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Of Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives Teaching the Net Generation

We have devoted a number of posts over the last few years to the idea that there are two different sets of computer users: digital natives and digital immigrants. In addition, we have discussed the terms multitasking, power browsing and bouncing out and their importance to teachers.

For educators and/or parents seeking additional clarity on these and other terms, Ofer Zur, self-proclaimed digital immigrant, and his digital native daughter Azzia Zur, provide a great summary at the Zur Institute. Their overview is particularly compelling because it focuses on the patterns one sees as opposed to trying to formulate absolutes.

The Zurs note that the term digital immigrant is generally used for those born prior to 1964, a sort of unofficial cutoff for the influx of technology to everyday life. Those born after that date are generally lumped into the digital native category.

However, first and foremost, they point out the obvious, that not all digital immigrants and digital natives are created equal. To get a basic sense of the difference they generalize to three basic categories of technology users for each group.

In the digital immigrant world they use these broad descriptors: the avoiders, the reluctant adopters and the enthusiastic adopters. The Zurs offer, and we concur, that the latter group, irrespective of when they were born, has the full potential to keep up with digital natives. They also suggest that anyone in the first two categories seeking to move to the last would be best served by hiring “a patient, pleasant digital native to help build up the skill set.”

They also divide digital natives into three separate groups: the avoiders, the minimalists and the enthusiastic participants. It is pleasant to see some additional experts note that being born during the digital period does not necessarily mean that one has a knack for or an interest in computers. That said, the Zurs insist that the largest segment of the digital native population resides firmly in the latter category and will turn to technology first when almost any type of need arises.

They acknowledge that these simple distinctions contrast with the work of Feeney (2010) and Toledo (2007) who described a continuum of people’s relationships to the digital world based not on their age but on their attitudes and implementation of digital technologies. The breakdown here is far more detailed: the avoider, the minimalist, the tourist, the enthusiastic adopter, the innovator and the over-user or addict.

Great Chart for Parents and Teachers

Irrespective of the level of detail, the Zurs go on to provide a fantastic chart of the preferred behaviors of digital immigrants versus those preferred by natives. For example while digital immigrants may become technology tourists and even enthusiastic adopters, they still generally prefer to talk in person or on the phone. On the flip side, digital natives generally prefer to text rather than call and to connect via the net.

A critical distinction for educators revolves around the preferences when either group seeks to learn new things. Most often, digital immigrants were raised with the instructional manual approach. They therefore are more reflective learners and prefer clear sequential steps presented linearly and logically.

Digital natives basically abhor such manuals. They are used to trial and error as a learning format and thus prefer direct experimentation and interaction rather than reflection. Based on the multiple inputs technology can provide, they also prefer to receive information quickly and from multiple channels.

There are many other clear distinctions provided in the Zur chart, from the general preferences for each group related to gratification and rewards, the idea of tackling one task at a time versus multi-tasking or task-switching, and the preference for more knowledge, just-in-case learning, versus the rejection of useless info in favor of a just-in-time mentality.

The Zurs also note that immigrants should simply drop the idea that too much time spent online is a time waster if they want to successfully work with kids. The reason? Those youngsters are convinced that many aspects of life are only happening online.

Like it or not, these developments have profound implications for educators. Kids today are used to having “control over the exploration of material.” That is their norm.

Therefore, teachers insisting on providing traditional directions like open a book and go to page 5 are “completely archaic to most digital natives.” Instead, when they are handed the book, they will open it and begin to explore themselves, just as they will when they are given a digital device.

Digital Immigrants and Natives as Educators

Ultimately, the message is a simple one. Educators, whether they were born prior to’64 or after, will find little classroom success if they remain in the avoider, reluctant adopter, minimalist or tourist categories. There is now great clarity that educators must be at a minimum in the enthusiastic adopter category if they are to successfully teach the digital generation.

In fact, we would contend that the best teachers moving forward will need to take their technology to an even higher level. To be successful, they will need, at least at times, to move into the category of user often dubbed innovator.

That does not mean that some traditional elements of education should be tossed by the wayside. Educators will still want to help youngsters increase their ability to defer gratification but it must be understood that this will be an incredibly difficult task. Likewise, the newer learning models will challenge teachers to find ways to help students increase their attention spans even as we learn to deal with students “bouncing out” when they are uninspired.

But the successful teachers of the 21st century will recognize that these will be ongoing challenges. To avoid consistent frustration, they must not be at odds with the youngsters in their classrooms.

Instead, 21st century teachers will accept the embedded preferences of our youngsters and adjust accordingly.


1 Mark Bullen { 03.07.11 at 1:26 pm }

While the Zurs present a slightly more nuanced picture of this issue than most of the net gen hype, in the end they fall into the same trap of portraying it as generational issue and they repeat many of the same unfounded claims about the characteristics of the so-called “net generation. To cite just one example, their is no evidence to support their contention that their is a generational learning style. The idea that “they are used to trial and error as a learning format and thus prefer direct experimentation and interaction rather than reflection….[and] they also prefer to receive information quickly and from multiple channels” just isn’t supported by the research.

At the BC Institute of Technology we are in the midst of conducting in depth interviews with students about their use and understanding of digital technology and one of the key themes that is emerging is that they are not challenging the traditional academic paradigm of information transmission via lectures. This shouldn’t be seen as an argument for the status quo but it highlights the importance of basing educational change on something more substantial than hype.

2 Karl Maton { 04.04.11 at 4:18 am }

If there is a Contact email somewhere here, which I can’t see, then I’d send a piece being published about these issues that follows up on one mentioned on this site.

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