Digital Immigrants, Digital Natives

I’ve just been watching David Warlick’s excellent keynote address for the K12 Online Conference. (which I’m sure most of you teachers will be taking part in, right?) He raises some excellent points and coined a few new phrases… I particularly liked the idea of being “derailed”, and the notion that the side trips can often be more powerful an experience than the actual main trip, or what he calls “the rails”.

Having him explain this from the platform of his local railway station was a nice touch. 🙂 If you haven’t seen it, go watch it and then contribute to the excellent wiki space that David has set up for us.

But he also mentioned the term Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, a term first coined by Marc Prensky I believe. The concept here is that the kids coming through our schools now are Digital Natives – they were born into a world where they don’t know what it’s like not to “be digital”, as Negroponte would say.

Us older folk who were born pre-Google, pre-MSN, pre-blogs, even pre-computers, are the Digital Immigrants… people living in a strange and sometimes unnatural digital world. The argument goes that if we as teachers want to relate to the things our students see as important, then we had better start integrating into this digital society, and fast. Prensky talks about us immigrants never quite losing our “digital accent” though, and that we will never truly be as fluent as the Digital Natives.

dad.jpgMy father immigrated to Australia from Poland during the war. Once he arrived here in Australia, he worked damn hard to become an Australian – he went to night school to improve his English, made efforts to spend time with Australian friends, married an Australian girl, and so on… In my eyes, my father was very successful in making the transition into Australian culture, and in learning the language (and he was an absolute stickler for correct grammar and spelling!), adopting the conventions of the local culture, following the local sports and so on… and most people who knew him while I was growing up had no idea he was not born in Australia. My grandparents on the other hand, never really made that transition. I loved my Babcia and Dziadek, but they spoke very little English, only really mixed with other Poles, and that made it very hard for me – as a native Australian kid – to get to really relate to them.

And that’s the issue we face in our school right now. If we Digital Immigrant teachers are to meet the needs of our Digital Native kids, we need to do what my father did… to abandon the old ways and to learn the new ways, to make a concsious effort to learn this new language and these new customs and to learn them well, to really, honestly internalise them. My dad didn’t take his transition into Australian life lightly… he worked hard to make sure that everyone around him knew that he was serious about becoming an Australian, or at least as Australian as he could be.

The days of being able to teach using the “old culture” are long gone. Those days are over. Some of us have not woken up to that fact yet, and it will hit us hard in the next few years. We simply have to accept that the nature of the kids we teach has irrevocably changed and that if we are to remain relevant and able to perform the job we go into the classroom to do, then we must change our thinking. It’s no longer acceptable to think that this is all too much work, or too hard, or not that important. This change is no longer optional.

We may never completely lose our digital accent with our students, but my father is proof that an immigrant to a new land can become fluent and integrated enough to become “one of them”. It takes a lot of work and desire and commitment, but it can be done.

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