Are You a Digital Native or Digital Immigrant?

As students are continually introduced to technology at an earlier and earlier age, a new digital divide is forming between those who are surrounded by and using computers their entire lives (“digital natives”) and those who must teach the technology to themselves later in life (“digital immigrants”).

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In an article entitled Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Marc Prensky utilizes the native/immigrant analogy to describe the current technology gap between today’s students and their teachers. Where many of our students have grown up with computers in their homes and classrooms (and are therefore often more comfortable utilizing available technology than traditional pen and paper), teachers must often fight to keep up with the new ways that students are thinking and processing information. Where “digital immigrants” look to books before turning to the Internet, print out documents to read and edit rather than doing it right on the computer, and prefer learning step-by-step, “digital natives” look right to the Internet for instantaneous information and prefer multi-tasking and learning through games at their own (faster) pace. What happens when an “immigrant” teacher has a classroom full of “natives”?

As a pre-service teacher in the Educational Technology MSEd program, I often see this issue come up in the schools. I myself am right on the border of being either a “native” or “immigrant” – my elementary school received computers for every classroom when I was in the first grade (does anybody remember Apple IIGS?), and since then computers have been a huge part of my education. I would have told you that I was definitely a “native” until a recent fieldwork assignment at a local high school computer classroom. Watching the students was amazing – half were listening to iPods, and all students would switch back and forth from on-line computer games (or the latest football scores for their fantasy football leagues) to their current assignment. My first thought was that the teacher had no control in the classroom, and yet the students were all on track with their assignments and were producing amazing projects. It was at that point that I realized even though it has been only 6 years since I was in their seats, so much has changed.

As Marc Prensky asks, “So what should happen? Should the Digital Native students learn the old ways, or should their Digital Immigrant educators learn the new?” Is there a happy medium? What can be done so that “immigrant” teachers can effectively teach “natives” and their new ways of learning and processing information?

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