Thursday, February 4, 2010

Digital Natives,Immigrants, and Pioneers: Going Beyond my Gut Reaction


Before this week I had not heard of the terms "digital natives" or "digital immigrants". My brief journey through this topical landscape ended up being far more emotionally charged and confusing than I had expected. This emotional involvement and confusion was not unique to me and seemed to be fueled by one Marc Prensky's views on the subject.

A couple quotes from his paper "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" (2001) will help set the stage:

It is amazing to me how in all the hoopla and debate these days about the decline of education in the US we ignore the most fundamental of its causes. Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. (p. 1)
It‟s 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because the single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language. (p. 2)
He identifies digital natives as the first generation to grow up in a world permeated by digital technology. Digital immigrants are older generations who are drafted into this digital world but are fundamentally different from digital natives. He suggests and defends the idea that digital natives' actual psychological and mental processes have been altered by the environment they have been raised in. So much so, that widespread educational changes including utilizing fast paced, digital media/video games, need to be incorporated to meet their needs. His follow up paper "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently?" (2001) explores some of the research that supports the premise that our brains are far more malleable than traditional thought acknowledged.

Initial Response:

I admit that I became quite offended, skeptical, outraged, hurt, and reflective when I first read Pensky's thoughts.

Joyce Valenza shared my skepticism:

I've also wondered about Prensky's (and other educational futurists') contention that kids' brains have significantly altered over time because of their exposure to digital technology.

She also found his work to be divisive and so broad that they ineffectively reflected the diversity of technological experience/affinity in any generation. Our class discussions this week also went in this direction. We all seemed to acknowledge that our world has changed due to digital technology but we struggled with the idea that we were immigrants and somehow innately at a disadvantage in this new world. We didn't buy the idea that by birth all digital natives were instinctively or innately digitally altered.

I quickly went from conflicted and confused to confident...almost cocky as Kathy Schrock expressed my thoughts perfectly:

I did not grow up with technology. It grew up with me, and I was there every step of the way. I think those of us who have been there since the beginning, and have adopted each technology as it came about, should not be called digital immigrants. I do not turn to the printed manual first. I always choose reputable Internet sites to locate information. And I do speak the correct language (and still do not accept Google as a verb!) There are very few technology skills that are foreign to me.

Preach on Sister! I am a pioneer! I began to dismiss Pensky. When I took some time to reflect and dig deeper, I realized my gut reaction was emotional and I was closing my mind to a key fact...I do believe education needs to change and it is mostly due to the influence of technology. Tech has fundamentally changed how we do we live.

Present Stance/Implications:

Anne Collier (unknowingly) drew me back to Marc Pensky when she wrote:

Many news reporters grew up in a very different (mass media) environment, as did a lot of parents, educators, and other news consumers. So we're seeing and participating in a distorted picture of social media and how youth use them if we're viewing young people's use through the traditional news media and our own mass-media lenses. (
Danah Boyd (amazingly brilliant) also gave a presentation that drew me back to Pensky and some final thoughts/implications I would like to share. The video is long...but worth it. My comments are mostly basked on the first half hour.

1) Adults need to acknowledge differences. Terms we grew up with like friends, community, meeting, sharing, privacy, etc. are still spelled the same but have totally new meanings. Our students live these new meanings that aren't constrained by physical space. If we don't acknowledge and make room for these new meanings, our effectiveness as leaders will be greatly diminished.

2) Adults need new skills...especially critical thinking. Up to this point I have been focusing on 21st century skills for my students. Up until watching Danah Boyd's presentation I was working on the tacit assumption that I possessed the skills that the students needed. Short version....I have to critically approach students online identities as they likely weren't created with me or the world in mind. I am an outsider that is ignorant of the influences/context that created that persona. In essence, I have to learn the new rules and language of social media before I can meaningfully engage/educate my students.

3) Modalities change but people don't. Educational leaders need to avoid confusing a change in technology with fundamental shifts in the human condition. I don't know enough to argue Pensky's assertions that brains have changed but I do know enough to recognize common traits between generations. Digital natives have grown up with new ways to do what humans have always wanted to do....connect, be known, find significance, belong to community, find meaning, experience acceptance and the list goes on. When I was a kid we found social status by the friends we were seen with. When my grandfather was a kid, social status was improved by owning a TV or switching from horses to cars. Now days this same process is governed by who comments on your blog or how many texts you do in a day.

4) Focus on individuals and growth. Educators need to continue to develop their skills and improve their practice but when push comes to shove, our schools are full of adults full of life experience that our students need. Pensky actually emphasizes that the new generation needs to gain our ability to reflect which comes from our wealth of experiences.

If we focus on divisive generational descriptions, then we alienate everyone....immigrants, pioneers, and natives alike (Anne Collier concurs). If we ignore fundamental changes in the world, we may be more comfortable but our students and our profession will suffer.

Nonhyperlinked Resources:

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-5.

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants, part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-9.