A migrating idea? Digital Native; Digital Immigrant.

How people engage with and adapt to the digital landscape has been likened to the same behavior exhibited when navigating physical landscapes. People are either born into the digital age and speak it like a mother tongue, or they learn to speak the lingo.

Just as people adapt, so too do ideas. The “digital native, digital immigrant” analogy first introduced by Prensy in 2001 has migrated to include native “residents” and “tourists.”

Prensky first compared those born and raised within the digital age to “natives” and those 30+adapting to the digital environment as “immigrants” in 2001; identifying example behaviors of those trying to adapt to the new digital world yet slipping in to pre-digital habits –

“My own favorite example is the ‘Did you get my email?’ phone call” Prensky

The native/immigrant analogy has since been tweaked by Dr Toledo of Illinois University. In Digital Culture: Immigrants and Tourists Responding to the Natives’ Drumbeat Toledo argues to include “tourist” behavior, who pop onto the web and do the things that need to be done, and “resident” behaviour – living a whole life on the web.

If you are over 30, you are likely to be on a visitors visa. Having grown up grappling with the Dewy system, learning from a chalk board, reading from books and photocopies and marking a book by hand. This was all the norm in the now seemingly dusty information age of pre-millenium learning.

The younger learners, and all those that will follow in their digital footprints have, and will continue to acquire their literacy skills differently; from a Smartboard not a chalk board. Homework will be completed from behind the glare of a computer screen and students will continue to grapple with and express ideas with pixels rather than paper.

The way we acquire our information gathering skills is the big divider.

credit: mimwickett

Prensky’s “natives”, despite being newcomers and at the same time a “dominant and alien society,” according to Dr Toledo who quotes Sociologist, Winthrop. We are observers of acculturation

“In fact we have seen the the process of acculturation – the change in a culture facilitated by a dominant, alien society” says Winthrop

An “old school” learner may be able to master digital technologies, such as –

> Twitter, Facebook
> podcasts, RSS feeds
> instant messaging, mobile apps
> blogs, wikis, modding

Yet, despite this new web knowledge a 30 + might still be classified as a digital immigrant due to the tendency to avert to the behaviours of the dusty print world, given half a chance.

People are prone to disclose that they are not womb-to-web through a thick “accent,” revealing itself when say, printing an email to read rather than reading the text directly from a screen, for example.

More “digital immigrant” giveaways include –

  • phoning someone to ask “did you get my email?”
  • taking notes via a laptop and printing copies instead of email CC
  • editing a doc via printed copy first and then on-screen
  • reading one thing at a time – refraining from media-stacking
  • using a manual rather than just “seeing what happens” as you go along

Printing and editing with pens are biggies that you wouldn’t catch a digital native doing.

“Residents” live their lives online, digital “tourists” drop in and out of web resources, doing what they need to do before returning to their familiar print and paper home.

And what remains between the digital native/resident and the immigrant/tourist?

A tension between young people born into a digital world who lose patience with the rest of us while we try to adapt to a new digital world. Dr Toledo identified the voice of a disgruntled newbie in the work place; “At work I am a ‘digital native’ island in a ‘digital immigrant’ sea.”



A crisis is the big motivator to inspire us to adapt to a new situation. 30+ users engage with the new digital world in behaviors ranging from “refugee” to “adaptor,” according to Dr Toledo which can be summed up;

Tech change = f(user crisis vs. user’s total perceived pain of adoption)

Yet, should we add “economic ability to participate,” to the equation?

People already on the fringes of society are at risk of being further isolated – never able to fully engage in the world in which jobs, networks and opportunities are being shared online. Poverty will exclude many from the digital party that the more affluent are all invited to.

According to research by the London School of Economics and Social Policy; “Disadvantaged young people looking for work; a job in itself” conducted by DR Becky Tunstall and Dr Anne Green on behalf of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, job searching for young people was indeed a full time “job in itself.” Vacancies had migrated from paper based adverts to online ads and vacancies were filled within days of posting – in some cases, hours.

A faster paced recruitment process has developed and an individual’s success was seen to be dependent on their ability to respond to adverts as soon as they were posted. Fast moving and predominantly online, the concept of a closing date was defunct as according to LSE figures, nearly 30% of jobs advertised on the internet were taken down after a week of being posted. Employers removed job adverts as soon as sufficient applications were received.

Access to internet was key. Young people who had no internet access at home or only sporadic internet access were at a severe disadvantage and, according to the researchers, had “low or zero chance of success” if they did not respond to a job as soon as it was seen. A sporadic visit to a library could not compete to a high speed home internet connection.

Further consequences of not being connected to the digital network include:

  • children from low income families unable to compete in homework
  • exclusion from social networks; a dominant source of news and information
  • a less tech savvy disposition leading to unfavorable selection by employers

A poverty of information may create a new network of people unable to afford to even acquire the skills of the digital world or to access the people, information or resources that others can visit freely.

This is similar to the status of those who are most vulnerable in society – for example the asylum seeker who is unable to volunteer, claim benefits, enroll on a free course or receive medical help unless it is a medical case of life or death.

They exist in a no man’s land, forever on the outskirts looking in –

“Those left alone become our tourists – never involved, never excited, never chosen…simply here.”
(Carl Rogers. p.71, Freedom to Learn).





Digital Culture: Immigrants and Tourists Responding to the Natives’ Drumbeat
Cheri A. Toledo Illinois State University

LSE report: Disadvantaged young unemployed people looking for work: s job in itself”
Rogers. C.R. (1969/1994). Freedom to Learn (3rd edition). New York, NY: Macmillan College.

Types of digital behaviors:
(excerpt from original report by Cheri A Toledo; Immigrants and Tourists Responding to the Natives’ Drumbeat)

Digital recluse: use of technology is a result of the need to function in the current environment, not used by choice; computers are prohibited in his/her home.

Digital refugee: unwillingly forced to use technology; prefers hard copies, does not trust electronic resources; seeks assistance; may have grown up with technology or adopted it as an adult.

Digital immigrant: willingly uses technology, but not familiar with its potential; believes technology can be used successfully for some tasks; may have grown up with technology or adopted it as an adult.

Digital native: chooses to use technology for numerous tasks; adapts as the tools change; may have grown up with technology or adopted it as an adult.

Digital explorer: uses technology to push the envelope; seeks new tools that provide more work, faster, and easier.

Digital innovator: adapts and changes old tools for new tasks; creates new tools.

Digital addict: dependent on technology; will go through withdrawal when technology is unavailable

Image: RGB Free Stock, credit “duchessa”