Tony Gurr

When TWO TRIBES go to “war” – Thoughts on the “Digital Divide”.

In Bilingualism, Classroom Teaching, Technology on 11/04/2011 at 1:10 pm

To get the best from today’s post, you really need to play a certain Frankie Goes To Hollywood track in the background, as you read…and there I go showing my “age” again!

But, I would choose an MP4 version – just to show my “big, little girl” that her daddy is “cool”, too!

Marc Prenski first introduced us to the “Digital Native” (and her “older” counterpart – the “Digital Immigrant”) in 2001 – but it is probably Josh Spear’s “born digital” and Ian Jukes’ notion of kids “speaking DFL” (digital-as-a-first-language) that are responsible for much of the current “buzz” about the “digital divide” in education and the potential for “tribal warfare” between the “youth of today” and the “oldies”.

There is more than a word of truth in this divide – how many of you (reading this) have:

  • Read a book this week?
  • Used an iPad to access the web or “Keynote” this week?
  • Sent an e-mail today?
  • Tweeted about “what happenin” in your life today?

I’m sure there would be a different “pattern” in the response curves from kids under the age of 16 – and those of us that are, shall we say, more experienced in “allthingslife”…

It is true that there are differences in the “languages” our two tribes speak – more and more kids are speaking DFL (Digital as a First Language) and we “oldies” (more often than not) still speak DSL (Digital as a Second Language).

This difference accounts for our “accents” and all the “inappropriate collocations” that make our kids “giggle” at us.

But, is it really about “age”?

The problem with the debate on the “two tribes” is that many people have picked up on the “hype” and the sexy words used to describe (or differentiate between) members of the tribes – without doing a lot of thinking about what the concept of the “digital native” means for how we do business in education (in practice).

Zur and Zur (2011) have recently produced one of the most comprehensive descriptions of the differences between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants – this builds on the earlier work of Feeney (2010) and Toledo (2007).

However, the key to understanding these differences is not to think in terms of “kiddies” and “oldies” – but rather in terms of the “relationships”  and “connections” we have to the digital world, in addition to what we value and believe about the place of technology in our lives and work.

Neither “Natives” nor “Immigrants” are created equally – and we can place individuals in both “tribes” along a continuum  that is remarkably similar for both groups:

Contrary to many of the stories we read in the popular press (and “horror stories” shared by parents), there are not that many “addicts” – seriously, just another “myth” to scare us all silly!

Also, there are plenty of Digital Immigrants who are “totally tech-savvy”; and quite a few Digital Natives who are amazingly comfortable using Facebook, Twitter and iPads but are “totally clueless” when it comes to fixing html code on a web page or even managing subscribers on a community blog.

So, why do we even bother talking about the two tribes?

Well, the key point behind this approach relates to the relative size of the communities within each tribe and where they “live” on the continuum – the digital natives have the bigger army of “enthusiasts”, while the digital immigrants have more “reserves” in the “minimalist camp”.

More importantly, perhaps, is the fact that this differential in “military personnel” flags an even more serious problem – for educators and teachers especially. Students and teachers may speak either DFL or DSL – but there is a more fundamental language barrier.

When we look at what students “do” with their digital language, habits and attitudes – we recognise that they are, in fact, bi-lingual.

We see they are also “speaking LFL” (Learning as a First Language):

Teachers, many of whom are “immigrants” themselves, still speak TFL (Teaching as a First Language). In fact, this is the language of choice for educational establishments and the industries/sectors that “circle the skies” above them.

We see this distinction more sharply when we look at how our little digital natives prefer to do the “business of learning” – in both their “virtual” and “real” worlds:

If many teachers reflected on the “learning styles” demonstrated by most LFL speakers (and were honest about how they “do business” in their classrooms), they would probably see something of a mis-match with their own regional variety of TFL.

Like Latin – TFL is not “spoken” by many outside the walls of our school yards and univeritiesand very few digital natives see the value of learning it.

As Zur and Zur note:

The longer immigrants take to understand the natives they parent, teach and manage, the bigger the digital divide will get. Eventually, when immigrants grow older, retire and die off and only natives are left, this will not be an issue. But until then, it is time to do some cultural anthropology and appropriate adjustment.

Now, I’m not sure about you – but I, for one, am not planning on retiring or dying off anytime soon! Perhaps, we all best get our thinking caps on and chew over the type of anthropology we need to do and adjustments we could make to narrow the divide…


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