Digital Native, Digital Immigrant, Digital Wisdom

One professor lamented while taking the Quality Matters Certification workshop, “I need to take a sabbatical just to learn all this technology. I will never keep up with my digital natives.”  This instructor has a bigger problem than her lag in technology skills; she does not understand her students. A “digital native” is a limited description of current students in an online or a traditional classroom.

In 2001, Marc Prensky invented the term digital native to describe the generations born after 1980 and the “first generations to grow up with this new technology.” He referenced neurologist Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine to support his theory that “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” (Prensky, Digital Natives: Part Two). Prensky generalized digital immigrants by saying, “As Digital Immigrants learn—like all immigrants, some better than others—to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past” (Prensky).

Prensky’s motivation, while academically altruistic, may also have reflected a vested interest (Prensky, n.d.). He built an industry around the message that educators need to learn the language of the “digital natives.” “This is not just a joke,” he (2001 2) said. “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because the single biggest problem facing education today is that our digital immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language [that of a pre-digital age], are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” Prensky implored the digital immigrants to lose the accent.

According to Jeremy Mims (n.d.), digital native is a term “coined by Marc Prensky in 2001 (likely with the best intentions). But really, it’s just being used as a catch-all demographic for young people, and a way for people who don’t actually understand technology to sling _____ in sales meetings to those who know even less.”

Labels used for groups of people are never definitive. Why are natives those born after 1980? Why not 1984? 1990? Why not the year Facebook launched—2004? Labels limit, especially if they are misplaced. Even worse is being defined by your accent.

Labeling students as “digital natives” and instructors as “digital immigrants” places unnecessary barriers on the already difficult work of online education. It hinders innovation by believing less of yourself as an instructor with digital wisdom – with years of experience.

Labels help us organize: they help us store messy things in neat packages. Labels are great for files and boxes, but not so great for people. And so it is with the idea of a digital native. A person demonstrating the type of digital prowess Prensky talks about may be a 65-year-old professor who knows more about writing in the digital environment than her 18-year-old first-year student. The “younger generation” may be more comfortable with technology, but they may also lack the digital literacy of someone older and wiser.

Another assumption that was shared by several of the seasoned professors in my Build a Course workshop was that discussion boards did not mimic a face-to-face class interaction. Some of the class seemed to agree and no solutions were offered. A silent concession was made to the QM requirement for discussion boards, but (wink-wink) discussion boards are not really effective. The inference, online discussions are not authentic or productive. Personal experience and progressive online teaching tactics tell me otherwise.

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