Friday, September 01, 2006

Digital Natives

I’ve been having a debate in my head for some time about Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants. I have to say when I first heard about this “dichotomy” that I never truly believed it. The core argument seems to be that kids today are so embedded in the technology that adults will always be outsiders. Adults lack the capacity for truly understanding the sort of impacts these technologies can have on education or at best can never be as good at using them as their teenaged students.

To me this seems a bit ingenuous. Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are stereotypes and like most stereotypes only really fit a small subset of the groups they try to describe. When I started teaching high school I expected my students to be much better with computers than me. I quickly realized this was not the case. Only a few were better some were the same and many felt completely inept at computer use. Coincidently the breakdown seemed similar to my experience with people and computers in graduate school.

Now, to be fair, I should mention that I am only 35, but that would put be out of Digital Native contention because the internet only really came along at the beginning of my grad school experience. Actually it existed before then but there was not much there. It really grew while I was working on my Masters. When I first arrived at Iowa State (1994) I typed the scientific name of the plant group, Opuntia, I was working on into a search engine (yahoo I think) and got four hits. Three of the four described how to distill the plant extract down to make drugs. A few short years later (1997 or so) I typed the same name into google and got over 20,000 hits. Today google generates 1.2 million hits. I’ve only existed in this state of information overload for the last 10 years, of course my students have existed in the information overload just as long.

So, does having existed in the information overload for the same number of years make us the same? Or does given the fact that my students were in their formative years make them take to the net better than me? Or does the fact that I’d already learned how to learn, was a strong reader, had no limits on my use set by my parents, a disposable income to buy cool gadgets, and continuous access to computers all virtually since the inception of the internet mean I should be able to use it better?

Now, I keep referencing myself, not because I feel the Digital Native debate is an attack on me or meant to label me as less than I think I am. I’m referencing myself because I know my story better than I know other stories. I have a number of very close friends who run circles around me when it comes to computers and the internet. Some of these are older and some younger, but all are outside of the Digital Native club.

Let’s get back to my idea of stereotypes. According to the Digital Native stereotype, all teenagers should be able instant message (IM), listen to music, and play a video game at the same time. They have existed in this mode of instant gratification and over stimulation all their lives and they thrive on it.

The Digital Immigrant, on the other hand, can not multi-task. They prefer their information in linear format printed on paper. Not on a computer screen and definitely not hyperlinked. They would find it impossible to concentrate on a computer game with music going in the background and let’s not even try to force them to IM at the same time. They simply can not process information fast enough.

I had to force myself to type out those two paragraphs. My fingers just didn’t want to. Anyone who’s spent any time teaching knows teachers spend their whole day multi-tasking and interpreting different information streams. While lecturing a teacher is watching for signs of understanding while at the same time silencing a student with a look (knowing only a look will do for that particular student). Teachers also carryon conversations with their colleagues, while grading papers and eating lunch at the same time. There are just not enough hours in the day for a teacher to not multi-task.

Now, those of you paying attention will notice I did not mention one technological innovation used in the life of our multi-tasking teacher. Most teachers I know don’t play video games or IM so it would be unreasonable to expect them to do both at the same time. This doesn’t mean they can’t, they just choose not to. I know one teacher who plays World of Warcraft a lot. I have no doubt that he can play games and IM simultaneously, because he chooses to, not because his brain is wired differently. At the same time I know students who wouldn’t have the first idea of what all the buttons on an X-Box controller do and never play any sort of video game.

Age has little to do with ability to use technology. It is all about exposure. Some will argue that exposure at a younger age will impact the structures in the brain. They’re probably right, but does that mean they can use technology better? I don’t believe there has been any research to demonstrate that yet. What I see on a daily basis is that those people who expose themselves to new technology find new technology easier to use and turn to it more often to solve problems than those who don’t. This is independent of age. In fact, I often see older people come up with better technology based solutions simply because they have more different experiences.

Strong proponents of the Digital Native vs. Digital Immigrant dichotomy, to give one often touted example, would say Digital Immigrants are more comfortable using books to answer questions rather than the internet. This is simply not true. Five years ago my wife would probably have agreed with this. At that time whenever there was a question of fact that we were unable to answer my wife would roll her eyes when I sat down at the computer to look it up. Now, she’s on her computer as fast as I would be to find the answer. She has seen what a powerful tool the internet is, through exposure, and has embraced it.

I ran into a “Digital Immigrant Moment” yesterday and neither my wife nor I chose the immigrant option. We were visiting with my mom and mentioned that my son and I had ridden our bikes to my wife’s new place of employment. My mom asked how far it was and we started guessing the distance, while at the same time each coming up with way to determine the exact distance. There were four of us; my mom, my wife, my 8 year old son, and myself; and we came up with four different options independently:

  • Use the GPS unit to trace the route
  • Use the trip odometer in a car
  • Use the measuring tool in Google Earth
  • Use Mapquest

Can you guess whose was whose? To me there is really only one “Digital Immigrant” response in the list and yet there were three who would be labeled as digital immigrants in the discussion. I’m not going to argue that exposure to the internet, SMS text messaging, IM, and social networking do not change the brain of today’s kids in comparison with their contemporaries from 20 years ago, because I simply don’t know. Psychologists say our experiences directly impact the way our brains develop and these effects are much stronger in younger brains. This does not necessarily mean they will better be able to handle the flood of information out there however. Only clinical research can show that.

What I do know, however, is the level of technological sophistication in my students seems to be the same today as it was when I started teaching five years ago, with the minor exception that there are more cell phones among my students now.

To me the bottom line is this. The labels of Digital Native and Digital Immigrant simply aren’t very useful. In fact they can be, like most stereotypes, harmful. Novice teachers are likely going to expect all of their students to have the skills of digital natives, while in truth many do not and many do not seem to want them. Teachers who are insecure when it comes to technology are likely to be more insecure as a result of the labels.

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