Posted by: Harold Knight | 06/10/2011

Will the real digital immigrant please stand up?

I know how this works

I know how this works

At Christmas my sister suggested an iTunes album of music she thought I would enjoy. I tried to download iTunes on my computer. Several times. The computer would tell me there was a security problem and I couldn’t begin the process, or, conversely, the process would nearly complete itself, when a message would pop up that I was trying to download 32-somethings version and my computer is a 64-somethings—without telling me how to solve the problem—which it wanted me to do.

Now I have an iPhone, and a friend showed me how to download iTunes from my computer onto my iPhone and have music wherever I go—even on my car radio. iTunes on my computer became a necessity. After I failed several more times, I tried downloading it from Internet Explorer rather than Firefox. It worked. (Why?)

I understand trimming the wick on my 1870 kerosene lamp. I understand adjusting a pull-down on a sticking key of the tracker organ in my living room. I have a general idea how the internal combustion engine propels my car, how an incandescent light bulb works. But this computer stuff?

I don’t understand the touch-screen on my iPhone. I don’t how all that music gets stored on it, much less transferred to my car radio. Hearing music in my car is not, for me, evidence that it works.  I am totally amazed (creeped out, rather) by microchips. How does all that information get onto something so small? Parallel universes, anyone?

I’m not from Net Gen.

Either my students understand computer engineering, or they are so accustomed to living in the age of computers and the concomitant tsunami of information that they don’t question how this happens. I assume it’s the latter. As I assume that when air flows by the tongue of a pipe, the organ will sound, they assume when they touch the screens of their iPhones, stuff will happen. It’s a fact of life they don’t question.

Net Gen students also believe without question they can multi-task. Odd what they claim to be proficient at derives from mechanics. Multi-task “is recorded from 1954 in a non-computer mechanical context” (1). The term was picked up as a computer technology term, then applied to persons. Students operating as machines. The bionic generation?

With wonder and consternation I point out to my students that the first functional computer (the ENIAC) was built in my lifetime (1946), that little of the most important stuff of their lives (besides food and beer) existed before I was born. Shocking. I bought my first computer in 1987 to write my PhD dissertation before any of them was born.

Unlike my students, I did not multi-task when I was writing in 1987. I still don’t. iTunes is not playing right now. I’m not a digital native. Marc Prensky, inventor of the appellation, says digital natives

are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to ‘serious work’ (2).

In some ways my immigrant status has reached assimilation. I can parallel process—I learned to by looking at squiggles on a page and hearing the music my fingers and feet are causing to happen—all at the same instant. That’s multi-tasking! I’ve transferred those skills to my use of technology. I look for cool graphics on a website. I’m networked. And believe me, I thrive on instant gratification. So I’m just like my students.


My students and I can, perhaps, speak the same computer language. Our differences lie in the amount we use net language, not in the ways we use it.

For some, new technologies have been such a defining feature in the lives of younger generations that they predict a fundamental change in the way young people communicate, socialise, create and learn. . .  Although young people do use the Internet more, our analysis does not support the view that there are unbridgeable differences between those who can be classified as digital natives or digital immigrants based on when they were born (3).

I communicate the way my students do. The fact is that I am a rather successful digital immigrant. Those areas in which I’m not successful are areas that don’t interest me. Why on earth would I want to play an electronic game when I can play J.S. Bach’s organ Prelude and Fugue in C Major, BWV 547 (that is, multi-task with a vengeance)?

But those communication skills are for me “add-ons” rather than the core of the way I work. Unlike my students. In order to add stuff on, I want to understand it (even though I can’t). Students don’t add on. It’s part of who they are. They don’t need to bother to understand.

Besides walking five miles in the snow to get to school, I grew up in a culture in which paying attention and developing an attention span of hours rather than minutes was the norm—not because we were better than my students, but because so much of what we had to do was tedious. Research, for example. Go to the library, look up references, take books and journals off shelves, make notes on 3×5 cards, and then go home and transcribe all of the information into essays using a Royal typewriter. We were under time constraints to be choosy about the topics of our research.

All of that was multi-tasking, but it was serial multi-tasking. When we got the Walkman, we were on our way to simultaneous multi-tasking. We’ve all become more and more proficient at it, and the faster things happen around us, the shorter our attention spans have become (all of us, not the Net Gen kids only).

My students are living out the lives prepared for them. My generation created this culture, not theirs (except for Facebook). The digital natives are doing what every generation does—using what they are given to build their own culture. The problem we have (those of us trying to pass on more of our culture than technology) is keeping up with the tools of communication and figuring out how to stay in touch with the Net Gens.

Jean Twenge of the Department of Psychology at San Diego State University says that, besides recognizing that the students of the Net Gen are simply living out their cultural inheritance, educators can “meet its members on their own ground by breaking lectures into short chunks, using video and promoting hands-on learning.” However, the tools of communication have to change, not what is communicated. Twenge says, “standards for content and learning should remain the same, and should be fair to everyone” (4).

Not your typical laptop

Not your typical laptop

So as in any “multi-cultural” society (shall I give away my old-fashioned liberal bias?), the natives and the immigrants have a great deal to teach each other.


(1) “multi-tasking.” Online Etymology Dictionary, ed. Douglas Harper. 2010. Web. 09 Jun. 2011.
(2) Prensky, Marc. “Digital natives, digital immigrants.” Part 1, On the Horizon, 9.5 (2001): 1–6. Quoted in Helsper and Eynon. Also available separately on line.
(3) Helsper, Ellen Johanna and Rebecca Eynon, “Digital natives: where is the evidence?” British Educational Research Journal 36.3 (9June 2010): 503, 517.
(4) Twenge, Jean M. “Generational changes and their impact in the classroom: teaching Generation Me.” Medical Education 43 (2009): 404.



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