Many students that I come across are digital residents; they are people that have grown up in a world where the computer is no longer an exciting, mysterious machine. Open their wallet or desk drawer and it’s likely that you’ll find flash sticks, self printed airline/concert/movie tickets, mp3 players, a range of swipe cards and digital photos. These are common artefacts of their connected lives.
Local digital demographics clearly show that that not all students share such access to this digital world. The access to electronic and digital resources that their peers, on campus, take for granted, is most certainly not shared by the majority of their South African youth. Some call the gap between the digital have’s and have-nots a “digital divide”. I don’t think this gap is a wide as it seems. Even without access, the digital visitors are familiar with certain digital concepts, like chat, downloading mp3’s and Facebook. They are often able to connect with certain aspects of the connected world. Their mobile phones have allowed them to embed certain digital actions in unexpected life situations. These students are digital visitors and the artefacts of their connected lives are usually found in their pockets – mobile phones, sim cards and air time vouchers.
These parts of the population that do not live in digital land – but it would be wrong to assume that they are unfamiliar with technology. I think that distinction needs to be made between familiarity with technology and access to technology. Students that are have friends, have worked or learned before in this digital land have found ways to breach this “gap”.
Then there are the students where things digital are still uncommon and a novelty. They are digital foreigners that have managed to conduct their lives without ICT access. When such a person, becomes a student, and is expected to receive and send an email, to download readings and listen to an MP3 audio file, it is likely that they will be disorientated. When thrust into situations where they are expected to use the technology, they behave as if they were digital refugees, unfamiliar with the landscape, uncomfortable in a foreign culture and unable to understand the language.
I’d suggest that we call those that do not have access or any degree of familiarity with the digital land, digital foreigners. When they enter the land of digital, we should treat them as a digital tourist. Look out for the student has never sent an email, searched using Google, sent an SMS. They are the ones looking perplexed as look as they do not know where to start how to use particular technologies. They are not fools, they are feeling a little disorientated or lost. Ignore them and they may become alienated and perplexed. Welcome and assist them and they’ll have a pleasant visit, and maybe even regularly return.
Some students (digital residents) will view this computer as a transparent mirror. Other students (digital visitors), due to circumstances or choice may be able to use certain computer applications or may understand the opportunities of electronic media, but due to circumstances are unable to actively use these tools on a daily basis. And others (digital tourists) may see this as a mysterious contraption with unknown capabilities. If we are willing to accept that there are degrees of access and familiarity, based on a range of factors and not only on birthdate) then Perensky’s concept of Digital Native and Digital immigrant can become more nuanced. And whether these students are residents, visitors or tourists – the question that now needs to answered is “How are we going to ensure that students are able to make confident and critical use of ICT for studies, leisure and communication?” – but that’s a topic for another post.