What on earth is a digital native?

Children of the internet age may not be gifted computer nerds.

Secondary and upper-secondary school classrooms are full of skilled digital natives who know computers inside and out, code for fun and create the most intricate presentations using the latest apps. In terms of computer and communication technology skills, the students are worlds beyond their teachers.

"This is a myth. It is not true. Few pupils are digital whiz-kids. And usually the teacher understands computers better than the pupils," states Ari Myllyviita, teacher of chemistry at the Viikki Teacher Training School, who is in charge of IT training for the school’s teachers.

Similarly, Kirsti Lonka, professor of educational psychology at the University of Helsinki, states that approximately half of all young people in Finland are at a basic level of IT skills. About a quarter are active gamers, and some of them may know something about code. Only about one in ten is a skilled creator, coder or YouTuber, for example.


For two years, the Viikki Teacher Training School has tested the IT skills of all first-year upper-secondary school pupils. According to Myllyviita, the test results have been mixed, with some pupils even demonstrating poor skills. Pupils particularly struggle with the basics of spreadsheets and photo editing. Most are unfamiliar with the more advanced functions of text editing software. Only 80% could send an email attachment without problems.

"The skill level came as no surprise to me. I've seen them in class," Myllyviita says.

The modest computer skills of the upper-secondary schoolers in Viikki cannot be explained by a poor quality of the student body. Last autumn, the minimum grade average required for admission was 9.4 (10 being the highest grade).

According to Myllyviita, the poor IT skills of the Viikki pupils is no exception. Similar problems exist elsewhere.

Professor Lonka explains the phenomenon as a generation gap. For example, young people today consider email a historical remnant, and prefer to communicate through WhatsApp or similar services.


The American author Mark Prensky invented the concept of the digital native in 2001. He used the term to describe a generation that had not lived in a world without the internet and mobile devices.

Originally, the term made no value judgment on the IT skills of the digital natives themselves.

"Young people in this generation are not afraid to handle technological devices. They are happy to try new things, unlike many of us older people," Lonka says.

After the early 2000s the digital native concept has often become associated with exceptional IT skills. In a school context, this misunderstanding of what it means to be a digital native can be downright harmful.

"If we teachers think that our pupils already excel at using IT, we give ourselves permission to not develop our own skills. We may think that we don't have to know how to use software and applications, or that young people already know everything and don’t need to be taught," Myllyviita points out.

According to him, young people cannot be blamed for the hyperbole surrounding their skills. They do not see themselves as all-powerful digital natives. Often they are very open about needing improvement. The mistake is in the imagination of the adults.


Myllyviita has a simple explanation for the mixed skill levels among the Viikki teenagers: IT studies is not a compulsory subject in secondary school, even though many schools offer it as an elective. Currently, ICT teaching is integrated into the teaching of other subjects.

"No one is in charge of teaching IT skills. We class and subject teachers have not been trained to teach IT. Often there is so much to teach in our own subject that there may not be time for anything else," Myllyviita explains.

His primary suggestion for improving the IT skills of young people is to make IT classes compulsory in secondary school.

Meanwhile, Lonka emphasises that a course in IT skills is not enough on its own.

"Learning IT is like learning a language. A single course can help, of course, but the skills will deteriorate if not actively used. We should be using digital tools more in all classes. The best way to learn IT skills is to use IT in a sensible way."


According to Kirsti Lonka, Finnish teachers are amazing in many ways, but their IT skills are their Achilles' heel.

The weak skills of the teachers are particularly detrimental to pupils who are adept at using the new digital technologies.

"Digitally talented pupils enjoy school significantly less than average. Some of them feel quite cynical about school."

The professor sees a connection between Finland's lagging PISA scores and the poor digital skills of its teachers.

"We've become complacent about our PISA scores. We've become stuck with the idea of our excellent schools, which were excellent a decade ago. It's time to move on. For example, Estonia, the European country with the highest level of digital integration, has surpassed Finland in the PISA rankings. Next spring, we will collect information from the four countries with the highest PISA scores in 2015. I'll be analysing the results in the summer," Lonka explains.

Myllyviita and Lonka believe that all teachers should have certain information and communication technology skills. They are part of a teacher's core competence.

"However, it would be difficult to set specific skill requirements for all teachers, as technology advances at such a dizzying rate. The list of necessary skills would expire in a year," Lonka muses.

The key thing would be for teachers to emulate their fearless pupils. New digital gadgets are constantly arriving on the market. Teachers should dare to explore them, and not just stick to the familiar old thing.

"We don't all have to know everything. It's good to network, and teachers can also teach each other. And digital skills can never surpass the significance of a face-to-face conversation," says Lonka.