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Not Digital ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

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Laptop on legs on the grassMany of us have heard of the so-called Digital Natives / Immigrants divide (if not, read Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?). In this post, David White, a researcher at Technology-Assisted Lifelong Learning (TALL), an award-winning e-learning research and development group in the University of Oxford, introduces us to an alternative distinction: that of Digital Visitors and Residents.

At TALL, we have been taking a close look not at what technologies our students use but at how they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants – i.e. this distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies, it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students’ appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on whether they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have a persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc. The Resident will, of course, interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study, and for recreation. In fact, the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool, such as Skype, if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online and don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect, the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

How is this different from Digital ‘Natives’ and ‘Immigrants’?

This is, of course, not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes. It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors, there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly, it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category, as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill-based distinction. In fact, I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

How does this distinction affect learners?

This Visitor-Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners.

For example, if your learners are mainly Visitors, they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed-based system (such as RSS feeds) for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact, they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a Facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed up without question, as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy.

Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

This article was originally posted on the TALL blog and has only undergone minor changes for this blog. More information about Digital Visitors and Residents can be found in Visitors and Residents: The Video by David White.

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13 thoughts on “Not Digital ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

  1. Excellent article. This distinction is something I noticed in our on-line translators community, but never managed to verbalize the notion. We are not talking about people who are not well-versed in using digital technology versus tech-junkies, but people who see the technology as a part of their life as opposed to the ones who deem it simply as a tool. The individuals in our community proved your observation in full – even those with the greatest zest for learning within the field have shown less interest in participation then those who are ‘at home’ on the internet. This might actually help us modify our approach and become more appealing to ‘visitors’ in our community.
    Thanks!

  2. Well said–I know many students who are in their late teens or early twenties, and can use the internet for certain things, but don’t *spend time* there, and don’t even know how to type a URL into a browser. Just being born into the Internet age is no guarantee of Internet interest, fluency, comfort, or competency. I think the “native” terminology sets up some false expectations.

  3. I really like this distinction between residents and visitors, especially the fact that it offers a lot of variation. Also a very useful definition to use in class before deciding which web tools are going to work with students. Thanks for posting :)

  4. Interesting comparison.

    But I wonder why do residents need web to express themselves? Is anything lacking in their lives or what is the driving force behind updating even the pettiest of things on social networking sites? By doing so are these residents filling the blanks of their lives which they aren’t able to do in the real world? Or is there any other factor working behind this kind of presence?

  5. I’m a resident alien! Enjoyed the post. Funny to think how quaint these distinctions will probably seem in a few years.

  6. @Priyamvada It’s worth remembering that a lot of our face-to-face communication is ‘petty’ or banal, it’s an important part of how we relate to each other. To me Residents activity is similar to catching up with a friend on the phone, a form of communication which is not seen as an effect of a social failing because it’s been culturally normalised. Of course the phone is a more private method of communication and many see social networking as a form of egotism, people flaunting themselves. In truth, the network of people individuals are linked with in social networking sites is generally made up of folk they have already got ‘real’ :) face-to-face relationships with. i.e. They are extending traditional relationships.

  7. @David. I agree with you but partly. Even if we are extending traditional relationships through web but we wouldn’t talk in the same tone and manner with all and nor would we share same stuff with everyone. The sense of what to share even with our own folks on SOCIAL NETWORKING sites should be there. Apart from that, the point of flaunting and competition in that doesn’t sound sense.

  8. I am not convinced that trying to label learners in this way is helpful. Okay we need to be aware of our students’ strengths and weaknesses but by providing labels we are reinforcing the stereotypes.
    If students are educated about the importance of something, and can see the usefulness, then whether they are natives, visitors, immigrants or residents, they will learn how to use it.
    Let’s stop labeling people and create a a compelling argument for using digital in the classroom, then the so called visitors will follow.

  9. Pingback: Can you be a native in a world that is always changing? « The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  10. Pingback: The Weblog of (a) David Jones

  11. Pingback: A Digital of What? | Learner Weblog

  12. always welcome the contribution is made either residents or visitors, it is important to give back to education and contribute with new techniques and application methods for different tools that can be used on the Internet.

  13. I agree with gareth, you can label me as a visitor or immigrant, but I do use technologies effectively for deep learning and for enhancing my learning and my life.

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