Thursday, September 9, 2010

Think you’re a Digital Immigrant? Get Over It!

“What you ought to be learning at school is that you don't need to be taught in order to learn.”

Peter Kent, reminds us of this quote from Seymour Papert as he confronts educators afflicted with what he calls Learned Helplessness. He describes this affliction as a flawed mindset that insists on Professional Development before integrating technology. He explains that “this is not how we were born. As children we all learnt to play with our toy, draw with our crayons, and as we learnt we made mistakes. We did this through experimentation. It is how we were born to acquire skills, to learn.”

He asks, “How is it now that so many adults are reduced to tears when confronted by an unfamiliar technology?” and answers that, “We have learned to become helpless; most likely by playing the traditional game of ‘school’.” He laments that this not quite what Papert was after.

Meanwhile over at the My Island View blog in his post Short Term Learner, Tom Whitby my white-haired friend who always has a smile and usually a tropical shirt, shares that the term Lifelong Learner applies to him. He goes on to explain the thing that makes the learning fun and easy is the technology. While he admits he is not always comfortable with it, he does not fear it. He shares this because the reasons he’s most often given by others for educators not embracing technology is that educators are fearful of it, or they are not comfortable with it.

I share Tom and Peter’s experience in my own role where I support teachers in using new technologies. Our evaluations through PD surveys, conversations, and focus groups indicate that teachers feel they don’t use technology because they don’t have enough training. These teachers are often self-classified as what Marc Prensky has coined as “Digital Immigrants” or those not born into a digital world of their students who are “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.

Both Kent and Whitby have a message for the self-proclaimed, helpless digital immigrants which is:

Get over it!

Kent questions these teachers in the following excerpt from Learned Helplessness

Proud to be a Digital Immigrant ???????????

I don’t really subscribe to the digital immigrant / digital native thing, it was an interesting observation at the time, but that is all. For me ‘Learned Helplessness’ is the attitude that many of the self-described ‘digital immigrants’ adopt. It still surprises me to this day when I hear teachers bleat out with a certain sort of pride that they are a ‘digital immigrant’. To me they are saying that they have learned to be helpless, and they are proud of that.

It is unreasonable to expect that all teachers and school leaders will have a deep understanding of ICT and its potential. If they don’t it is not something to be proud of, and it is a situation that they need to address as a matter of urgency.

Kent advises the reality is that if you want to be a great teacher, you in fact should not to go to PD. Tom Whitby expands upon this concept explaining that educators must take ownership of their learning rather than waiting for/relying on others to provide it. He does this through the development of his Personal Learning Network which he shares had nothing to do with being a digital Native, because he is not.

He challenges those self-proclaimed digital immigrant teachers who can sometimes be heard saying, “A good teacher can be just as effective without technology.” and asks, “but why?” Explaining that technology is but a tool for educators and students to use. The skills remain the same no matter what the tool. Teachers do not need to be technology experts to allow students to use it to retrieve information, collaborate, create, and communicate. (This is what Prensky addresses in his new book Teaching Digital Natives - Partnering for Real Learning). That is what will be required of them in their world. While educators debate and control technology as a tool, business and industry are embracing it. Technology continues to advance and many educators are not even familiar with what possibilities are available. If technology requires a new form of literacy, many of our educators are illiterate.

Whitby advises educators hesitant to use the modern tools of today, to stop relying on others and take ownership of their learning and suggests this can be done through developing a personal learning network. He elaborates in this excerpt from his post.

A PLN allows people to explore and collaborate on whatever it is they determine as a need to know. A PLN is not exclusive to educators. They can have: Boat builders connected to boat builders, doctors connected to doctors, educators connected to educators, learners connected to learners. People can choose their direction and go down that road as far as they need to go. A PLN enables a person to control her or his learning. A PLN is a digital tool for learning. We can use it to model the very thing that we strive to teach our students. A PLN is not learned, as much as experienced. A PLN enables us to continue our path to Lifelong Learning.

As we enter into the next decade of the 21st century, it seems we have turned a bit of a corner. There is less tolerance for educators who do not believe it is their responsibility to move their teaching out of the past. Those stuck in the past... those who are not developing their own personal learning networks... those not taking ownership for their learning... are doing a great disservice to our students and themselves. In the words of leadership expert Jim Collins, these are the people that those who care about student success may want to advise to just get off the bus.


  1. I think there needs to be some alternative between teaching teachers to use technology and throwing out those who won't learn on their own. My observation of technology folks is that they tend to ignore, or at least not use, the information and skills the teachers already have to enable those teachers to start learning on their own. Let me give an example of the kind of help I mean.

    My dad, who was then in his 80s, got a computer. He bought a computer book and set out to learn to use the computer. He kept having trouble. He paid a guy to give him lessons, but all he learned was the lesson material. Dad couldn't do what he wanted to do.

    I said, "Dad, if you looked under the hood of a car you'd never seen before, do you think you could locate the distributor cap?" Of course he could do that because he is familiar with common configurations of engines.

    I explained that web pages also have some common configurations and that once he learned where to look for certain elements, he would be able to navigate most web sites. By drawing an analogy between what Dad knew he had mastered and what he had to learn, I gave him both confidence and a framework for learning.

  2. Very well written! I completely with using new technologies and teaching methods. Different people learn differently. We may not be able to reach a child with one method - but we may reach that child with a new or unusual method. Hurray for "thinking outside the box"!
    Kind regards.

  3. As an aside the video I included in the post 'want to be a great teacher, don't go to PD' is an example of 'Escalator Immigrants'. Watch this video and you will get the point that being a digital immigrant is nothing to be proud of.

    Peter @Kent3ed

  4. Great post. I think you're right, many teachers who resist integrating technology use the excuse of being a "digital immigrant", and say it as though that should be the end of the conversation. These are the same teachers who definitely would not accept learned helplessness in their students!

  5. I still believe you can be a great teacher without technology, but you can't be a great learner in the 21st century without technology. So maybe your crusty old English teacher can open doors into classic literature, but without other teachers leading the way, learners will be missing out on 21st century knowledge and skills. There is still a place for traditional wisdom and experience in the classroom. There is also the argument that the internet makes us stupid at:

  6. @Britt Gow My question is why can't the crusty old English teacher open doors into classic literature AND integrate technology? There is no harm in doing both; teachers can do both, and in doing so, traditional wisdom and experience is enhanced by the tools that students use and will need to use in their future jobs. In fact, if all a traditionally wise teacher does is impart "traditional wisdom" to students, then the teacher actually makes the students less intelligent because the students are never given the opportunity to critically think about the literature and find ways to internalize it. Instead, the students will only regurgitate back what they have been told. Best practices in education tell us that we must combine traditional knowledge with the tools of the 21st century into a well designed lesson that appeals to both the students' heads and hearts, makes them think critically, and asesses their learning. Nothing less is the best.

    With regard to the overall message of the blog, I whole heartedly agree with the sentiment. I believe many teachers play the digital immigrant card as an excuse to be stagnant. They have been teaching the same material the same way for 3..., 5..., 10 years and they see no reason why they should change their approach. Such an approach, however, keeps learning in the 19th century rather than bringing it into the 21st century.

  7. Good Post.

    I do still think the digital immigrant/digital native thing applies. Learned helplessness applies to anyone in any generation that has....well...learned to be helpless. It applies across generations. The Digital Immigrant/Digital Native was a way to say "Something changed at this point in time" It's a way to classify generations and I think it holds true. Not saying a DI can't learn or even use technology better than a Digital Immigrant they just didn't grow up with it at their fingertips.

    I live in Bangkok, Thailand I know people who have lived here for 30 years, are married to Thais speak fluent Thai but are still considered immigrants and always will be because they were not born here.

    It's a way to define generations and I think there are two other generations that have already been defined beyond these two. The Web Natives...those born after 1991 (Seniors in our schools today where born in 1992) They have always grown up with the Internet. And then there are the Mobile Natives...those born after 2007...and will grow up in a world that is completely mobiel. Where Blackberries, iPhones are the norm and laptops have always outsold desktops.

    This isn't to say that they "get it" it's just a way to look at and define generations. After all I"m Generation X whatever that means....but I'm also a Digital Native haven grown up with gaming systems, personal computers, DVD players, VCRs, etc.

    Learned Helplessness has nothing to do with generations it has to do with mindset....and I agree the education system has helped to create this mindset in both teachers and students.

  8. @Britt Gow - The internet does not make use stupid. Being in an environment that accepts stupidity makes us stupid. If teacher accept mindless copying from whatever Google presents to student... Then the teacher is making them stupid, not the internet.

  9. Being a teacher who returned to college later in life and became a teacher, I agree that we must learn how to use technology in order to participate in the world today. Therefore, I sat down at the computer and began experimenting with various software and hand held devices and became somewhat proficient in using them.

    When I entered the classroom of my first job, there were very little resources provided for teachers to use with their students and so I was left to my own devices to find material. Needless to say, I found that the Internet had a wealth of information. I learned how to use my laptop with a projector to provide background knowledge for my inner-city students, etc.

    Soon after this experience I returned to school again and received a MA in Educational Technology. I heard the term "Digital Immigrant vs. Native" quite frequently in my classes. I am a visual learner and this helped me to understand how others who had not learned the "language" of technology, might feel when given a mandate to begin using it in the classroom, without any direction.

    I agree that there are many who are reluctant to learn how to use technology integration in the classroom. However, I also understand the demands of a teacher in today's society. I believe that without time provided during the school year to "self-teach", a teacher simply will not have time to learn it.

  10. Well said, Jeff. Learned helplessness is indeed a mindset. Of course, when one is unaware of and/or not proficient with new tools that help one become an independent and connected learner (and there are many many teachers who fall into this category), there is a required first entry point of awareness. This is where PD can play a role. Back to the mindset, it is this insidious thinking of "I don't want to learn this... it makes me uncomfortable. It's not for me." that must be challenged. This applies to improving one's skillset, regardless of the content area or tool. My students sometimes express this sentiment, and my response is always the same - It's not about YOU. It's about your students and being as relevant and effective as possible. In this process of striving to meet students' needs as much as possible, one most likely will discover that these same tools and strategies have great personal value as well.

    I disliked poetry as a beginning teacher. It showed in how I taught it. I was determined to teach it better the following year regardless of my own attitude toward it. Amazingly, I developed a genuine shift in mindset as I strove to teach it well with my students.

    I think this is all about breaking preconceived perceptions and over-writing poor or nonexistent prior experiences... with anything. This is what professionals do. A new history needs to be written.

  11. Interesting blog. My digital native daughter, Azzia Zur and myself, Ofer Zur, director of the Zur Institute and a digital immigrant have just posted an update article, titled ”On Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: How the Digital Divide Affects Families, Educational Institutions, and the Workplace”available at


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