Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

Digital Native

Digital Native (Photo credit: cole007)

In December 2007, an article entitled Digital Native or Digital Immigrant, Which Language Do You Speak?, written by my son Brad, was published in NACADA’s e-zine, Academic Advising Today and the NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources.  The piece has been frequently cited and is to be reprinted in a textbook entitled The Conscious Reader, The Conscious Writer (Boston, G. & Spencer-Maor, F., In Press) – but I suspect that what comes to mind for me as I read it is quite different from what others find, for behind it I see a portrait of our family.

Drawing from the work of education reformer Marc Prensky, inventor of the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant” and popularizer of the native-immigrant paradigm, Brad, an Academic Advisor in Kansas State University’s College of Business Administration, was writing about a phenomenon that he had experienced with his advisees, but underlying that was one that he had grown up with.

The paradigm Prensky proposed was often discussed in our family, which we sometimes jokingly referred to as a “household divided” by this digital gap.  However, our divide was not quite in line with Prensky’s age-based scenario.  Brad, who was born in 1977, often spoke of himself as a ”bridger of the gap,” because in our case the digital divide was not a generation gap between parents and child, but a knowledge/understanding/language  gap between the two parents.

At the time Brad’s article was published, his father (my husband) Gary, who had been serving for nearly a decade as the “IT guy” for three departments in K-State’s College of Agriculture, had just accepted a new position and was looking forward to starting as NACADA’s IT Manager (which he has now held for five years).  Gary, who is a self-taught “geek,” initially encountered computers in the early 1980s during his “first career” as a soldier in the US Army.  It was truly a case of “love at first sight” with him, and although at the time he was a medic, he says that from that first moment he was engaged in the long transition from “giving first aid to soldiers to giving first aid to computers” that was completed in 1994, when he retired from the Army and took his first job wholely devoted to IT support.

So, while Gary is not a digital native according to Prensky’s meaning of having been immersed in technology since HIS infancy, he waded into the technology stream when it was in ITS infancy, and thus he has in that sense “grown up” with it.  Prensky (1991 ) posited that those of us who “were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology…[can] learn  –  like all immigrants, some better than others –  to adapt to their environment, [but will] always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot  in the past.”  While I certainly acknowledge that there is merit in that concept, I would say that the range of “some better than others” is very wide!  Having spent a considerable amount of time with international (bilingual) students and colleagues, I know that there is another side to the analogy, for I have worked with a number of immigrants who have a far better command of English (as their “second” language) than a high percentage of American-born native-speakers!  Some of them have heavy, easily-detectable accents and others have light, barely-detectable accents – but their degree of accent is far less a determiner of how well they function in the language than their level of immersion in it and whether or not they have crossed that line of being able to THINK in both languages (are truly bilingual).  So, while not “born to it,” Gary is highly fluent in “geek-speak” and functions better in the digital environment than many who were born after Pensky first introduced this paradigm!

While in his article Brad says, “It is important to understand the differences between ourselves as the Immigrants and our students as the Natives,” placing himself on the immigrant side of the divide, in conversation we have often talked of him straddling it (and that becomes evident in the further reading of his article).  Gary brought his first computer, a Commodore 64, home in 1984, when Brad was seven years old (and an Atari game console followed not longer after).  So, while Brad is not a digital native in quite the same sense that his five-year-old son is today, technology did come into his life at an earlier point than for many people in his age bracket, and although he did not inherit his father’s strong affinity for “all things technology,” his “immigrant accent” is minimal.  Still, Brad’s interest in technology has primarily been in the realm of gaming, and thus Gary is far more fluent in the overall language of technology than he is.

I, on the other hand, strongly identified with being a “digital immigrant.”  I found Gary’s early fascination with technology completely baffling and was a slow adopter of  many of the tools that so captivated him.  Although I came to appreciate what they could accomplish for me, each new tool presented a steep, difficult learning curve for me – and while Gary eagerly anticipated every upgrade, I dreaded them, feeling each time that I was having to start over.  And sometimes we did have to bring in Brad to be a “translator” – to bridge the gap between Gary’s easy fluency and my struggles to comprehend the new vocabulary and learn the new skills.  It has seemed to me to be a long, slow, continuously-uphill battle.  (Since I got my iPad and iPhone a few months ago, I have wondered if this process might have gone differently if we had taken the Mac route rather than the PC path, but that is another conversation!)

However, recently I experienced something of an epiphany.  I have realized that – thanks to Gary, Brad, and many friends and colleagues who have encouraged me, prodded me, and assisted me along the path – I have come a very long way on this journey.  Although I will likely always retain a detectable “accent,” I am no longer a new immigrant, no longer a “stranger in a strange land.”  While my “tech-speak” vocabulary is not what I would like it to be, and I will likely always need assistance now and then from folks who are more fluent than I am, I am now traversing the territory far more easily than I could once have imagined I ever would.  Last week, when my 13-year-old grandson was given a middle-school assignment to create a presentation using Prezi, I was able to talk with him about the first presentation I gave using that tool two years ago.  This past weekend, when I decided it was time to give blogging a go, I was delighted to discover that I was able to find the tool and launch the project mostly on my own (with just one little assist over a tough spot!).  And yesterday, when a blogger I have been following discussed the launching of TED-Ed, I was the first in my family to be aware of it and was able to share this exciting news with all three generations!

So, while I can not, perhaps, say “immigrant no more!”, I think I have reached the place where I can say, “if I can do this – and I CAN do this – then you can, too”!


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