Many students that I come across could be called “digital residents”. They are people that have grown up in a world where the novelty of digital has word thin, the computer is no longer an exciting, mysterious machine. Open their bags, desk drawers and it’s likely that you’ll find flash sticks, self printed airline/concert/movie tickets, 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 the best way to describe the difference between the have’s and have nots. Even without access, the digital visitors are familiar with certain digital concepts that are enabled by technology, like flexibility, instant information, economic advantages, downloading music and connecting immediately to others, without too much expense.
These students could be called “digital visitors“. They are often able to connect with certain aspects of the connected world. Access to devices have allowed them to embed certain digital actions in particular life situations. Do banking at an internet cafe. Check email on your device when in a Wi-Fi zone. These parts of the population might not live in a 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”. But this does not yet describe all the students.
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 part of the university they are expected to receive and send an email, to download readings and watch a MP4 video, 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 visitors. When they enter the land of digital, we should treat them as a digital tourist, not digital refugees. 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. Don’t treat them like fools or idiots, 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.
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.
(Originally published on my eLSI blog. Modified later for clarity.)
Credit to @daveowhite for the original idea of a digital resident or visitor