Monday, November 4, 2013

Digital tourists

A friend shared Colette Bennett's article from The Educator's Room blog, discussing today's students and their use of technology. Bennett says They’re Not Digital Natives, They’re Digital Tourists. Digital natives are defined as those people who have grown-up using technology daily beginning in the 1960s, but the term is more commonly used to describe those born in the 21st Century. The current generation of students may be "digital natives" according to this definition.

Digital natives spend more than 4 hours each day viewing screen media, excluding games. They multitask, and may watch TV or IM their friends while working on homework. And they spend more than 7 hours each day using digital devices.

You'd think with these statistics that digital natives would be the first to adopt new technology, that instructors would be constantly playing "catch up" just to remain on par with the pace of technology change. But Bennett, English Department Chair at Wamogo High School (Region 6) in Northwest Connecticut, found otherwise: "Instead what we discovered was that many of our students were reluctant to try new platforms that differed even slightly  in organization or layout. A login in a different location was perplexing; an embed code or link could not be located.  We found our students were not naturally tech-savvy, save the requisite number of computer geeks per class. They did not want to move out of their comfort zone in technology, partly because they knew that work was involved, but, in fairness, partly because they were intimidated."

Bennett refers to these students not as digital natives but digital tourists. "I’m talking the “standing in line to see the Mona Lisa on the busiest day of the year and then leaving the Louvre once they saw it” kind of tourist. The “only want to eat at McDonalds in a foreign country because I don’t like food I don’t recognize” kind of tourist. The “I have no idea what kind of money this is” kind of tourist. In other words, bad tourists."

How to deal with these digital tourists? Bennett recommends instructors adapt Rick Steve's model, where travel is a political act: "In this model, students travel the alternate routes for productivity and interact and collaborate with others using many different software “languages”. They may stumble in these challenging and unfamiliar digital locations, but they will benefit from this exposure to the strange and unknown. They just need to get over their xenophobia of new software platforms." You may also recognize this as pushing students outside their comfort zones, encouraging development through stretch assignments, testing new waters.

How do you deal with digital tourists?


  1. That's actually not surprising. Nielsen-Norman tested young people and older people for different website usage skills, and the young people weren't any more "tech savy" like the myth of "give it to a 2 year old" would lead you to believe.

    The following story is about teens, but I'd expect College students to be similar, though likely closer to the general populace.

    Teens perform worse than adults for three reasons:

    Insufficient reading skills
    Less sophisticated research strategies
    Dramatically lower levels of patience

    So I'd make the argument the differences aren't so much native vs non-native, but likely more developmental.

    (BTW, I'd recommend Nielsen-Norman for understanding tech behavior. They have quite a bit of free information you could spend hours reading)

  2. That's a really interesting article. I was especially interested in teens being equally put off by tiny font sizes.

    To be honest, I've never been a big fan of the "digital native" terminology, so it's good to see Nielsen-Norman and Bennett busting these myths. Let's take our generation as an example (Steve: I think you & I are about the same age). We grew up with the Apple & Apple II, VIC-20, C64, IBM-PC, … we were there when Macintosh arrived in 1984, and when Windows got a "Start" menu in 1995 … our first game console was an Intellivision or Atari, then later the Nintendo and Genesis and Playstation (the first one, the "PSX"). One could argue our generation was truly a "digital native" generation. But growing up with nascent technology is no guarantee that our "Star Wars Generation" is any more comfortable with technology than our parents, or our children. We just have a different definition of "high tech."

    To our generation, computers in the home were always there … but to our parents, home computers are "high tech" because they didn't grow up with them. For our children's generation, smartphones and tablets are no big deal, because they've never really known an era when tablets and smartphones weren't around … but to us, they are new ways to approach computing.

    But within each generation, you have pretty large variance in who is comfortable with technology. Anecdotally, I see lots of people in my generation completely stymied by computers, even Mac or Windows. They just don't "get" it like others do.

    I realize that I'm using anecdotal evidence, and the plural of "anecdote" is not "data," but I think it's true. There really aren't "digital natives." We're all just different kinds of "digital tourists" in our own way.


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