Step back in time with me and think about the first days of summer. A soft, warm breeze touches my face. I am sitting on a lawn chair in my back yard and it is a just-about-perfect early summer day. Staring at blades of grass calms me. I concentrate on one patch of grass then zoom in on a tiny section until I am down to a few blades. I let everything leave my mind. It becomes just my breathing, in and out, and a few blades of grass. It is my way of escaping the daily workings of life for a few moments or a few minutes. I need that break from reality every so often. Stepping away from my computer and whatever I am doing online can be one of those times. Because I am a Digital Immigrant I may need a break more often than my fellow classmates. The overwhelming, all-consuming, vastness of the Internet along with the aggravation of “not catching on” to a function I am trying to perform can be very upsetting to me. Sometimes I just need to let go.
Being upset can be a way of life for a Digital Immigrant, such as myself. Re-entering university life after an absence of several decades brought me face-to-face with one huge difference from years past. The way I think and communicate is completely, 100 percent different from the way my young classmates communicate. This fact is extremely important for me, but it will become increasingly important for my young classmates as they enter the working world in which many persons in management and supervision may also be like me—Digital Immigrants. Communication is key and we all need to be able to communicate with each other in and out of new media.
Shall we start with the basics? One way a person can tell I am a Digital Immigrant, as described by Marc Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, is that I am printing out every piece of information of importance to me regarding this assignment. This entry is my “manifesto” regarding digital literacy for a Writing for New Media class at Oakland University. For those who don’t know the terms, Digital Native is a person who speaks the “native language” of digital—someone probably born in the 1980s or ‘90s who never knew a time without digital. Whether it is computers, games, the Internet, cell phones—you digitally name it, they know it. On the other hand, there’s someone like me, a Digital Immigrant. There was no digital anything when I was born. There was barely TV (no just kidding…sort of). Phones hung on the wall of the kitchen where everyone could hear your conversation. If you were lucky enough not to have the party line on when you wanted to call someone, good for you. If you were not home and you wanted to tell someone something you had to find a pay phone out on the street or ask to borrow use of a business phone that was attached to a wall and that you had to rotary dial. If you do not understand some of the things I just said, you were probably born after 1980. My YouTube manifesto statement highlights this difference (a little). I don a “babushka” in the video to represent an old-fashioned immigrant. If you do not know what a babushka is—it’s the scarf I put on my head for part of the video.
As with many an immigrant, I have a difficult time understanding or getting a grasp of what it is my classmates (digital natives) are talking about. A great deal of the confusion for me revolves around the new media my classmates may be using or describing in class. Some of the discussion may just be about current issues relevant to a fellow student’s life, work, friends, game playing, etc. It doesn’t take much for me to be lost. There are times when I wonder if I have lost them as well. I may choose to describe something I experienced decades ago and it often occurs to me that I may not be describing the event/details/thoughts in a way that is easy for my classmates to grasp. It is a two-way street. Digital Immigrants/Digital Natives do not think alike. As Marc Prensky stated in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, “today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.” Prensky talks about Dr. Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine considering a possibility that “our students’ brains have physically changed.” But Prensky tempers that statement with this one: “whether or not this is literally true, we can say with certainty that their thinking patterns have changed.” I see this every day at school. Basic language hasn’t changed all that much. There is still idle banter that includes colloquialisms relevant to today’s student. Each generation has that—a word here or there, or phrase that is unique to the specific generation. In my youth I believe I remember the word “cool” being used fairly frequently. A few years earlier the word “groovy” was used. In the case of the language of new media, a digital native adopts a word or talking point very matter-of-factly, whereas a digital immigrant flounders (or at least some of us flounder). How, then, do natives and immigrants come to terms with each other? It’s not going to be easy. Perhaps, as with any foreign language obstacle, the only possible solution is plenty of patience, immigrant-to-native AND native-to-immigrant and lots and lots of testing of what might work to “bridge the gap.”
John Palfrey and Urs Gasser, in an excerpt from Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives, write about the skills Digital Natives possess. Impressive graphics, videos, blogs, or even just the speed with which a Digital Native (i.e., young person) can move from social networks to blogs to schoolwork to music to news and back again is a sight to behold. As Palfrey and Gasser explain, “this new generation didn’t have to relearn anything to live lives of digital immersion. They learned in digital the first time around; they only know a world that is digital.” The constant connection that Digital Natives crave, Digital Immigrants shy away from. Digital Immigrants need to step away from new media to breathe. Digital Natives become nervous and agitated when separated from their digital connectivity—they breathe easier while connected. While it may be extremely difficult for Immigrants/Natives to understand each style of life, it becomes vital to try. We need to recognize in each other the strong points, pro-and-con, of our parallel existence of daily reality that is new media.
College professors and staff have learned to grow right along with the challenges of communicating and teaching Digital Natives. Most of the students in universities in 2013 are Digital Natives. Correctly teaching what they need to learn is one aspect. Learning to navigate in the working world the students are about to enter is of equal importance. Palfrey and Gasser discuss global implications and protecting children in the digital world while allowing them the room to grow. Their purpose in writing their book was “to separate what we need to worry about from what’s not so scary, what we ought to resist from what we ought to embrace.” All immigrants need to embrace new media, if not in all its forms, then in the forms they need to use in their daily lives. All natives, while highly skilled in “all that is digital” must also learn to open their minds to the people of the past, like Digital Immigrants, who live on this planet of new media right alongside the natives.
In preparing for this blog entry I read an interesting entry from the past, a previous Writing for New Media student named Aaron whose blog entry was titled: “The Invention of Self.” He made this statement: “With no physical image to worry about, the focus shifts to the intellectual presentation of the mind to the internet and the world as a whole, and that presentation can include all or none of who we actually believe ourselves to be.” That is a powerful statement. It tells another section of the story in which Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives face a gap. Immigrants are used to face-to-face presentations and learned the image disconnect from the physical body late in life, whereas Natives are used to the disconnected self that can be whatever they want it to be online. Natives may find face-to-face to be somewhat disconcerting (not all Natives, of course, but some). The New London Group, in writing A Pedagogy of Multiliteracies: Designing Social Futures, explains some of the needed approaches:
The use of multiliteracies approaches to pedagogy will enable students [Digital Natives] to achieve the authors’ twin goals for literacy learning: creating access to the evolving language of work, power, and community, and fostering the critical engagement necessary for them to design their social futures and achieve success through fulfilling employment.
The operative words in the above quote are “critical engagement necessary.” Natives need to fully engage with Immigrants as well as the digital world. For some natives this may mean pulling away from new media to learn not necessarily how an immigrant thinks, but how to communicate with an immigrant. Sometimes this means learning the language of the Digital Immigrant as well as knowing their own native language.
One day Digital Natives and New Media will rule the world. Some might say that day is now. As a Digital Immigrant I believe that day is coming (rapidly) but is not quite here yet. It is important for each of us to communicate with each other. We need to find a way to bridge the gap that exists between us for all of us to function well in our brave new world of new media. As Howard Rheingold states in The Virtual Community:
Failing to fall under the spell of the ‘rhetoric of the technological sublime,’ actively questioning and examining social assumptions about the effects of new technologies, reminding ourselves that electronic communication has powerful illusory capabilities, are all good steps to take to prevent disasters.
The power of new media is addictive and that may be the point Digital Natives need to learn. Digital Immigrants can easily recognize the addiction and divorce themselves of it as needed. Natives may acknowledge the addiction exists, but actively object to being addicted. My point is, besides the great need for all of us to be able to communicate with each other, teachers of Digital Natives would be very wise to help young people to learn to appreciate the action of the disconnect, especially for face-to-face business and social relationships in real time, in the real world, in daily life, and in their upcoming work life.
Perhaps a practice exercise could be of use to Digital Natives. Step away from all forms digital media for a few minutes. Start with once a month, progress to once a week, then try it daily for one whole week. I know it may be a form of torture to some, but trust me; it’s worth the effort. Start in autumn with leaves scattered on the ground, or winter with sunlight glinting off the newly fallen snow, or in spring with tulips poking out of the ground, or, my favorite, in early summer with blades of grass. Free your mind of digital for a few moments—it could become a relaxation technique worth adopting. When you have mastered the technique take the next step—invite a friend to join you—not virtually, but in person. Afterwards you could perhaps talk for a few minutes before going inside the house/building/office and getting back on your computer/laptop/ipad/phone.