Campus & Community

‘Digital immigrants’ teaching ‘digital natives’

4 min read

Berkman conference ponders universities’ digital future

Students coming into universities today are “digital natives” and fundamentally different in their use of technology than the “digital immigrants” who teach them, according to John Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.

Palfrey said that students today have always had technology around them and they’re comfortable with an “always on” lifestyle. They’re aided by an array of digital gadgets that keep them connected to the Internet and to each other. They’re also more comfortable expressing themselves digitally and have become creators as well as consumers of digital content, a major change from earlier generations.

Digital natives, Palfrey said, have digital identities, such as profiles in MySpace and FaceBook, and avatars in Second Life and other online worlds. They are comfortable multitasking and using an array of digital media.

“I think this is a profound difference,” Palfrey said.

Their arrival at universities around the world presents a challenge, both for their teachers and their institutions, Palfrey said.

Palfrey delivered the keynote address on “The Internet and University” at the Berkman Center for the Internet & Society’s 2007 Internet & Society Conference: “University — Knowledge Beyond Authority: What Is the Role of University in Cyberspace?”

The two-day event began Thursday evening (May 31) and ran through Friday evening.

Charles Ogletree Jr., the Jesse Climenko Professor of Law and conference co-chair, introduced Friday’s events with a look back at past conferences held by the Berkman Center. The first, in 1998, took place in a very different technological world. Though society’s reliance on the Internet and on digital information has grown rapidly since then, Ogletree said, some of the same issues remain, such as unequal access to the Internet and digital information.

The conference’s other co-chair and Berkman Center founder Charles Nesson, Weld Professor of Law, was unable to attend personally and delivered a video welcome to participants. In his welcome, Nesson said that the idea of a university is a concept as much as a place and he hoped the conference would explore the university’s roles as knowledge-generator, as teacher, and as fair broker where divergent ideas could find common ground.

“I believe the Internet offers the university a grand new environment to present itself,” Nesson said.

Palfrey said that the growing digital age presents challenges as well as opportunities. Equity is a major challenge. Though 1 billion people are online, that means that billions are not. Ethics is a challenge, as the sharing of information raises copyright and plagiarism issues. Transparency and reliability are also challenges in a world where everyone can create information through their own blogs.

For teachers, the question becomes whether tried-and-true teaching methods such as those employed at Harvard Law School should be changed. More changes may be on the way, Palfrey said, with moves to put cheap laptop computers in the hands of many more people. That raises the question, he said, of how their participation will change universities.

Important questions remain around openness and access to information, Palfrey said. Access to university course material and to previously restricted libraries are all in question, he said.

Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science and former Harvard College dean Harry Lewis offered at least one answer to the many questions raised at the conference, saying during a Q&A session that the increased online access in recent years to Harvard material doesn’t appear to have diluted Harvard’s appeal as there has been no lessening of demand for admission to Harvard.

The conference was intended as a working event, Ogletree said, and after the morning keynote, participants broke up into smaller groups examining issues such as fair use of intellectual property, alternative models for scholarly publications, university and the library, society and culture, and the digital identity of universities.