Have you ever heard the phrase, “digital native”? If you haven’t, let me apologize now for introducing it to you. If you have, I apologize for bringing it up. It’s a phrase that has a growing usage among educators and technologists alike to describe the generations who were born in to the digital age of computers, the Internet, wireless communication, and just general high-tech in general. I would dare to say that we’re mostly talking about Generations Y and Z (or Millennials and Vista Gen, respectively if you so prefer). For those of us in GenX or Baby Boomers, we are digital immigrants. That is to say, we have had to learn how to use these technologies after they were developed/adopted into mainstream society.
Anyway, as I was driving to work this morning, I thought of a new phrase…digital maturity. Well, new to me. A quick Google turned up “about 679 for ‘digital maturity'” and most of the hits appear to be in reference to technology consultants analyzing business technology needs/progress. Ok, not what I was aiming for. When I was a student teacher, nearly 10 years ago, I was in the high school classroom of rural Texas with 14- and 15-year old kids. By all intents and purposes, they would be classified as Millennials and digital natives. Most of these kids were fairly tech-savvy. I had to keep a few from surfing ESPN in class and stipulate http://www.whitehouse.gov/ as opposed to http://www.whitehouse.com/ (for those who don’t recall or know the significance here, let’s just say there was a time when it wasn’t work safe). When it came to playing in the computer lab, these kids needed no prodding. Even when it came to our communications lesson on how to design a website, they were eager to learn the basics of HTML and create a page for their class to share pictures and news. Fast forward two years to 2000. I was in grad school and TA’ing a senior seminar that required a digital portfolio to organize and display individual work in the class. We’re still talking about Millennials here, mind you. This time, I had kids who were scared to death of creating a website, using WYSIWYG editors and tools. They could type a paper in Word, but give them a PowerPoint assignment and you’d just asked them to read The Odyssey…in Greek. For the few who were not scared or slow, I began to notice something else. By this point, I had been “online” for almost six years. It had been more than four years since I’d designed my first webpage and was now the webmaster for my academic department on campus. What I noticed had more to do with maturity, experience. I had outgrown the desire to tile a picture as my background and use contrasting font faces and colors for my content. When working with PowerPoint, I no longer needed the annoying photo click or race car sound that came with slide transitions, nor did I need every single line of text to pinwheel its way on to the screen. I had matured to the point that I was seeing design in a different light. Another way to put this might be an experiment on MySpace. How many profiles have you looked at in the last year? How many of them were designed with one of the hundreds of profile editors or themes that tile pictures, use flashy elements, or contrasting/obnoxious font faces and colors? When you looked at those profiles, how long had they been on MySpace and how old were they? When I first joined MySpace, I was taken aback at how awful most design templates appeared. I’ve since adopted http://www.lovemyflash.com/ templates to avoid that very syndrome.
I digress. Here we are in the 21st century in the midst of a hodgepodge workforce that is a swirl of natives and immigrants. And as far as digital maturity goes, I am astounded by the rate at which some immigrants adapt and the maturity by which many natives exist, or lack thereof. For example, just today I learned of a new student worker in our agency. This individual is 20 years old and from a suburban upbringing. They attend a major university and are in their third year of studies. When asked to download a variety of files off the agency intranet (web interface), they had to be show how to use the various saving options. When asked to work with some of these files (all either Word, Excel, or PDF documents), they had to be shown how to fill in form fields, copy/paste data, and even safe the modified files. What I found amusing in all of this is that I tend to be patient when working with users to show them even the most basic actions, such as these. If they are younger, I might find my fuse a bit shorter (like many, I expect them to already know this). Yet, in the case described above, it was another student worker, almost two years younger) who was handling the instruction. Of note, the teaching student got quite frustrated and had almost no patience for this lack of knowledge. I wonder if natives are restless when it comes to their own…
As of today, I have been an active internet user for 13 years and 8 months. Gone are the days of green screen terminals and PINE email. No more surfing Virtual Florist on a text-based browser to send your friends flowers. My knowledge of various applications and best practices grows on a daily basis. For an immigrant in this digital age, I’d like to think I’ve matured quite well. Still, I encounter natives who appear digitally immature at an age when society expects more. Is this concept of natives and immigrants absurd or just a [too] broad generalization? Perhaps we should speak more in terms of digital maturity…how long does it take to progress and what does progression entail?