Digital immigrants don't have far to travel

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I’ve heard the term “digital natives” bandied about quite a bit in higher education lately, as well as its counterpart, “digital immigrants.” The cut-off date for those with “native status” seems to be a birthdate of 1982 or later. As someone born long before 1982, I don’t feel like an immigrant in a digital world. I have a blog (obviously), a facebook page, and a flickr account. I use IM, iGoogle, and delicious on a regular basis. And many of my colleagues, regardless of their birthdates, use these tools in their daily lives.

I’m not particularly technically inclined. I’ve been known to have trouble putting a cassette in a tape player properly (thank goodness for MP-3 players). But the beauty of the Web 2.0 tools is that anyone can figure out how to use them in seconds. If you can click a mouse you can create a blog. If you can type, you can send IMs. It seems to me that “technology fluency” (since we’re going, for the moment, with the “immigration” theme), is more dependent on attitude and inclination than on ability.

Are college students today really that different from college students from any other era? Has the structure of their brains really been altered from years of video games and YouTube? Of course, they think anyone over 25 doesn’t understand their generation, but didn’t you think the same thing? When my daughter hits puberty in a few years she’ll probably think I’m just as old-fashioned and clueless as I thought my parents were. They thought you had to wait until marriage to have sex, for heaven’s sake!

I’ve worked a lot with what I guess we must now call “geographic immigrants,” and many of them have been through incredible struggles. They left their native countries, often not by choice but out of necessity, and arrived in a foreign land where they knew no one and couldn’t speak the language. I can’t compare my experience as a “digital immigrant” with theirs. Like most people who didn’t grow up with computers, I just sat down and figured it out.

In 1994, following a short-lived flurry of media attention focused on Generation X, Russell Baker wrote a piece in The New York Times questioning the whole idea of labeling generations (April 16, 1994, p. 21). He said, and I quote: “…isn’t it time to hang up the generations? Dividing people into generations can help a reader of the Old Testament keep track of the story, but who needs to distinguish, say, the beat generation from the hippie generation?”

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      I am a reference and instruction librarian at Penn State University Libraries in Library Learning Services and Education and Behavioral Sciences.       
     

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