Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants

This weekend, I had the excellent experience of attending the WSASCD conference in SeaTac. Some of the sessions were lovely, some were frankly ill-prepared, but the session that sticks with me, particularly as a teacher who is dipping her big toe in the world of web technology, was a session on Digital Natives and Immigrants. It just so happened to be led by FW’s very own Tech Ninja Hannah Gbenro, the Hannah formerly known as Pena.

I wasn’t familiar with the term “digital immigrant,” and I honestly thought I was going to be talking about students from poverty who come to our schools with no experience with technology. Instead, we talked about the (often age-related) digital divide between teachers and students as well as between tech-saavy teachers and tech-wary teachers.

A few comments and ideas have been sticking in my mind.

1. “Teachers take changes in stride. But technology is the only change I’ve seen teachers actually be afraid of.” ~Ryan Patterson, Wildwood & Camelot librarian

Our librarian said this early in the conversation, and at first I rolled my eyes a bit. Some teachers, after all, grouse over ANY small or large change to the curriculum or the system. Once I got the grouchiness out, I realized, by and large, he was right. Our teachers aren’t necessarily freaked out about power standards, they’re freaking out about applying the power standards to our new (crazy-buggy) online grade book system. Lately, when we talk about the MSP, the conversation focuses largely on the transition to computer-administered testing. I haven’t read any research or articles on why technology shifts seem to be so stressful, have you?

2. Digital learners aren’t spastic, short-attention span techies they’re often stereotyped as; they actually absorb information differently.

I find myself often frustrated when I pass information like links or log-in information along to teachers and they repeatedly ask me to explain the information or remind them how to log in or access a particular resource. Hannah talked about the actual differences in modes of learning between people who are digital natives and those who are digital immigrants. For example, traditional educators often appreciate information to be disseminated in a logical order or sequentially. I’ve been thinking about how I can make information accessible, not overwhelming, when I send out my Book of the Week lesson plans.

3. In education, technology isn’t fully integrated, it’s still an event.

I’m absolutely guilty of this. But I think this is something systemic in education, not just related to our in-class technology. For example, whenever I use an iMovie as part of a presentation or mention cataloging book titles in a LibraryThing account, I’ve noticed staff members sometimes get hung up on the technology I used to present the information. “But how did you DO that?” “That’s SO AMAZING! It must have taken so much TIME!” “There’s NO WAY I can do this because I have no clue what you did technologically in your talk.” I know they mean it (usually) in a complimentary way, but it often frustrates me because I worry they’ve let this wonder distract from the main message/information I was trying to share.

This lack of full integration was evident even within the conference itself. Plenty of people were taking notes on iPads, but (until I mentioned it), I was the only person tweeting. The ideas and learning we were exchanging at the conference weren’t being shared with the enormous global network of educators who are grappling with the same issues we addressed this weekend!

A total of three people used the #wsascd hashtag the entire weekend. The WSASCD blog hasn’t been touched since 2009. Google searches for “WSASCD Conference Recap” and the like came up empty.

But outside the education realm, this integration is more and more simply a part of how professional communities share ideas. I’m not just talking about my tech-oriented friends riffing on digital photography and computer programming. My other friends also share information about design conferences, fashion exhibitions, and travel.

I do want to distinguish here that each of the people I linked to aren’t sharing their information simply in an effort to overshare how awesome they think they are, they are looking to connect with others to develop professional learning communities that are mutually beneficial.

So what could this technology integration look like at a future conference? Here’s what I experienced when I went to WordCamp Portland last month. The conference was attended by people on an extremely wide continuum of technological ability. Many folks were web developers, but others were designers, advertisers, and people like me who just create content.

Before I arrived, last-minute changes to the schedule were reflected on the website. When I registered, there was a line on my nametag for me to include my Twitter handle (I’m @MsHoughton) and/or web address. The first page of the program included the hashtag to use when Tweeting so other people could search for tweets related to the conference (in this case, #wcpdx, for WordCamp Portland). Throughout the day, people uploaded images, quotes, and wrote blog posts from the conference.

Weeks later, people were still posting reflection posts. You can see mine here and here. (Full disclosure: I actually wound up speaking about educators and technology at the conference.) Mine are positively vapid compared to some of the in-depth multi-post analyses some folks shared.

So think about that for a minute, administrators. These attendees were INDEPENDENTLY choosing to write lengthy, thoughtful reflections on their experiences at a conference. They were then reading, commenting on, and reposting sometimes DOZENS of additional reflections. Can you IMAGINE the power if more teachers were doing that? My coworker saw me typing up the first draft of this blog post during a break and she asked, “Oh, are you doing a reflection for your National Boards?” “No, it’s just… um, what I do when I attend a conference,” I replied.

4. A principal from the Fife school district really got me thinking. “There’s a level of arrogance I hear so often when someone is talking to me about technology. They don’t need to insult my gray hair, they can just talk down to me about what I can’t do.”

Yes, I selected the picture because I can almost HEAR the gentlemen pictured snidely talking about their superior skills in technology. A further case in point: my comment from #3 above could also be construed as pompous. “Oh, look at me. I’m such a hip, rad teacher keeping it real and sharing a wealth of information with my digital network. Why didn’t youuuuuu do it too? It’s probably because I’m hip and rad and you’re really not.” And to many within the education world, I’m sure it could totally be taken that way (particularly if I were a jerk to begin with. Which I don’t think I am.)

I think that part of this principal’s comment could be attributed to some measure of oversensitivity. After all, I know I’m always pretty defensive if I feel like I’m behind or somehow doing something “wrong.” But I also think she has a HUGE point.

Please allow me to overgeneralize for a moment. I say this because I’ve spent the majority of my life among an overwhelmingly science-and-technology-inclined crowd and I love them, but I admit many come across as jerks. Many of these people are fully aware of their intelligence. They have often been mistreated by people who do not share their gifts. So I wonder if for some of these people, treating folks who struggle with technology is their way of responding to the distain and unkindness they were met with when they were younger. I might also point you to this WIRED article discussing Silicon Valley and folks on the autism spectrum.

Regardless of the cause, this principal was absolutely right that we need to rethink the way we (myself included, if I’m having a particularly stressful day) interact with people still acclimating to technology. That’s part of why I think we need to find out more about the fear (see #1) so many people have about changing technology, so we can then respond to that fear more appropriately.

5. Reality is Broken by JaneMcGonigal is a critical read for today’s educators.

Truly. Read it now. I wanted to jump up and hand everyone at the session a copy.

The book talks a lot about what we can do in the real world so our students (and fellow teachers) will have a chance to experience the fiero (rush of excitement, pride, and accomplishment) they often find in game play but not in their workdays. Can’t handle an entire book right now? That’s fine, you can read just the first five chapters, they’re the ones most relevant to education. Heck, even the intro could be enough. (If you want the intro, e-mail me and I’ll hook you up.)

There’s more that I’m still processing, but I’m interested in your thoughts so far. What am I missing? What do you think I’m totally spot on or absolutely wrong about?

3 thoughts on “Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants”

  1. Hi, Shannon! Can you hook me up with that intro? I’m interested. As a technology specialist in a k-8 school, I can relate to what you are saying. It is hard to teach something you are good at and it is even harder to teach something you are skilled at to an audience (other teachers who are scared of technology) that is unresponsive. No pulse! They sit and politely listen but do not absorb the information. They would like me to just do it for them. I feel sometimes I have enabled them by doing too much, but if I don’t it looks like I am not doing my job. Being scared is what they need to get over. I always ask them to try. They will not mess anything up or damage the equipment. It is the fear that is holding them back. I learn through playing around with a program and taking apart the guts of a computer. It is a lot of trial and error. They need to dive in and throw their fears aside. These teachers need a safety-net, which should be me. However, these “newbies ” need more time to learn. They wave the white flag right away because they do not have time to devote to these technologies. It takes devotion, time, and passion. It is the struggle of all teacher techie nerds.

  2. I certainly don’t have a solution, but you (and your field of education) are not alone. I’ve seen groups in various industries (a real estate event I spoke at last month comes to mind) in the same situation – technology freaks folks out because they’ve told themselves over and over again “I’m not really ‘a computer person'” – whatever the hell that means.

    Sorry, but it’s 2011. “I am not a computer person” isn’t a valid statement if you’re attempting to do business or otherwise be a fully functioning member of society. One doesn’t need to learn how to write software, solder circuits, or design websites, but basic familiarity with online communication and publishing shouldn’t need to be thought of as something special.

    And I now realize that this comment might come off a bit as me being a jerk such as you identified in this post. I have no issue with people who haven’t yet learned technology… but I do have a serious issue with those who refuse to learn. It’s okay not to know something. It’s not okay to refuse to learn when it’s a subject that will help move you, and your industry, forward.

    And now I’ll step down off of my soapbox…

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