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Digital Natives


I had planned to followup my article about Apple with an article about the differences between my generation of computer users and my children’s generation.  The impetus for my original plan was watching my eight year old daughters search Google the other morning for the term “cute baby animal pictures.”  When I saw that Google was able to synthesize that request and deliver links to some very cute baby animals, I thought about the term Digital Native which I had first heard a few years ago from West Virginia’s First Lady, Gayle Manchin.  Gayle is a former elementary school teacher and is passionate about learning about ways in which technology can be used in education to assist teachers and children with the process of learning. 

The term she referenced originated with Marc Parensky, founder of Games2train and considered to be one of the world’s foremost experts on the relationship between games and gaming technology and the learning experiences of today’s young people.  Parensky holds Masters degrees from Yale, Middlebury and the Harvard School of Business and has been an advocate for the use of technology in classrooms for years.  Parensky has even worked with the Department of Defense to establish an educational program that embraces the use of games as positive educational tools.

The lesson I learned from observing my daughters at play was that children who have access to technology are able to utilize it and to think, act, and learn in ways that are vastly different than the way we learned years ago.

Today’s issue of Inside Higher Ed features an interview with John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, authors of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, which focuses significantly on data collected at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, where both work.  The two explore the digital context in which today’s young people are learning and analyze the impact of their digital environment on their learning experiences.

Digital Natives seem to have an advantage in today’s world (and, according to the Berkman Center, not all youths are digital natives; it is a label that depends on the individual’s access to and frequency of use of digital technologies).  Technologies are expanding and shrinking our world simultaneously, opening doors to means of communication and commerce that 100 years ago were not conceivable.   At the same time, technology brings far off international neighbors directly into our homes via emails and webcams.  Today’s students have access to a wealth of information (including a growing number of primary documents which, as technologies improve, have been provided as images on many websites, including the Library of Congress) that their parents did not.  Even with such remarkable educational opportunities available via the Internet and other technologies, there are problems associated with the use of such technologies which require serious consideration.

Advocates of the use of the Internet and other technologies in classrooms, Palfrey and Urs state that given the omnipresence of digital technology in a student’s world, teachers must become fluent in the issues associated with copyrights and discerning between legitimate Internet sources and those that lack academic legitimacy.  The authors note that many of the young people with whom they spoke did not know that Wikipedia entries can be edited by anyone with an Internet connection.  Only a minority of the students, according to Palfrey and Urs, realized the problems that the Wikipedia system posed to the site’s credibility.  They also discuss the academic challenges associated with a rising “cut-and-paste” culture among digital natives and conclude that parents and educators must proactively inform digital natives about the ethical and unethical use of other people’s work. 

While there are obvious dangers in the prevalence of digital technology in the classroom, the benefits, I believe, are worth the risk, a risk which can largely be avoided by a systemized curriculum which integrates the use of technology with frequent lessons on the responsibilities associated with using it.  Of course, not every course lends itself to the use of technology and academia must remain mindful of this as they define the balance between appropriate uses of technology and inappropriate uses of technology in the classroom.  As an online university, APUS is obviously a strong advocate of the use of technology in the classroom.  In fact, it is online technology that forms the cornerstone of our classrooms!  We have the distinct advantage of being able to use the Internet to provide quality educational opportunities to our students while using our Discussion Boards as a means of providing the typical Socratic method of dialogue between students and teachers, a mix that allows students to benefit from both.

When I cast an eye on the broader K-20 educational platform, it is imperative that we provide our students with not only the access to the technology but also access to teachers who have been trained in the appropriate pedagogies to provide learning experiences that inform and enrich the student and prepare them for the challenges of an ever shrinking or “flattening” world.



Wally Boston Dr. Wallace E. Boston was appointed President and Chief Executive Officer of American Public University System (APUS) and its parent company, American Public Education, Inc. (APEI) in July 2004. He joined APUS as its Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer in 2002. In July 2016, he retired as APUS president and continued as CEO of APEI. In September 2017, he was reappointed APUS president after the resignation of Dr. Karan Powell. In September 2019, Angela Selden was named CEO of APEI, succeeding Dr. Boston who will remain APUS president until his planned retirement in June 2020. Dr. Boston guided APUS through its successful initial accreditation with the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association in 2006 and ten-year reaccreditation in 2011. In November 2007, he led APEI to an initial public offering on the NASDAQ Exchange. During his tenure, APUS grew to over 100,000 students, 200 degree and certificate programs, and approximately 90,000 alumni. In addition to his service as a board member of APUS and APEI, Dr. Boston is a member of the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA), a member of the Board of Overseers of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, a board member of the Presidents’ Forum, and a board member of Hondros College of Nursing and Fidelis, Inc. He has authored and co-authored papers on the topic of online post-secondary student retention, and is a frequent speaker on the impact of technology on higher education. Dr. Boston is a past Treasurer of the Board of Trustees of the McDonogh School, a private K-12 school in Baltimore. In his career prior to APEI and APUS, Dr. Boston served as either CFO, COO, or CEO of Meridian Healthcare, Manor Healthcare, Neighborcare Pharmacies, and Sun Healthcare Group. Dr. Boston is a Certified Public Accountant, Certified Management Accountant, and Chartered Global Management Accountant. He earned an A.B. degree in History from Duke University, an MBA in Marketing and Accounting from Tulane University’s Freeman School of Business Administration, and a Doctorate in Higher Education Management from the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. In 2008, the Board of Trustees of APUS awarded him a Doctorate in Business Administration, honoris causa, and, in April 2017, also bestowed him with the title President Emeritus.


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