Residents and visitors, are builders the forgotten category?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been thinking about the Australian Federal Government’s Digital Education Revolution (DER). The presentation arising from that thinking will be given later this week and am hoping the slides will be up soon. I’m currently thinking about the People aspect of the DER. In particular, I’m wondering if the digital visitors and residents idea might need to be modified a bit in light of the protean nature of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) and ideas like Douglas Rushkoff’s Program or be Programmed.

It’s fairly common when thinking about people and technology to talk about Prensky’s version of immigrants and natives. Though I think Barlow first coined the idea, Prensky appears to be commonly thought as the originator. For Prensky, immigrants were born before ICTs and so have a digital accent. They don’t really get the digital world, the immigrants do. This distinction is still introduced in some university ICT courses but there has been some criticisms of it (e.g. Bennet et al, 2008).

David White shifted the focus away from immigrants/natives toward residents and visitors a few years ago and has written and talked about it. Importantly, this shift moves from a focus on a person’s age in relation to the advent of the “digital world” – a focus that never really worked because at 40+ I consider myself to be more of a digital native than many young whippersnappers – to how they use the digital world.

For White, a digital resident lives at least a percentage of their lives in the digital world. The actively participate in online communities. The digital world is seen as a place that can help inform all aspects of their life. The resident has an identity online that they are always developing. A visitor on the other hand, will use the digital world but only for very specific purposes. e.g. using Skype to talk with a child that is travelling overseas, online banking.

Ever changing digital world

In an earlier post I questioned whether you could be a native within a digital world that has continually change as one of its defining characteristics. White’s resident description suggests yes when it refers to the resident always developing their online identity. A resident is engaged with the world and hence can keep up with the change. A visitor can’t.

A bit like a friend who used to live in our nearest town. He returned recently – as a visitor – and was surprised by the advent of a new fast food franchise opening up in an unexpected spot. We residents weren’t surprised, we’d seen the change happening.

Protean technology and moving beyond resident to builder/manipulator?

In another post I reflected on Mishra and Koelher’s definition of the distinction between ICTs and previous technologies used in education (e.g. blackboards, pens etc). ICTs are protean. A quote from my earlier post

Mishra and Koehler draw on the work of a number of folk in describing the digital computer as protean in nature – inherently flexible. For example Kay (1984) describing computers as a meta-medium that can dynamically simulate the details of any other medium (including non-physical media) and his suggestion that we have barely begun to investigate this freedom for representation and expression. A computer is a tool to manipulate symbol systems be they visual, acoustic, textual or numeric.

One of the fears I expressed in that post was that for some universities (and other organisations) the software they use and the IT policies and processes they use are deliberately aimed at removing the protean nature of technology. ICTs are often seen as constraints. The one true way to perform some task. Impossible to modify.

Douglas Rushkoff takes that fear even further into general computer use. Too many people take computer software as a given, they don’t think about what is behind the screen, let alone think about changing things. Rushkoff

For me, however, our inability and refusal to contend with the underlying biases of the programs and networks we all use is less a threat to our military or economic superiority than to our experience and autonomy as people. I can’t think of a time when we seemed so ready to accept such a passive relationship to a medium or technology.

I am still thinking through Ruskhoff’s idea that most people should have some programming ability. At least in terms of how programming is though of at the moment. But it does strike me as important that people using a protean technology should be able to have some fairly significant ability to shape that technology. In fact, I am wondering if the protean nature of ICTs is important enough that White’s residents and visitors needs to be expanded/redefined in order to indicate this.

Perhaps the addition of a third option – “builder/creator”?

Perhaps an extension of resident to include some notion of an ability to shape their digital world?

Is the resident’s ability to continually develop an online identity a reflection of this?

Perhaps, but I feel the allusion to a physical world created by the use of resident/visitor tends to overlook this very important distinction between the physical world and the digital world. The ability to shape it.


Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’€ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2007.00793.x

10 thoughts on “Residents and visitors, are builders the forgotten category?

  1. I was aware of the natives/immigrants metaphor pre-Prensky – from Barlow via Willams & McKeown but had not seen the residents/visitors metaphor previously. I agree that may work better than the natives/immigrants comparison.

    The question of whether users need to be programmers at any level is an interesting one. As one of your former students in a GradDipComp course I have some sympathy for the notion that understanding something of algorithms and programs is useful, even for using standard software, from the perspective of understanding the logic of operation.

    I wonder if the relevant comparison there for many people might not be a builder/developer but rather a renovator/handyman/DIY enthusiast?

    1. G’day Peter,

      I’ve been wondering about this myself.

      From what I’ve been observing in IPT classes at high schools and from what I’ve seen around programming instruction at universities, I hesitate to suggest people need to learn programming.

      It seems to big a stretch for many people. But I also wonder whether that says something about how programming is most often taught. Certainly some of the practices I’ve seen are far from great. So, there remains a side question about what are effective ways of teaching programming? Do Scratch, Alice, or perhaps the Media Computation approaches offer something better? At some stage I must follow up with the Rushkoff stuff and see if anyone has taken this further.

      The point you make about understanding algorithms etc also resonates with some of my experience. When helping academics use technology it was always obvious which academics understood the models inherent in the technology. They rarely needed help, they understood why things happened or didn’t. Those who didn’t have some internalised notion of how the technology worked struggled.

      The lack of knowledge prevented them from being effective residents, let alone renovator.

      Renovator sounds like a better alternative to builder. It also captures a bit of the zeitgeist, at least in terms of TV shows. It does capture the idea of not necessarily being a full-time professional software engineer, but still retaining enough expertise to make some changes.


    2. In terms of the native/immigrant metaphor, I became aware of it through Chris Bigum when he was at CQU. He was talking about it in the mid-1990s. My vague recollection is that Chris worked a bit with Michelle Williams at that time. I even remember her visiting CQU around about then.

  2. I like the renovator notion. It’s apt for my efforts which are sometimes not pretty but have the functionality that I need. Some of the AppleScript I’ve written to drive Safari and Excel to automate processes in Moodle are probably ugly code but they do what I need and can be readily enough adapted when something in the environment changes. It’s a case of constant renovation.

    1. Peter, wasn’t it also you who did something with Excel to make life with Peoplesoft (or results uploading of some sort) vaguely usable for folk? I actually thought of that when talking about the renovator idea.

      Then, not long after my initial reply, I was pointed to this post and discussion of bricolage and bricoleurs.

      The idea of bricolage resonates strongly with me. It’s something I discussed in my thesis within information systems (Ciborra, 1992) and it also appears it has connections with Papert. I do have to read a bit more what Papert has talked about with bricolage, but I’m pretty certain there would be some resonance with the idea of a renovator.

      Ciborra, C. (1992). From thinking to tinkering: The grassroots of strategic information systems. The Information Society, 8(4), 297-309.

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