Sunday, September 13, 2009

weighing in on the natives / immigrants metaphor

Just FYI, "digital" isn't actually a language, no matter how badly Marc Prensky wants it to be.

Prensky's notion of "digital natives" and "digital immigrants" has gained cultural traction because it gives us a way to talk about the generational differences in approaches to technology. We get it when he writes that

[a]s 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. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today's older folk were "socialized" differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

My mom prints emails that interest her and trusts the information delivered in print form to her front door, but not the information delivered digitally to her computer screen; the kids I work with don't really bother with email and gather digital data like it's Super Mario Brothers coins. Ha! we say. Digital immigrants! Digital natives!

Fine. Except "digital" is not a language.

"Digital" is a way of conveying information. "Digital" is a cultural tool for delivering language, not the language itself.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems with the natives / immigrants metaphor. More troublesome is the question of who gets to decide which of us are the natives and which are the immigrants. We need to consider how this metaphor--taken up so widely in our cultural conversations--continues to reify a divide in participation based on gender, class, and ethnicity.

Even those who subscribe to the Prensky metaphor have to concede that not all young people can be considered "natives" by his definition, and not all old people can be considered "immigrants." When we make the sweeping proclamation that kids these days are digital natives, what we're really doing is identifying the type of kid whose practices and ways of being in the world have gone mainstream.

Had we but world enough, and time, this cultural approach, Prensky, were no crime. But what we actually have is a desperate divide: (largely middle and upper class, largely white) kids with excess time and access to resources and support for developing a technological fluency; and (largely lower class, often nonwhite) kids without the resources or support to develop the kinds of social competencies that will enable them to join the larger cultural conversation.

The digital natives / digital immigrants metaphor is yet another tool that gets used, intentionally or unintentionally, to support our culture's dominant Discourse, dominated as it is by the same members of the privileged classes who have historically monopolized cultural conversations.

One of the most thrilling aspects of the social revolution is its potential to overthrow gender, class, and ethnic divides. So far, we haven't come anywhere near realizing even a fraction of this potential, and sweeping terms like Prensky's--steeped as they are in a long history smacking of hegemony--make the revolutionary potential of new media technologies increasingly difficult to realize.

Related posts by other writers:
Marc Prensky: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants--A New Way To Look At Ourselves and Our Kids
Marc Prensky: Overcoming Educators' Digital Immigrant Accents: A Rebuttal
Henry Jenkins: Reconsidering digital immigrants...
John Palfrey: Born Digital
danah boyd:some thoughts on technophilia
Timothy VanSlyke: Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap


Bron Stuckey said...

These Prensky terms have become my measure of whether commentators, authors or researchers actually have credibility in the field of educational technology. I am unlikely to listen or read on where I see 'digital natives' or 'digital immigrants' used.

There is research by Howard Rheingold, and also by Sue Bennett here in Australia carried out with first year undergraduate students to indicate that for many their experience with technology is extremely narrow and limited. Conversely many colleagues in my own age group are avid users of new media and social strategies (avoiding that other buzz word 'Web2.0' or the misnomer 'social technology') and have never needed a passport stamp from Prensky to do it.

My own research into teachers employing virtual worlds (Quest Atlantis and Second Life) in their teaching, indicates that mature (50% 40-55)teachers, socially connected and very confident in their practice, have the dispositions for change and are looking for ways to enliven that practice and improve learning.

Bah Humbug to Prensky and all stereotyping!!!

Julie said...

Thank you Jenna, for complicating an overly-simplistic view about what we are about in the classroom, and what are students are about outside of the classroom.

Mike said...

Isn't language a way of conveying information though?

I read this article thinking that the point he was making was simply saying that "what and how we get information is radically different then the way it used to be". We have to rethink how the information is communicated, delivered, and interpreted.

While I don't like the terms natives and immigrants, i get what he's saying. However, a better choice of terms could've been used.

Empathetics said...

Well said Jenna. Esther Hargittai has also well documented how digitally "tongue tied" (to mix a linguistic metaphor) younger generations often are. Mimi Ito's work which highlights "hanging out" "messing around" and "geeking out" practices shed some nuance to the actual experience of young people in relation to digital media, and Henry Jenkins of course talks about what you're mentioning here as the participation gap.

A big question that I have is actually how practices of those that are "have nots" (or, more appropriately "have somewhats") differ from their "have much" peers once they do get access. Anyone know any research that actually documents real differences in digital media usage (not access, but practices and ways of relating) across race/class/gender?


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