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Reconsidering Digital Immigrants

Todays students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor
simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened
between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might
even call it a singularity an event which changes things so fundamentally that there
is absolutely no going back. This so-called singularity is the arrival and rapid
dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century.

It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of
their interaction with it, todays students think and process information fundamentally
differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than
most educators suspect or realize.

What should we call these new students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for
Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them
is Digital Natives. Our students today are all native speakers of the digital language
of computers, video games and the Internet.

So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital
world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted
many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them,
Digital Immigrants.

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You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will
always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the
parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all
the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts
of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that
chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

Those born before 1960 had the hardest time adjusting to change. They were the ones
who would suddenly stop in the middle of the street as if they had vertigo when som
shop window flared or called out, or get that haunted, bewildered look when the PIDA
readers changed again, or the newstanks swapped to a different format.

It was a very specific expression: hollow-cheeked, eyes darting, looking for somewhere
to hide. I had seen that same look on the faces of war refugees, or the foreign-speaking
parents of native-speaking children. Older people were immigrants in their own
country. They had not been born to the idea of rapid change not like us.

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Are all youth digital natives? Simply put, no. Though we frame digital natives as a
generation born digital, not all youth are digital natives. Digital natives share a
common global culture that is defined not by age, strictly, but by certain attributes and
experiences related to how they interact with information technologies, information
itself, one another, and other people and institutions. Those who were not born digital
can be just as connected, if not more so, than their younger counterparts. And not
everyone born since, say, 1982, happens to be a digital native. Part of the challenge of
this research is to understand the dynamics of who exactly is, and who is not, a digital
native, and what that means.

The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn like all

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immigrants, some better than others to adapt to their environment, they always
retain, to some degree, their accent, that is, their foot in the past. The digital
immigrant accent can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information
second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming
that the program itself will teach us to use it. Todays older folk were socialized
differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And
a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing
out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you an even thicker
accent); needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it
(rather than just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office
to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL). Im sure you can
think of one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite
example is the Did you get my email? phone call. Those of us who are Digital
Immigrants can, and should, laugh at ourselves and our accent.

But this is not just a joke. Its very serious, because 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.

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If the rate of technological change/development is accelerating, it probably picks up as many


natives as a rolling stone or a snowball gathers moss.

It's an odd binary that places the powerless, adaptable, inquisitive young on one side of an
arbitrary line of demarcation and the rest of us on the other.

I think we're all just immigrants on this bus. Some pay more attention than others, but
chronological age seems more a confounding than the key variable.

Change is not well-made at fast food restaurants, even with the aid of digital technology.

Michelle Marquard says:


December 6, 2007 at 1:54 pm

" rather than having anything meaningful to say to their offspring. In the process, it
disempowers adults, encouraging them to feel helpless, and thus justifying their decision not
to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world."
jenkins

I'd like to branch off of a specific aspect of your blog I see as a fundamental challenge for
parents in digital environment. In expanding on this I?ll incorporate something from a
conversation my doctoral cadre had with you and your staff a few weeks ago, the gist of which
was grounded "in an underlying cycle of fear and reassurance" and the ubiquitous nature of
this cycle instantiated in the day-to-day experience between parent/adult and child. All of
which is in-service of protecting youth.

For parents to connect effectively with children in this new environment the way in which a
parent engages a child in conversation and the conversation itself, as it would seem, must
fundamentally change. '1ust say no" is not a solution that engages a child in productive dialog
that allows them to make effective decisions consistent with ones family values. Assuming
family values are made explicit and implicitly practiced in the household children don't have to
think about "rules" but about underlying values that guide their decision making in the
day-to-day independent of technology.

Nicola Griffith says:


December 6, 2007 at 3:50 pm

Interesting. I'm always startled to be referenced this way because, to me, the digital
immigrant/native concept is so obvious-though simplistic (a starting point at best)-that it's odd
for people to track who supposedly articulated it.

For a fuller response, please see my own blog here.

Annie Regrets says:


December 7, 2007 at 11 :05 am

Wonderful post. Henry. Here's the thing: all early learners stumble and look goofy before they
'get' it. The accent metaphor is quite interesting in that online, accents don't exist as
communication is reduced to its symbolic representations- in short, there is no accent. Am I
twenty? sixty? forty? ten? You may make a good estimation of my age, but it's not because of

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how I express myself, but what I say and where I choose to say it. I suspect my vocabulary and
my viewpoints give me away more than my fluidity with the tools at my disposal.

There are also different levels of mastery, and the face of online engagement is increasingly
consumer friendly and WYSIWYG. Frankly, it's not that tough to master submitting a comment
to a blog, or sending an email, or uploading a file. But you have to practice doing it, and have a
context for doing that behavior that makes sense (like all good learning). My mom is now a pro
at forwarding emails; I am getting reacquainted with lots of corny jokes.

Also, please bear in mind that adolescence is a time of hypersociality, and every teen
generation manifests it in different ways. One suspects that as these 'digital natives' mature,
marry, have kids and hold down jobs, how they engage online, too, will change.

Lisa says:
December 8, 2007 at 3:00am

A bit strange to draw such a strong line. As a college student now myself, I see differences on
several different axes - social networking being one ofthe most obvious ones, where some of
my friends check facebook as often as e-mail and some only use it to look up a phone number
now and again. There are teens and young adults who "live online", and there are adults who
do so as well.

I'd say the difference can be largely attributed to social networks- my friends are all online,
my parents' friends are in the neighborhood, my grandparents' friends are at their church. So
is it any wonder that's where our lives center.

Cathleen Deckers says:


December 8, 2007 at 10:43 am

It seems reasonable that digital native/immigrant was a good place to begin the conversation
to describe the use of technology. However, as the observation and research into this field has
identified the emergence of a phenomenon that is more about participation than the
individual it seems that our language to describe it has to evolve in the same way. What strikes
me is that we are now trying to describe the kinds of activities that take place in a community
versus that of an individual. The discussion about participation with technology (or lack
thereof) is reminiscent of Lave and Wenger's theory regarding legitimate peripheral practice
and the evolution of expertise through the mentoring process and practice. The necessity for
the practice to have technical and cultural expertise creates the value for both Old and New,
whether we are discussing age or skill set.

If we are going to continue the exploration within a framework that looks at the individual, I
would agree with Nicola Griffith that the individual's level of comfort regarding change seems
to play a large role in the individual's ability to explore, adapt, and embrace technology use
within this culture. Perhaps Digital Innovator/Pioneer more aptly describes the individual who
immerses themselves within the design of the technology only to appear on the other side
repurposing it for other creative and useful adventures. Contrast that with the Digital
Pedestrian that uses technology for specific tasks and only as an end to a means. This
individual is all about the structure and rules needed to guide the practice. Again, both types
are important in the larger activity framework. What might be more interesting for us to be
exploring is why some people are more comfortable with constant change, can we learn this

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trait, and how best can this be accomplished. just some thoughts from the newbie

Rebecca Hedreen says:


December 10, 2007 at 11 :55 am

While the native/immigrant metaphor certainly isn't perfect, the language part of the metaphor
appeals to me. A "native speaker" has no age associated; you could be 5 or 100. Someone who
is not a native speaker can nonetheless learn the language well enough to pass as a native
speaker. Do you speak digital? I like to think of myself as bi-lingual, personally. There is also
the idea that an immigrant may be able to see potentials and appreciate the wonders of the
culture to which the native born are blinded by familiarity.

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