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The Digital Literacy Myth: not all are natives

07 May 2020 | Peter Wolstencroft and Xue Zhou Following on from their presentation at last year's Teaching and Learning Conference in Newcastle, Peter Wolstencroft and Xue Zhou from Coventry University, reflect on their research that looks at the gap between the assumption that students are ‘digital natives’ and the reality that many, in particular those from either an international or widening participation background, need additional support to ensure that they get the best out of higher education in the UK.

The all-pervading belief that every member of Generation Z (defined as those born since the mid-1990s) is a ‘digital native’ (Prensky, 2001) is one that has become inculcated knowledge within UK higher education and as such, has informed much of the planning that goes on when designing courses and lectures. This has become especially relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst there have been some dissenting voices (Brown and Czerniewicz, 2010; Kirschner and De Bruyckere, 2017), universities within the UK have increasingly focused on finding ways to harness the perceived benefits of embracing new technology and hence appeal to a generation that has been reared on a constant diet of technological innovation.

Tech outside of HE

When looking outside the education sector, it is easy to see where this assumption comes from. 95% of the UK population has access to the internet and 87% use it daily, whilst the sheer scale of mobile phone usage can be gauged by the fact that 900 million WhatsApp messages were sent on New Year’s Eve 2019 in the UK alone. This easy access to technology means that students are able to process a vast amount of information quickly and they also have the means by which to communicate this information. Whilst this presents many opportunities for increased knowledge and a wider perspective on the world, it also creates challenges on ensuring that any biases are assessed, as well as the dangers of ‘fake news’. The reported recent pronouncements by President Trump in the restorative powers of bleach or other disinfectants is a good example of how information can be absorbed but not necessarily critically assessed.

The perception of the rise of digital natives is reinforced when looking at popular culture. Social media presents both an opportunity to spread messages quickly, but also dangers when false information is perpetuated.

Social media influencers such as Felix Kjellberg and Saffron Barker are comparatively unknown outside Generation Z, yet they are able to communicate with many millions of followers, something that has changed the fundamental principles of marketing communication.

Role of tech inside HE

Despite their reputation for being comparatively conservative institutions, many universities have looked to ensure that the perceived strong digital literacy of their students is represented in sessions. This has been most noticeable in promoting student interactions via software such as Kahoot, TopHat and Socrative (Zhou and Orim, 2015) and when used correctly, has proved effective in ensuring that knowledge can be tested and students can become more engaged in the learning process.

The current crisis has shown that digital technology can be used in the learning and assessment process. The latter point is of particular interest, with Brunel University currently piloting assessments using a BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) approach.

However, there is still some misperceptions regarding digital literacy and ‘IT skills’. According to JISC’s national Digital Skills and Capabilities model, digital literacy comprises six areas and core IT skills is only one of them. To equip students’ skill in adopting digital devices, applications, systems and software in the classroom is the first step. A series of ongoing support in preparing students in digital-rich settings are required in the sector.

Digitally damaging

Whilst on the surface the use of digital technology in the classroom might well be seen as a positive move that helps engage students, our experience suggests that its introduction is based under a number of incorrect assumptions and whilst it can help some students, it may potentially damage the prospects of others.

The first incorrect assumption is that competency in digital technology implies competency in critical thinking and the ability to discern correct answers from information gathered. Whilst digital literacy might well help students with their studies, it is important not to assume that it leads to competency in other areas.

The second incorrect assumption is the focus of our study and that is that all students attending UK universities, who fall into the Generation Z category, are digital natives and have competency in this area. The danger of any approach, if you assume competency with digital literacy, is that you are putting those students who have comparatively poor digital skills at a disadvantage and hence you are testing something that the module or assessment is not originally designed to test.

Two groups who are particularly vulnerable to this incorrect assumption are those who fall into the categories of international students and widening participation students. The former category covers a population of almost half a million students (HESA, 2019) and at Coventry University 120 countries are represented, creating a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds that cannot be generalised into competency in digital literacy. What is obvious is that merely assuming that all have competency is incorrect and neglects to take into account the multitude of backgrounds students come from.

Students who fall into the widening participation category of learners are also likely to have had disparate experiences prior to attending university and again, the assumption that they will have a high level of digital literacy is a dangerous one.

What can be done?

This is going to be the focus of our research as we follow a group of students on their journey through their studies. Whilst it is still very early days, what is already clear is that it is necessary to look at both the skills of the students, but also the design of courses to ensure that students are supported with the skills they need and that where there are gaps in their digital literacy knowledge, these are identified in the initial induction period.

The key message is that we cannot merely assume knowledge because of their position as a member of Generation Z, instead we must check this knowledge in order to get the most out of the opportunities presented by digital technology.

Whilst universities put effort into promoting the digital classroom, adopting multiple digital media in the curriculum design and intending to equip students with digital literacy skills, we should also ask the question as to whether the digital skills are demanded by employers and whether enough support has been put in place to develop the students’ digital literacy.

We will look forward to presenting further findings to Advance HE and beyond in the coming year and if anyone is interested in finding out more, please do get in touch.


Peter Wolstencroft and Xue Zhou work at Coventry University where they are an Associate Head of School and Assistant Professor respectively. They are authors of numerous articles looking at various aspects of education. The first stage of their longitudinal study into digital literacy will be published in 2020.


Due to Covid-19 the Advance HE Teaching and Learning Conference 2020 took place online on 7 July. The conference will focussed on exploring creative thinking for enhancing the student experience and improving educational outcomes and experience. 

With the introduction of an approach to Access and Participation from the Office for Students in England, and increased regulation across the UK, we are supporting institutions to identify challenges and realise ambitions in their approach to access, participation and success for all students. Find out more about the support we can offer here.


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