OR: Digital natives or immigrants? Can we please move on?

Photo by Nico Cavallotto

Times they are a-changing. Nothing new there. What is also changing are our characterisations of people who use the Internet. How can what we think of our online learners affect our online teaching?

In the beginning (or near it) there was Mark Prensky. His characterisation of Internet users as either digital natives or digital immigrants struck a chord. The imagery was familiar. The digital natives (the younger generation) had been brought up in the country of technology and were fluent and  at ease in the environment. The digital immigrants (us oldies) had only recently got off the boat, and were still lost and uncomfortable in the new digital landscape. We were constantly asking the way but not understanding the directions. We immigrants had accents: we printed off e-mails rather than simply reading digital content on the screen. We didn’t know how to use the hardware: we used the CD drive as a coffee cup holder. We were often illiterate: when told to press any key, we spent ages scanning the keyboard for the ´Any´ key. We were clearly a hopeless bunch of old fuddy-duddies, and foreign to boot.

But it turned out that not everybody born before 1980 was an intractable technophobe. It also turned out that not everybody born after 1980 was a tech-savvy geek. And more importantly, the so-called digital natives didn’t appear to have a significantly different learning styles to the immigrants. Plenty of immigrants quickly got themselves up to speed with technology, and were frequently far more savvy in its use than their own (native) offspring.

By 2009 Prensky himself was offering an alternative to the native/digital divide, and describing the emergence of ´homo sapiens digital´. Developments in the field of cyborg anthropology mean that digital enhancements are increasingly a part of our lives, and even of our physical bodies. Given these advances, says Prensky, we need to develop ´digital wisdom´ – and learn how to use these digital enhancements both wisely and well. And that goes for young and old alike. Clearly Prensky believes that digital enhancements can make us smarter and better (if used wisely). But there are those who believe that they can make us dumber. Nicholas Carr´s widely-read Is Google making us stupid? and follow-up The Shallows puts this case forward.

Polemics aside, what does the characterisation of Internet users as digital natives/immigrants mean to those of us who are online educators? Because even if the debate has moved on, the native/immigrant is still common currency in many educational circles. I still read about it in online discussions, and hear about it at conference presentations, as if there were no debate over its validity or its implications.

Here are some thoughts:

  • How we perceive our learners greatly impacts on how we treat them, and what we expect of them. This directly affects their achievements.
  • If we expect all of our older learners to be ´immigrants´ (and therefore less tech competent), we run the risk of being patronising.
  • Conversely, if we expect all of our younger learners to be ´natives´ (and therefore tech savvy), we run the risk of assuming they are digitally literate, when they are not.

Our teaching approach (both online and face-to-face) needs to keep these three points in mind. How? Here are some ideas:

  • Before the start of your online course, include a pre-course expectations questionnaire to get a feel for participants needs, wants and general expectations of their online course. Include a brief tech check in this, to check your participants perceived comfort levels/expertise with technology. Also allow a space for them to express any worries about the online approach or technical environment. Then respond with pertinent explanations/soothing of brows. On our own online courses we often find that some participants consider themselves clueless with technology, but once the course starts, they are absolutely fine. There is definitely a perceived sense of inadequacy among some participants, which has been reinforced by the immigrant/native divide.
  • Ensure that there is a level of challenge in your online tasks, quite apart from the content. For example, if your online participants need to research topic X, allow them to present their findings to the rest of the online group in a variety of formats which require more or less technical know-how: a forum post, an audio recording, a video recording, via an online tool such as Voice thread… etc. Some participants will welcome the chance to experiment with new technologies on your course, in a non-threatening and supportive environment. Some will want to stick within their comfort zone and keep things low-tech. Some will want to show what they know how to do.
  • Scaffold your instructions so that your online participants can develop their digital skills during the course if they want to. For example, if you are offering them a range of ways to present their research findings, make sure that you include clear step-by-step instructions on how to create an audio or video recording, or how to use a suggested online tool. These instructions or ´Tech steps´ can easily be recycled from one course to the next, and can also form a useful bank of support materials for participants to explore once the course is over.

Read more

  • Is Google making us stupid?
    An overview of the debate surrounding Nicholas Carr’s 2008 publication, and his 2010 publication The Shallows
  • Homo Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Native to Digital
    Prensky’s 2009 article

Please include any ideas that you may have for how we can move beyond the native/immigrant characterisation in our own online practice, in the comments below. I’d love to hear about how you challenge and/or support your learners (of whatever age) online!

[In my next few blog posts I will explore other and more recent terms used to describe Internet users, and what this means to us as online educators. I´d love to hear whether you think is useful – or not!]

Nicky Hockly
The Consultants-E
February 2011