Who:  phrase was coined in 2001 by education consultant Marc Prensky, in response to the growing disconnect between conventional teaching practices and the needs of the modern, tech-savvy student.   He argued the following:  "the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decade of the 20th century has changed the ways students think and process information, making it difficult for them to excel academically using the outdated teaching methods of the day."
What:  the group of learners who were raised in a digital world, saturated with interactive media viewed on computer screens and mobile devices.
The digital native, or millennial youth / learner, now requires a media-rich learning atmosphere to maintain a suitable level of engagement.  Although Presnky argues that this digital native applies to all children born after the 1980s, I would argue that the shift from Web 1.0 to 2.0, from one-way transmission of information from screen to viewer, to an interactive exchange between screen, user, and other users, would push the children born between 1980 - 1999 into the fridges of this generation, with the true digital natives being born from 2000 onward, in which their normal social development has been completely and totally altered and augmented by the presence of computers, mobile devices, applications, and programs.  
Today, it is not uncommon to see a 5-year-old using a tablet at a higher proficiency than a high school student at 15, a university student at 25, and, certainly, a working professional at 35.  Why?  Because IT literacy is yet another language that, now, must be learned and, like learning any other language, children acquire this language faster than their older counterparts with this acquisition of knowledge surging the fastest between 15  - 18 months (and significantly dropping off after 10 years of age).  
Naturally, cultural and socioeconomic factors play a significant role in this acquisition (refer to cultural capital, coined by Pierre Bordieu); however, if these digital natives are born into an environment where technological devices are readily available, they will learn how to incorporate these devices into their lives at an unparalleled speed, without much external instruction.  Thus, research on language acquisition has demonstrated that children exposed to complex structures are able to develop an understanding and proper use of those structures more quickly and accurately, versus children exposed to less complex structures.  Therefore, it is no wonder that the kids born after 2000 often sound like they speak a different language from those born before that date.  
At present, education is facing a massive change in how information is presented and learned by today's students and, for the past 20 years, education policies have been greatly focused on how to adequately prepare instructors for this monumental shift in the learning environment (Lei, 2009).  Unlike our younger students who seem inseparable from their devices, the vast majority of instructors require a lot more support in our professional pursuit to learn how to speak to our students in a "language" they understand.
However, regardless of the instructor's ability or desire to integrate technology into the learning objectives, the reality is that to remain professionally relevant in our teaching and training fields, we no longer have a choice.  To NOT integrate will result in an inevitable professional death.
Thus, to meet the educational needs of the digital natives, it is imperative to focus on the characteristics of the millennial learners (Price, 1 November 2011).

  • Millennials prefer active learning methods that focus on less lecturing, more multimedia use, and a greater collaboration with peers and instructors.  This is especially important considering their short attention spans that quickly shift elsewhere when not engaged.
  • Millennials want relevant information to (immediately) apply to their daily lives. Gone are the days of valuing information for information's sake.
  • Millennials need to understand the reason for the task or assignment.
  • Millennials prefer learning in an informal learning environment, rather than a top-down teacher-centred approach of learning environments' past.
  • Millennials expect instructors to develop a rapport with them by showing an appreciation for their interests and needs.

Although the solution to engaging the digital native is simple, achieving this reality is not easy.  Instructors must have a high level of IT literacy, schools and centers must provide students with "plugged-in" learning environments that are current, relevant, and readily accessible, and educational initiatives must focus on the development of policies that acknowledge this reality through proper instructor and student training and adequate funding to equip the classroom with the necessary resources to facilitate teaching and learning.
Before closing, a few things to consider:

  • As girls tend to develop language at an earlier age than their male peers, it will be interesting to see if this gender gap in language acquisition will result in evening the gender gap in the IT field.
  • Providing language support classes to immigrant children and children of immigrants is at the forefront of educational policies in countries with high immigrant residents.  As students arrive from countries with limited exposure to complex technological devices, will there be a growing need for IT-SL (information technology as a second language) classes for these students in order to help them compete with their IT literate peers?

 In closing, maintaining one's relevance in the teaching and training arena requires a vigilant commitment to upgrading technical know-how, as it is now a 'sink or swim' scenario for teachers of the modern learning environment.  
So... when's the next snapchat and instagram webinar taking place?  You'd better sign me up!
For further readings on how children learn language, look at the following theories:

  • Nativist theory
  • Empiricist theory
  • interactionist perspective
  • behaviourist theory
  • Piaget's theory of cognitive development

Further Reading:
Harker, R., (1990) “Education and Cultural Capital” in Harker, R., Mahar, C., & Wilkes, C., (eds) (1990) An Introduction to the Work of Pierre Bourdieu: the practice of theory, Macmillan Press, London
Lei, J. (2009). Digital natives as preservice teachers: what technology preparation is needed? Journal of Computing in Teacher Education, Spring, 25(3), 89.
Prensky, Marc (October 2001). "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants". On the Horizon 9 (5): 16.
Price, C. (2009). Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy? The Teaching Professor, 23 (1), 7.
Price, C. Five Strategies to Engage Today’s Students. Magna Online Seminar. 1 Nov. 2011.
Salajan, F., Schonwetter, D., & Cleghorn, B. (2010). Student and faculty inter-generational digital divide: fact or fiction? Computers and Education, 53(3), 1393-1403.

Katina is currently working as one of the Tutoring and Learning Center Advisors at George Brown College.  She has a B.A., an M.A., and TESL Ontario certification, and has been working in the teaching and tutoring field for the past 12 years, working in colleges and universities, public elementary and secondary schools, and private academies in Canada, South Korea, and China. Prior to working at George Brown College as the TLC Advisor, she worked as an English Language Trainer (ELT) at Acces Employment, where she facilitated an intensive 140-hour Business English and Canadian Culture course focused at preparing new Canadians to succeed in the Canadian workplace. Her teaching strengths lie in preparing students for conversation or public-speaking based tasks, including developing behavioural interviewing and presentation skills. Prior to joining the exceptional TLC team, Katina worked as a part-time Assessment Advisor and Proctor at all three George Brown campuses, where she was responsible for administering, assessing, and advising admissions' and placement students on their academic next steps.