Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: An object lesson on a commute

Seven years ago, Marc Prensky coined the phrase “Digital natives, Digital immigrants” in an essay by the same name. He asserts our educational system was designed for a different student than the kids who come through the school doors today. Without getting into the finer points, Prensky’s analog is very apt. In a hightech age, Natives (under 18) speak the language of technology more fluently than immigrants (18+) and the educational infrastructure serves the latter, rather than the former.

I live north of New York City, As I travel to and from the city, cell phone service is intermittent at best on the parkways northbound out of the city. These parkways wind through some of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the nation.  Why is it that cell phone service can not be facilitated through these corridors of capitalism? I mean Scarsdale(!), Westchester(!), and Greenwich(!) all have serious problems holding a cell signal.

Perhaps people don’t like ugly cell phone towers in their nice neighborhoods?  Perhaps too much investment in legacy infrastructure?  Perhaps most of these residents are Digital Immigrants. Many made their fortunes the old fashioned way; Ivy league school, fortune 500 company, put your head down for 40 years and get a place in the burbs free from the conveniences of modern life.  Who knows, but it is maddening for someone like myself to use copytalk or as I travel through this digital wasteland, a place which chooses not to speak the native tongue of the 21st century. (on a side note – when I moved to the NY area seventeen years ago, these same neighborhoods were JUST getting cable tv. In the Western US, cable had been going for 15 years at that time)

Another recent encounter with a Digital Immigrants. I recently sat down with the entire faculty of a communications department at a major Southern university.  Most of the faculty did not have blogs, many did not know know the term ‘podcast’. Many looked down their nose at Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, etc, and yet these are the ones called to serve the students who ‘speak’ these digital technologies in a native tongue.  This was the COMMUNICATIONS department! Like me schlepping through legacy neighborhoods Westchester NY, our student’s literacy in digital things gets ‘dropped’ or ‘tuned’ out when they commute through the legacy neighborhoods of academia, teathered together by tenure.  This certainly is not the case in every school or every wealthy neighborhood, but I found it striking.

The digital native, digital immigrant thing is a spectrum, not a hard and fast pigeon holeable phenominon. I know 65 year old software coders. I also know 22 year-old Luddites. Look around. Are you a native or an immigrant? The contrast can be startling.

One response to “Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: An object lesson on a commute

  1. Joe, I could not agree more!!! Your observations are right on as always. I did get a bit uneasy however while reading as two of the terms are still foreign to me. Today I will investigate them and thank you for the learning experiece.

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