The Digital Native/Immigrant dichotomy.
This is a difficult post to write, for many reasons. It’s not emotionally difficult, the most common form of difficulty when simultaneously introspecting and providing analysis of the world. Instead, it’s a difficulty in knowing the appropriate critical distance to adopt.
I’ve tried my best in what follows to respond to two blog posts by Simon Bostock, someone whom I admire greatly and consider a ‘thought leader’. Indeed, most of his thoughts and tweets have me looking up things completely new to me.
However, in Natives and Myths of Digital Natives I think he’s missed the point somewhat. What I say below is my attempt to straddle the observational and the academic – whilst creating something I shall point people towards in future if and when I question their use of term ‘digital natives’.
A brief history of the Digital Native/Immigrant dichotomy
In 2001, Marc Prensky had an article published in the non-peer-reviewed On The Horizon magazine entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In it, he made a very bold claim:
Today’s 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 twentieth century.
as well as:
It is now clear that, as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize. “Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures, “ says Dr Bruce D. Berry of Baylor College of Medicine. As we shall see in the next installment, it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up. But whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed.
This is actually more restrained than some of the subsequent claims made by ‘progressive’ educators wanting to use this supposed disconnect as a rallying cry to reform the school system in their country. ‘Digital natives’ become a kind of shorthand, what Richard Rorty would call a ‘dead metaphor’.
It was not until some years later that peer-reviewed articles started being published that reviewed critically the evidence for such a disconnect. Feel free to ask in the comments for evidence of those, suffice to say that they are adequately summed up by what I consider to be the final nails in the coffin: Bennett, Maton & Kervin’s 2008 article The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence (currently freely available via Scribd). They concluded after looking at surveys and studies around the (admittedly, English-speaking) world:
In summary, though limited in scope and focus, the research evidence to date indicates that a proportion of young people are highly adept with technology and rely on it for a range of information gathering and communication activities. However, there also appears to be a significant proportion of young people who do not have the levels of access or technology skills predicted by proponents of the digital native idea. Such generalisations about a whole generation of young people thereby focus attention on technically adept students. With this comes the danger that those less interested and less able will be neglected, and that the potential impact of socio-economic and cultural factors will be overlooked. It may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations. (my emphasis)
It is this last sentence that I believe to be the clincher.
Who are you to say such things?
As much as I don’t believe it is necessary to have ‘qualifications’ to do what is, after all, armchair theorising, I do believe that I am in a fairly unique position to comment on the ‘Digital Native/Immigrant’ dichotomy. Why?
- I’m 30 years old, being born in December 1980. That puts me right on the borderline of being a ‘Digital Native’ (as opposed to a ‘Digital Immigrant’), according to Prensky.
- I was a teacher for 7 years. I observed vastly different practices and mindsets amongst the young people who entered my classroom (I taught ICT as well as History).
- I’m a doctoral student looking into the closely-allied topic of ‘digital literacy’. I’m equally sceptical about how that term is used.
- I’ve got a 4 year-old son and a baby daughter. My son has some ‘digital skills’ and I have observed closely his development. He’s more adept that other children in his class through daily use of ‘his’ iPad and netbook.
- Finally, I work for/with/on behalf of JISC who deal with educational technology in a fairly major way. Check out, for example, the work JISC funded in regard to the ‘Google Generation’ and Learner Experiences of e-Learning projects
On the existence of ‘Digital Natives’
As far as I can tell, Simon – amongst the amusing and interesting anecdotes, makes the following points in Natives:
- Observation tells us that teenagers and older people interact differently
- Older people don’t ‘get’ video games.
- Children don’t learn languages, they acquire them along with mental models of the world.
- Mental models affect the way we see the world.
- “Digital natives differ essentially in the way they must behave and think and not in the way that they are able to think and behave.”
It’s difficult to argue with the first two points: teenagers do act differently than older people (but then we all do at different stages of our life); many older people don’t ‘get’ video games (but then I don’t ‘get’ cribbage). It’s dangerous to extrapolate from observed behaviour – are you merely observing social norms and expectations?
The problem I have with points 3-5 is the semi-determinist, homogeneous treatment of an ill-defined body of young people. Whilst I absolutely agree that the language you acquire (be it English or l33t) affects your view of the world, it’s all to do with immersion. Give me someone born before 1980 for a year, and I’ll return you someone who could pass as a ‘Digital Native’. I think we have too lofty a view of what, in most cases, are procedural skills and mental models that help us navigate digital environments.
For more on this, see Stephen Downes’ presentation Speaking in LOLcats (make sure you listen to the audio – don’t just look at the slides)
On the dangers of ‘Digital Natives’
In his follow-up post, Simon makes the following points:
- There’s nothing ‘offensive’ about the term ‘Digital Natives’
- Digital Native-ness can be learned, but it is harder for adults
- Being a Digital Native isn’t all to do with computers
- Digital Natives use computers differently, not ‘better’
- It’s not ‘dangerous’ to talk about Digital Natives
I am in absolute agreement with these points. However, instead of drawing the Simon’s conclusion that it’s therefore OK to talk about ‘Digital Natives’, I draw the opposite conclusion. I don’t think it’s helpful to talk about ‘Digital Natives’ for the same reason that I don’t think it’s helpful in general to unnecessarily highlight differences between people.
So, let me be clear. If you want to use conceptualise a group of people as ‘Digital Natives’ and another as ‘Digital Immigrants’ it should be because you are looking to do something positive. If your aim is to scaremonger, if your aim is to give up hope because you are, after all, a ‘Digital Immigrant’, if your aim is to make value judgements about the way people understand the world, then please don’t.
Instead, find another – better – way. ‘Digital participation’ might be a good place to start with some great stuff being produced by Futurelab’s on this. After all, as William Gibson famously stated, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed”.
Image CC BY-NC-ND cole007