Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

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I am fascinated by the Spanish language. The sounds of the language, the richness of its literature, and the diversity of its cultural products draw me into the Spanish speaking world and the experiences of its people. As much as I love studying and using Spanish to communicate with other people, there is one thing about Spanish that frustrates me: I will never be able to communicate in Spanish with the same skill level and authenticity of a native speaker. The first language I learned was English and I have always lived in a culture surrounded by English speakers where English has been the dominant language of daily life. While I have developed an advanced level of proficiency in Spanish, I will never be able to produce the sounds of a native Spanish speaker, use grammatical structures of a native speaker, nor truly understand the culture through the experiences of a native speaker.  Through practice and meaningful interactions I have developed a high level of proficiency, but I cannot perform as well as a native speaker.

When I first read the article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” by Marc Prensky, I immediately made a connection between his idea of differences in technology fluency among generations to my beliefs toward language proficiency.  Likewise, in the debate I took the side in support of the concept of digital natives. In my opinion, there are digital natives in technology just as there are native speakers of world languages and digital immigrants who are the equivalent of second language learners. Digital natives have the advantage of being natives to technology in that they have never lived in a  culture in which digital technology (primarily the internet) has not existed. Tools such as the internet, computers, cell-phones and other devices were already created and rapidly undergoing improvements when digital natives entered the world. Most importantly (in my opinion),what makes digital natives “digital natives” is that the culture of the world they entered had already adopted technology as an integral part of the daily experience. The digital immigrants, like second language learners, have come to their knowledge of technology through a completely different experience. These individuals have lived in a world in which the technology tools that existed today, did not and their thought process are based on different contexts.

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As new tools have been introduced and have replaced or simplified completing different tasks, today’s digital immigrants have had to learn to use new technology tools with a learning curve. In addition to learning how to use new technology tools such as Prezzi, or Gmail, digital immigrants have had to learn to use the hardware and software used to access these tools such as laptops and tablets. Having to first learn how to operate these devices, and then having to learn how to use specific tools is difficult and requires frequent practice that many digital immigrants have not been able to receive in meaningful contexts. Skills that natives take for granted, like automatically knowing how to power-up a device and make settings are often the tasks that prevent digital immigrants from developing proficiency. The cartoon below summarizes the challenges that immigrants often face when learning how to use new technology tools (in this case the students have become digital immigrants towards using books).

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Prior to this week, I never really considered the difference in the use of technology between people my age and the teachers I have had who have been teaching prior to the arrival of the digital age. The idea that there is a disconnect between how today’s students learn and how teachers teach is a new concept to me. In my educational experiences from kindergarten to college, I have had teachers who embraced the use of technology with little problems.  Occasionally, these teachers had problems opening a link or moving from a Powerpoint projection screen to a document-camera screen, but it did not seem to bother my fellow classmates; it was a welcomed break during a long class. Although my experiences have been different, I recognize that there is a difference between current practice and student needs that we must address while also recognizing that sometimes the teacher who is a digital immigrant knows better than the native. In a study by researchers at the New York Institute of Technology, it was found that teacher’s use of technology out-performed use by students.  While students had a better understanding of technology, their knowledge was found to be limited to its use for social purposes and not well-developed in solving complex problems. This is an excellent example of how sometimes learning as an outsider provides a more beneficial perspective.

So how do we bridge the gap between immigrant teachers and native students? Fortunately, this problem has a solution: learn from each other. Both teachers and students have something to be learned from each other regarding technology. In a blog post post for Next Generation Learning, Jonathan Blake Huer points out that natives can learn from immigrants that technology cannot provide the answers to all questions and that sometimes nothing can replace actual human contact. Additionally, immigrants can follow the lead of natives in using whatever tools work best for them and not apologize for not following the lead of others. I agree with his position towards digital natives and immigrants, his  viewpoint focuses not how people come to use technology, but in the ways they use it.  Edutopia encourages immigrant teachers to let native students take the lead on tech trouble-shooting if they know how to solve the problem and to some times step-back and let students teach them how to do something. Most importantly, immigrant teachers are encouraged to never give up on trying to learn new tools. All teachers, digital natives and digital immigrants have to work collaboratively to close the gap because the students of tomorrow are already here, and we know what they look like.

Works Cited: Youtube Video:


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