Digital Natives, Immigrants and Analogues

17/12/2004

DIGITAL CULTURE | Digital interactivity is more than button pushing. Ahmad Humeid explores an emerging cultural divide

Some years ago, I had a colleague who used to do some secretarial work. One day I needed a letter printed on official company letterheads. I wrote the letter myself and sent it to my colleague using our internal email system. Fifteen minutes later, he came running up the stairs from his floor, paper in hand, ready for my signature. As I was checking the letter I found a sentence that really needed changing. So I changed it on my screen and emailed it again to my colleague.

After another 15 minutes, he came up again, with the new copy of the letter. Giving the letter a final check this time I discovered that there were a few misspelled word. “What on earth was going on?” I said to my self. “My friend,” I asked him. “How did these mistakes come up in the letter? I sent you a spell-checked email.”

“I am so sorry. I will correct them now,” he said as he walked away to the stairs.

This correction game went on for another few rounds, till I could take it no more. I decided to go to his floor and see for myself what was happening. “Show me, step by step, how you’re printing this letter,” I firmly asked. To my utter shock and horror I watched how my colleague printed out my email on paper, put it beside his monitor and started TYPING it from scratch on his word processor!! “Stop! Please!,” I gasped as I reached for the mouse. “Haven’t you heard of Cut and Paste?”

As I was demonstrating to him how he could simply cut the text from my email message and paste it into a Word document, my colleague’s face had the look of someone who’s just been shown the secret of the universe.

And there was a big lesson for me too in that episode: two people in front of PCs could still be worlds apart.

Are you digital? (you must be. You’re reading this on the screen I hope)

Digital natives Digital Immigrants Analogs
Look for information on the internet first They look for information in traditional media, then the internet "Next thing you’re going to tell me that all the computer in the world are connectted by some sort of ‘digital highway’!"
Start using any software without reading the manual. They assume the software will intuitively teach them. Have to "educate themselves" before attempting to use new software. And they find the whole thing rather annoying. "Yeah I like soft wear. All my clothes are made of cotton"
Click once on a web hyperlink. Double-click hyper links. "Hyper-kids can be so annoying!"
Read email from screen. Print out emails and read them on paper. "My secretary handles this ‘e-mail thing’"
"Hi.. Check out this cool site: www.coolsite.com. Bye.." "Hello? Ahmad here. Do you have a minute? Come to my office right now. YouÕve got to see this web site" "Can you send someone to clean those spider webs from the ceiling of my office"

Two countries

In a series of papers, the US author Marc Prensky, an expert on learning and technology came up with a succinct description of that divide. He likened the digital, interactive world to a new country. While kids who grew up with computers, video games and the internet can be considered ‘Digital Natives’ of this country, their parents and grandparents are ‘Digital Immigrants’ or even ‘Analogues’. As in any immigrant community, the kids adapt fast to their new surroundings, while the parents take longer to adapt, often keeping one foot in their home country.

The brain ‘rewired’: Neuro-plasticity

Prensky goes as far as claiming that the brains of people who grew up with digital technology are actually physically different from those who grew up with books or only TV. He brings forward scientific arguments to support this claim, such as the changes discovered in the brains of professional musicians and the fact that languages learned during adulthood get ‘stored’ in a different part of the brain than those learned during childhood.

Neurological and brain research shows that the brain is not a rigid organ and that it is shaped and reshaped during a person’s life time. Our brains are neuro-plastic!

Seen from this perspective, the digital literacy of the Digital Natives, is not simply a bunch of skills, but a rewiring of the brain. At the very least, Digital Natives have different thinking patterns: they think in parallel, jumping from one ‘hyperlink’ to another and function best while networked with others, hence the constant communication via SMS, IM and other means.

Trouble in the class room

Prensky argues that this divide, even in technologically advanced countries, explains why more and more kids have problems at class. These kids are not dumb. They are Digital Natives, while their teaches might be, at best Digital Immigrants. The slow, linear, step-by-step teaching fashion is something those kids, used to the fast pace of TV and video games, simply can’t cope with.

If your kid can’t pay attention in class, how come he or she can pay total attention to a complex video game.

In this context, educators are starting to seriously consider a role for video games in the classroom. This doesn’t have to mean dismissing the role of teachers. But they too have to understand that the digital world their students are growing up in, is a language and a culture, not just some button-pushing skills.

Check out www.marcprensky.com to explore this subject further.

3 Comments

  1. People who dbl click on Hyper links annoy me!

  2. Nader says:

    Two thumbs up!
    Pay attention in class is a problem I usually face :-)

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