Our digital natives are immigrating

As technology changes, so do digital languages.

Marc Prensky eloquently coined the metaphor of the “digital immigrant” to define an adult who has “immigrated” into the use of technology. This is opposed to a “digital native” who has grown up with and surrounded by technology from their conception.  According to Prensky, these digital natives are more fluent and more accepting of technology than older generations who, from old habits, use technology less frequently and less eloquently than our younger successors.

When I first heard Prensky speak about the digital immigrants and digital natives, it hit home as an easy framework for my mind to wrap around. Back then, my five-year-old daughter could play Freddy Fish on the computer and read and listen along on an Arthur CD-ROM disk, while I, as a digital immigrant, carried a “digital accent” from my first technology language, such as looking up answers to questions in books rather than searching online for the answers. Worse yet, I might call a person I just eMailed to make sure they got my eMail.  We all have those little stories on how our digital accents permeate technology use today.

Prensky warned us that it is not “cute” or “a joke” that our digital natives speak a technology-based language that is immersed in their learning, while teachers and society speak a different language.  In the 10 years since Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants was published, educators have struggled to interpret and translate this digital language into an effective curriculum using a potpourri of hardware, software, and Web 2.0 tools.

Through the years, I have aimed to integrate the latest technology into my classroom to accommodate the digital native. From my experiences teaching students about integrating technology in the K-12 classroom, and raising my high school daughters, I have slowly seen a paradigm shift among these digital natives. These natives, who once laughed at my own digital accent, now speak with digital accents reminiscent of a digital immigrant. Accents include questions such as, “Can you tape this television show?” when on a DVR, no physical tape exists; renting a DVD when it is a Blue-Ray disk; or calling internet searches “Googling” when actually using Bing.

I have had college students tell me that they traded in their iPhones because it was too complicated for them to text. Some had problems converting a Quicktime video to MP4 to video edit on a PC. As a teacher, I am compassionate and understanding, but I want to yell, “Wait a minute, I’m the digital immigrant here!”  Are our digital natives having difficulty adjusting to the changes in technology, and can they not keep up?  My daughter’s texting exceeds 7,000 sent messages in one month, and she refuses to call a friend to complete a conversation that would take only 30 seconds. I ponder why Apple put a front-facing camera on its phone. Students refuse to conduct phone conversations, let alone video conversations.  Have our high school and college students stepped aboard the digital immigration boat?

Last year in my 7th and 8th grade classrooms I received netbooks, complete with Discovery Education and its online glossary and virtual labs. These netbooks replaced our 13-year-old textbooks.  Students took the old books home to use as a resource if needed.  I uploaded interactive online study guides containing questions from each unit, so that students could quiz themselves as many times as possible on their digital devices. The quizzes displayed practice test results and correct answers to the questions.

After each unit, students still asked me what pages I covered in the textbook, even though I posted my classroom lessons online. Worse yet, parents complained that my online study guide wasted ink toner when their child printed it out. I even had students complain that they did worse when they took the tests using clickers than when they took a test with pencil and paper. They asked me to just print out the test. Perhaps they did not like the immediacy of knowing how they performed, or maybe they did not like having to tell their parents how poorly they did so soon after taking the test. Do our newly-emerged digital immigrants want to revert back to the good old days of low technology use?

Technology has moved so fast that today’s digital natives have immigrated without realizing they have done so. As educators, it is not our job to make fun of their accents, but to find ways to teach these new immigrants skills that will help them succeed in the 21st century work force. By providing professional development focused on how educators can best integrate the latest technology into their curriculum, we can bridge old and new teachers’ understanding of how, exactly, to teach the “new” digital natives. We cannot rest on our laurels and think that the digital natives already know technology well enough to the extent that we do not have to integrate it into our curriculum or worry about funding for the newest in educational technology. By acknowledging that our natives are no longer natives, perhaps we can better prepare for the next immigration wave of students, as well as become learners alongside our new digital natives.

1.    Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” On the Horizon 9, no. 5 (October 2001), http://pre2005.flexiblelearning.net.au/projects/resources/Digital_Natives_Digital_Immigrants.pdf

Karl Ochsner, Ed.D, is a middle school science teacher at Blessed Pope John XXIII and faculty associate at Arizona State University.  He can be reached at kochsner@asu.edu.

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