The Digital Native/Immigrant dichotomy.

Digital NativeThis 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:

  1. Observation tells us that teenagers and older people interact differently
  2. Older people don’t ‘get’ video games.
  3. Children don’t learn languages, they acquire them along with mental models of the world.
  4. Mental models affect the way we see the world.
  5. “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:

  1. There’s nothing ‘offensive’ about the term ‘Digital Natives’
  2. Digital Native-ness can be learned, but it is harder for adults
  3. Being a Digital Native isn’t all to do with computers
  4. Digital Natives use computers differently, not ‘better’
  5. 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

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7 thoughts on “The Digital Native/Immigrant dichotomy.

  1. When new words and language enter our lexicon it’s useful to take a step back and look to how these words are being used and why. It is easy to blame Daily Mail et al for abusing language around new technology to feed fear and mistrust. Successful new technologies, by their very nature of being successful only ever reflect or ‘augment’ what is already out there. It’s up to us to make IT work more for the best of our human purposes and not our worst – same goes for language.

  2. Wow, Simon, thanks for the response! I’m not sure *how* to respond to that other than apologise if I’ve misrepresented you. I honestly didn’t intend to.

    What I did try and do is to situate your piece in the wider debate and show that ‘Digital Native’ is a phrase that highlights differences in a binary way (to ‘Digital Immigrant’) in a way that’s not helpful. Something that perhaps I didn’t make explicit enough is that I see myself as straddling two worlds and, therefore, there being a continuum. If there’s a continuum, there’s no dichotomy.

    Revisiting Prensky’s original writings made me realise that although his claims were *fairly* strong, they’re not as strong as some people who used his writings thereafter. C’est la vie, that’s always the way. But terms are terms that are used in *practice* and I, for one, don’t think that ‘Digital Natives’ is a term that is productive or useful.

    • Wow. What happened to the formatting in the reply? Gah etc

      To be absolutely honest, I don’t like the phrase ‘digital natives’ very much either. But I do think that the term, in the way I used it, is massively important.

      To be honest, I think both of us are being either naive or disingenuous. Possibly both.

      I think you start off with “I don’t think it’s helpful to unnecessarily highlight differences between people.” And the rest follows from that.

      I definitely start off with “All I care about is my son who *is* special.” And the rest follows from that.

      Yep, I know, both of those sentences are at the end of the texts.

      But you’re a ‘hey, we’re all in this together guy’. Which is admirable.

      And I’m a rampant individualist. In any debate, or issue, I’m going to sympathise with the view that promotes the rights of the individual. And then I’m going to find my evidence to support that.

      (Incidentally, I don’t see this as ‘deterministic’ or, even worse, fatalistic.)

      It’s interesting you see yourself as a more likely ‘digital native’ candidate than me. And that you see yourself as straddling two worlds.

      This is the thing I’ve most taken away from your piece – nowhere in my writing at all do I mention an age group. But, it’s true, I was thinking of young people, albeit sub-consciously. Actually, I was thinking of my son.

      But the idea that there may be as much variation within a generation as there is between generations is something I find utterly persuasive.

      There was *nothing* in the recent #yestoav vs #notoav thing for me. There was nothing for a ‘digital’ person. It was outside the Overton Window, beyond the Zone of Legitimate Debate. When I mentioned this to people, with my ‘digital’ explanation, I was accused (by my father) of being ‘naive, unrealistic’ and even ‘extremist’.

      This is the situation I fear with the wholesale rejection of ‘digital natives’ – not the term (that can go boil its head) but the concept. Like you, I see myself as straddling two worlds – I’m a digital native :-)

      Right, off to find a better term and carry on fighting…

  3. An old Douglas Adams article is doing the rounds again today, in which he says that one of the reasons people still wring their hands over this stuff is that it’s still ‘technology’ which is what we call things we don’t understand. A chair is just a chair now, he says, but once there was a question of how best to design the chair. I think the point’s relevant to this. His discussion of Pidgin vs Creole is interesting too.

  4. Thanks for the interesting posts and comments. I agree with a lot of what you say although I don’t think we should use any of the terms to describe people – Natives, Immigrants, Visitors, Residents. It’s not necessary, it is inevitably negative and maybe not even helpful. Perhaps we could say that everyone uses technology in a different way depending on what they want, need, are able to do and most importantly what they like.

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