I’ve been uncomfortable with the metaphor of digital natives and digital immigrants for some time. The idea behind it is that some are “born into” the world of technology; they’ve grown up with it—like Don Tapscott’s Grown Up Digital—and have an almost intuitive sense of what it can and should do. Others who are older, or on the wrong side of the digital divide, are cast as immigrants busily trying their best to assimilate—or aggressively not (think Luddite).
While a compelling concept that is certainly useful at some level, the digital native metaphor makes it sound like the digital immigrant will always be on the outside looking in. It feels too much like a fixed wall between haves and have nots. Most important, I know too many incredibly tech-savvy “seasoned” professionals for whom this metaphor doesn’t hold at all. They intuit circles around their supposedly “native” students when it comes to technology use. There has to be a better way of thinking about these differences.
The model I’ve been using for some time in workshops and speeches is less based on what you’re born into and more focused on mastery. It emerged from an article I wrote about seven years ago called Getting a Kick Out of Technology, which was based on my own technology-based learning and martial-arts experience. This article got me thinking about another way to conceive of differences in skills sets and approaches to technology: Belts. And just as the Six Sigma world has taken to the belt metaphor because of its emphasis on growth and development, we too can leverage it.
We all know technology white belts—beginners who either want to or have to begin their instruction and are taking their first steps. They’re awkward, they make mistakes regularly, and they can be quite dangerous. Black belt martial artists will quickly tell you it’s far more dangerous to spar an untested white belt than a trained fighter with control. White belts often swing wildly and are less aware of the power of their strikes. The world is full of white belt technology users. From the hasty forwarding of obvious scam emails to posting strange comments on your Facebook wall to excitedly responding to requests for bank information from Nigerian royalty, they’re not hard to spot.
Up the belt levels we go. Green belt technology users have learned the basics, are more in control, and are beginning to see how they can use technology without being used by it. Brown belt users have significant skill sets using a wide array of technology tools, but still have much to master—particularly the issue of balancing technology use with the art of mindfully relating with others.
Black belt users have mastered the core skills. They have control of why, how, and when they use technology. Most important, as in the martial arts, they have a sense of responsibility to help others learn their art. Also, black belts know there is much more to learn—it’s the beginning of their journey. As they move up the degrees of their black belts, they master more and more but realize how much they still don’t know.
I especially like the belt metaphor because it focuses on growth, development, and mastery—not existing states that aren’t likely to change. Much like Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, it doesn’t glorify innate gifts as much as it recognizes effort, experience, and insight—not to mention the good fortune to have access to the tools and teaching. For example, faculty members and students at colleges that have focused Centers for Teaching and Learning that provide technology use and instructional design support systems are simply much more fortunate and likely to better leverage technology. They have a much stronger techno-edu-dojo, if you will.
The metaphor also works because black belts in both martial arts and technology often intimidate us. There’s an air of mystery to their mastery. But as black belts in both arenas will confess, their mastery is less about mystery and more about a continually focused effort, the willingness to try, and an openness to learning.