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A Look at Digital Natives

By Dennis Depp, Associate CIO, University of Minnesota

Dennis Depp, Associate CIO, University of Minnesota

Have you watched how 20 somethings use the internet? My 21 year old son does everything on his cell phone. I’m not just talking about texting, Snapchat and Instagram. Last year he filed his taxes online. Like many of his digital native brethren, he is a consumer of technology he does not understand. To him the difference between a cellular connection and a Wi-Fi connection is unimportant. He only cares about connectivity, not the technology. Before we criticize him for his lack of understanding of this technology, let me ask a question: How is your electricity generated? Does this affect how you use electricity? Let’s look deeper into the habits of these digital natives and see how their perception of technology is changing our world.

"Imagine if the Instagram model for delivering content was merged with the flipped classroom"

I mentioned my son filed his income taxes online last year. This year I was shocked to see commercials from TurboTax where the cell phone was the only technology in the commercial.

You may have seen these commercials. TurboTax brings in all these really smart people to tell us how easy it is to do your own taxes. Last year I was surprised at my son doing his taxes on his cell phone. This year it is part of a major marketing campaign.

Let's explore a few apps popular with digital natives, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. Twitter is the oldest of these apps with a launch date of July 2006 and is akin to the marriage of texting with the internet. But before we delve into Twitter, let's talk about text messaging and its popularity with this demographic. I was at a conference a few years ago. After the conference, we were relaxing on a boat ride with two teenagers in front of us and of course they were texting on their phones. We asked what they preferred, texting or phone calls. With no thought they replied “texting.” Texting allows them to control when they read and respond to a message. Twitter utilizes the same SMS message limit of 140 characters, and it puts the user in control not only of when they respond, but also whose messages they receive.

Instagram launched as a mobile app in October 2010. It quickly grew to over 300 million active users by December 2014. It is estimated that 90 percent of Instagram users are under the age of 35 and 41 percent are between 16 and 24. In addition, 53 percent of online U.S. adults between the ages of 18 and 29 use Instagram. One of the items that seems to draw digital natives to Instagram is the community aspects. Users in this 18-29 age range are interested in interacting with friends.

While the number of active users on Instagram is still rising, Snapchat appears to be the up and coming app for digital natives. Snapchat was launched in September 2011 and was for iOS only. An Android app was released in October 2012. Snapchat differs from Instagram in that the default for Snapchat photos and videos is to delete the content. Snapchat is more about the now. Its interface is easy and allows sharing of photos and videos quickly. The ability to quickly share content seems to be a major plus for digital natives.

With this background on digital natives, how are they influencing society? A year ago, Snapchat launched Discover. Snapchat Discover is a way for companies to have a Snapchat channel. Companies determine what stories to display on their channel and users decide what channels they want to view. Now in February 2016, “Shield 5,” was released on Instagram. Shield 5 has 28 15-second episodes that will run through the month of February. This represents a new way to interact with digital natives, using the same method they use to interact with their friends, 15-seconds at a time.

Earlier I mentioned most digital natives don’t recognize the difference between Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity. When my 21 year old, who is still on our cell phone account, moved out of the house and away from our Wi-Fi, we started getting overage fees for our account. T-Mobile was one of the first carriers to recently start offering unlimited data. By purchasing certain plans, you get some data at high speed 4G speeds. Once it is used, you drop to slower 3G speeds without having to pay overage fees. AT&T recently did something similar. If you have TV coverage through AT&T. It is important to note here that both AT&T and Verizon had legacy unlimited internet models. These plans were around when smartphones first came out but these have not been available to new users for several years.

What are other ways these digital natives are influencing change? In his paper that coined the term digital natives, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” Marc Prensky states:

“the single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.”

One of higher education's responses to Prensky’s has been the flipped classroom. While there is no one way to do a flipped classroom, the concept is the teacher provides a video of the lecture for students to watch prior to coming to class. The classroom lecture is then replaced with a workshop where students apply the knowledge from the lecture and the professor guides the students in their learning process. The flipped classroom is possible in part due to the increased network connectivity and the ease of creating and viewing video content.

We have looked at digital natives and how they are change society. As this trend continues, how might digital natives continue to influence change? Imagine if the Instagram model for delivering content was merged with the flipped classroom. The lecture would come across not as a 60-90 minute lecture, but rather as several hundred 15-second segments with each segment being condensed to only include the most relevant information. Maybe 15 seconds sounds outlandish, but what about 1-2 minutes, something that can be consumed during downtime.

While I don’t know how the needs and desires of digital natives will change our society, it appears to be similar to the advancements allowed by bringing electricity into our homes. While the changes brought on by electricity happened over more than 100 years, the changes brought on by the digital natives and technology will be condensed into a few decades.