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

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.

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Are teenagers really reluctant readers?

Teenage boy on laptop and phoneAhead of her talk at IATEFL 2011 in Brighton entitled ‘Getting students into extensive reading painlessly: A threefold solution’, Sue Parminter, series co-editor of the Dominoes Readers series, considers how to get today’s tech-savvy teenagers reading books.

What do you take with you when you travel alone by plane? I have a hunch the answer to this question reveals lots about us. I never get on even a short-haul flight without a book to read: I guess having a paperback in my hand also reassures me that I won’t need to bury my nose in the in-flight magazine in order to escape from tedious conversations with over-chatty people who might be in the seats next to mine. When my kids were young, our in-flight bags invariably bulged with colouring books and crayons, replaced – as the kids aged – by hand-held computer game consoles, and latterly by iPods, crammed to bursting with music and films.

A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting on a plane with a book in my hands, letting my thoughts drift, when my pleasant daydreams were rudely interrupted by a boy of about thirteen moaning to his parents in the row behind mine. He’d been perfectly happy when I’d followed them up the stairs onto the plane, earphone attached to his android mobile, tapping out text on the screen faster than I can type on a regular computer keyboard. The cause of his sudden fury was the safety instruction to turn off all electronic equipment, forcing him to enter into reluctant, monosyllabic conversation with his parents while the plane taxied and took off.

His reaction brought home to me the parallels between my addiction to words on a paper page and a teenager’s dependence on the small screen. Although I find it fascinating to play with an iPad, turning digital pages at the swipe of a finger and marvelling at how ‘real’ they look, I’m a bit too old to transfer my passion for paper text to the screen version. For me, the traditional bookworm, it’s a technological gulf as hard to cross as it must be for ‘digital natives’ to feel passionate about reading books, especially school books in a language not their own.

It is really vital – I feel – for us English language teachers not to underestimate how wide this ‘digital native-print native’ divide is, and how much we need to do in order to bridge it.  But there’s one aspect of the small LCD screens that have invaded our world in recent years that we can also be grateful for. Ten years ago, studies of how teenagers spent their time shocked us when they itemized all the hours spent in front of television sets. Nowadays the balance has tilted away from the passive watching of larger screens to interacting in various ways with smaller ones, and this quantum shift towards interactivity makes a significant difference.

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Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?

Smiling young woman on computer vs frustrated woman on computerZöe Handley, our resident EFL technology guru, considers the notion of the so-called “digital natives / digital immigrants” divide and whether such a divide exists between learners of English as a foreign language and their teachers.

Ever since I became aware that the digital natives / digital immigrants opposition is having a negative effect on teachers’ confidence in their use of technology in language teaching, the topic has frustrated me. In this post, I will explain why.

Where did the terms digital native and digital immigrant originate?

The terms first appeared in Prensky (2001). In this article, Prensky argued that an unsurmountable digital divide has developed between the young who have grown up with technology and older people who have become acquainted with technology later in life; and consequently between students and their teachers. Prensky coined digital natives to refer to the former and digital immigrants to refer to the latter and argued that, as a result of interacting with technology, digital natives “think and process information fundamentally differently” (Prensky, 2001: 1) to digital immigrants.  Digital natives, according to Prensky, process information quickly, enjoy multi-tasking, and enjoy gaming, while digital immigrants process information slowly, working on one thing at a time and do not appreciate less serious approaches to learning. This divide, Prensky argued, is the greatest problem facing education today and teachers must change the way they teach in order to engage their students.

In other literature this generation has been referred to as the Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998) and the Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000) and more precisely defined as those born on or after 1982 (Oblinger, 2003).

Prensky’s ideas have since influenced policy-makers and many researchers have adopted them as their point of departure. But, what evidence is there to support the native / immigrant divide?

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