Are You a Digital Immigrant? Probably Not




About a decade ago I started hearing about this idea of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, terms coined by Marc Prensky (and frequently repeated by such speakers and authors as Don Tapscott) to describe generational differences between technology users. In his 2001 book Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Prensky argued that “Our students today are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” (Presnkey, 2001). He went on to argue that the rest of us (I wasn’t quite 30 when the book came out) will never be quite as good at technology as those young “natives”. Even then I was skeptical of what he was saying, and the research and literature since then seems to confirm my suspicions (Mark Bullen at the Commonwealth of Learning has been researching and tracking other research in this area for several years).

When we assume that students know everything about using technology because of their year of birth, we’re making a big, and wrong, assumption. Even if they know how to shoot a video and upload it to YouTube (and many of them don’t), do they know how to determine a credible Website?

And the flip to that is also a problem. When we assume that anyone who may be older than 30 doesn’t know how to use technology, or can’t learn to use it now because they didn’t grow up with it, we are again making a wrong assumption. Unfortunately, too many people have been hearing that they are digital immigrants or that they are simply too old to be trying out new technology, and they have come to believe it themselves.

We do a great disservice to people of all ages when we continue to operate under the premise that there are two distinct groups.

In her recent book It’s Complicated: the social lives of networked teens, danah boyd (yes, that’s how she spells her name) wrote:

“Rather than focusing on coarse generational categories, it makes more sense to focus on the skills and knowledge that are necessary to make sense of a mediated world. Both youth and adults have a lot to learn.”

My colleague Nancy Turner recently pointed me towards an article and video by David White where he makes the case for a different perspective. White argues that individuals aren’t digital natives or digital immigrants, but rather that they fall on a continuum between “visitors” and “residents”. This continuum is not about what you know about how to use the technology (or your ability to learn to use it), but rather your views on what technology is for and the ways you use it. Do you “go online” to look up information or do you go to connect with others and share? Do you watch YouTube videos or do you watch some and post some? If you use the Internet for anything, White argues,  then you fall somewhere on the continuum and it’s not about what generation you’re part of.

I work with a number of instructors across a wide range of disciplines. I can tell you that they span the continuum of visitors and residents depending on what they work on. One may teach online, but is uncomfortable with Twitter, Facebook or even blogging, while these forms of technologies are not outside of his or her knowledge grasp. Someone else may never have touched Blackboard, but they are excited to integrate a variety of learning technologies into courses. And yet others pleasantly surprise me that they are already using wikis or Twitter or other such forms of social media in their teaching and could teach me a thing or two about this.

In the following video, White walks us through how to map where we fall on the continuum. Note that you may fall in different places for your professional life than for your personal. This is also something that you can walk through with your students to help you, and them, to help you decide on appropriate teaching strategies or assignments.

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