 1980 grew up with fast and ubiquitous Internet, instant access to all kinds of information (true or otherwise) social networks, online banking, entertainment, shopping and education. The high tech world is reality for younger generations, who live comfortably with technology and quickly become distressed if any of it breaks down.

The problem is, you don’t have to be interested in digital age technologies for them to permeate your life. They won’t go away if you ignore them. The worst possible case is that ignorance can lead to exploitation, and you could miss out on appealing opportunities. The problem is, how do you know what’s worth learning and what to avoid, or the difference between a scam and a genuine bargain? The answer is simple: critical understanding.

One of the problems with the current state of information overload is knowing what and who to believe. One of the advantages is that it encourages critical thinking beyond the demands placed on previous generations. If you want an informed opinion now, reading a national newspaper or listening to the 6 o’clock news is no longer quite enough. Exploring original sources of information and checking the credentials of reporters is easier now than it has ever been, with the power of digital technologies and a critical, inquiring mind. However, mistakes can still be made, as a high profile example will show.

Let’s start with the labels attached to current and recent generations in the developed world. Mark Prensky wrote about ‘digital immigrants and natives’ back in the 1990s. The analogy was obvious; younger people born into the technology rich world were natives, while previous generations were immigrants. While many ‘immigrants’ lived comfortably in the digital world, it was not their native environment. Digital natives, on the other hand, understood and formed the culture of the digital world in ways that later arrivals never could.  Technology had, according to Prensky:

“…changed the way students think and process information, making it difficult for them to excel academically using the outdated teaching methods of the day…children raised in a digital, media-saturated world, require a media-rich learning environment to hold their attention”.

The terminology was cool. The story was plausible, and many people embraced it to both criticise and redesign education systems. The problem was, it turned out to be based on the author’s opinion rather than empirical evidence, and was not entirely true. Research using the digital native definition as a reference point found many students in the relevant age group did not conform to type or behave as might be expected. But the idea had caught on. Some people ignore results that challenge its wisdom and still refer to it nearly 20 years on.

This is not the critical thinking necessary to make sense of the digital world, particularly in an era of fake news and alternative facts, where anyone can write a story and post it to the Internet from a plausible sounding source. The era of fake news is unfortunately also an era of undue influence, as reports of voter manipulation and election campaign shenanigans are dredged up from the digital mire. A worrying side of this is when people reach overload, don’t know what to believe and tune out. That is a victory for those who are pulling the virtual strings, if inaction becomes equivalent to compliance.

So how can we as individuals, particularly those born before the digital age, navigate this terrain with the wisdom gathered over a lifetime? Learn, embrace, explore, engage, criticise, discuss. Do anything, but don’t ignore!

Associate Professor Gunn is a leader on the faculty’s new Doctor of Education programme, Learning in a Digital Age

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