Digital Hierarchies: Understanding the Limitations of the Digital Native

Ian Ross, Critical Digital Humanities

While organizing the discussion sections for a lower division class in semiotics, I organized a project which required student to engage with coding on a very stripped down level.  Working with the software program Frotz, which allows users to design and play text based interactive games (very much a highly specialized form of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure), I asked each student to design a short game and share it with the class via online discussion boards.  The purpose of the project was to force students to engage with the lack of inherent meaning in language in order to more clearly understand simulacra, and Frotz, which utilizes an English language based coding system functioned very successfully in this way.

However, what surprisingly didn’t work was the project in its entirety.  At least seventy five percent of my students had an extremely hard time understanding basic logic functions of coding, such as the on/off binary logic that of course makes up the building blocks of computer language- students had difficulty understanding the concept that the system must be told what something is and what something isn’t.  

On a surface level, this informs my response here in the sense that the digital native is perhaps not as pervasive as we have been lead to believe, even among young people with access to computer labs and a much higher proximity to social technologies.  However, more importantly this difficulty with coding, combined with the students’ presence on class message boards, lead to the creation in each of my three discussion sections of a class expert and a digital hierarchy. In each section, this class expert acted not only as a site of congregation around which students focused the majority of their digital presence, but as a source of information dissemination: each of these “experts” shared their knowledge freely and because of this boasted a much higher concentration of posts.  

This illustrates an interesting aspect that is often ignored in regards to the digital native: any form of digital public will by its very nature create a form of hierarchical structure and, depending of course on the nature of the site of congregation, a figurehead source of pedagogical information.  This site of congregation simultaneously allows for digital presence by a majority without any impactful degree of technical ability and for a figurehead who becomes, because of a highly noticeable digital presence, understood by outside observers as the norm. This perhaps suggests that the digital native is not only far less prevalent than we have previously understood, but that digital presence, even among sites that suggest technical literacy, is far more likely to be embodied by a consumer than a producer.


Image on front page from Marjan Krebelj and available on Flickr


I have seen similar realities play out in my own classes. My students are rather savvy with social media, but know little about production on the internet. What I know about coding was based as much on necessity as anything else. Hosting a blog in the late 1990s pretty much demanded an functioning understanding of at least HTML. My introduction to gaming engines and coding also came from being forced to do it in class. Web 2.0 makes it much easier to be consumers of content instead of producers and while open projects like The Code School exist, even our desktop GUIs are becoming more consumption that productive based (thinking of the newest version of Windows). While these hierarchies may exist, I am impressed that the open source nature of the web remains in this next generation of budding programmers in your class. Also, thanks for the idea of using Frotz

The widely-circulated “What Most Schools Don’t Teach” serves as a sort of PSA for tech literacy, featuring a bevy of tech rock stars extolling the virtues of learning to code. In the video, Dropbox’s Drew Houston makes a great point: “It’s really not unlike playing an instrument . . . or playing a sport.”

Curious, then, that we wait until college, generally, to even introduce the idea of code to most students. In music and sports, we fully expect kids to be exposed to the cultures and systems of those skills and hobbies in K-12 (and sometimes before). I only have to look to my own kids. They started soccer when they were 4, and piano when they were 5, but exposing them coding didn’t even occur to me until about a year ago, and ONLY when I tried to teach myself Python and Javascript.

I like to think I’m moderately tech-savvy: I’ve done a great deal of desktop publishing and WYSIWYG design, I can tweak WordPress themes and put together nifty vids, and I even knows a good amount of HTML and CSS. And yet picking up even the basics of programming languages has been tough for me: it’s like it just doesn’t “sink in." I wonder if it’s in part because I’m used to learning within a different framework, a framework whose foundation was molded in a childhood that didn’t expose me to coding.

I also should say that I really don’t think there are any fewer digital natives than we first suspected; instead, I’m guessing it’s the nature of their digital “homeland” that we’ve grossly misjudged. They are native to some things digital, but not to code; they’re native to button-pushing, to edutainment, to Siri, to viral videos, to lol and smh. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think young adults can’t get comfy with coding, and I don’t think we should stop pushing for everyone to dig in, but we should be careful that we don’t  expect them to rock out on guitar when all they’ve ever played is the recorder. 

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