Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’

As part of the JISC funded Isthmus project we have been taking a close look not at whattechnologies our students use but at how our they use them. We found that our students could not be usefully categorised as Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants. I.e. This distinction does not help guide the implementation of technologies it simply provides the excuse that “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…”

Anyway, our students appropriation of online services did not seem to follow a simple pattern based on skill level. It seemed to depend on if they saw the web as a ‘place to live’ or as a collection of useful tools. This underlying motivation led us to outline two main categories of distance learning student.

The ‘Resident’

The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc  The Resident will of course interact with all the practical services such as banking, information retrieval and shopping etc but they will also use the web to socialise and to express themselves. They are likely to see the web as a worthwhile place to put forward an opinion. They often use the web in all aspects of the of their lives; professionally, for study and for recreation. In fact the resident considers that a certain portion of their social life is lived out online. The web has become a crucial aspect of how they present themselves and how they remain part of networks of friends or colleagues.

The ‘Visitor’

The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day. They always have an appropriate and focused need to use the web but don’t ‘reside’ there. They are sceptical of services that offer them the ability to put their identity online as don’t feel the need to express themselves by participating in online culture in the same manner as a Resident.

In effect the Resident has a presence online which they are constantly developing while the Visitor logs on, performs a specific task and then logs off.

This is of course not a polar distinction. There is a spectrum of which the Resident and the Visitor represent two extremes (Watch this space for a couple of possible sub-categories). It is a useful distinction because it is not based on gender or age. While our data would indicate that the portion of the population over 55 is predominantly made up of Visitors there are examples of Residents in this section of the demographic. Similarly it is the case that not everyone younger than 25 is a Resident.

It is not always easy to spot who is in each category as the level of sophistication with which a Visitor might use any single service might well be greater than that of a Resident. Again, this is not a skill based distinction. In fact I know of at least one ed-tech researcher who considers himself to be a Visitor out of choice.

The Resident is likely to have arranged some sort of system to manage the relationship between services and the flow of information through their browser but this does not mean that they will be any more effective at researching a specific topic than a Visitor. This is why data from a survey that simply asks what online services a group of students use is next to useless.

This Visitor, Resident distinction is useful when considering which technologies to provide for online learners. For example if your learners are mainly Visitors they are unlikely to take advantage of any feed based system for aggregated information you may put in place. They are also unlikely to blog or comment as part of a course. The Resident will expect to have the opportunity to offer opinions on topics and to socialise around a programme of study. In fact they are likely to find ways of doing this even if they are not ‘officially’ provided. We offered membership of a facebook group to our students as they left their online courses. The majority signed-up without question as they wanted to stay in touch with fellow students and continue discussions. The remainder saw the group as pointless and a possible invasion of privacy. Both sides of this argument are correct… It’s a question of approach and motivation, hence Visitors and Residents.

Some of you might also be interested in our paper on Visitors and Residents:

Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement
by David S. White and Alison Le Cornu.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 9 – 5 September 2011

77 Replies to “Not ‘Natives’ & ‘Immigrants’ but ‘Visitors’ & ‘Residents’”

  1. I think Visitors and Residents express better the relationship that we establish with digital technologies and media.
    Unfortunately, the terms Native and Inmigrants have had a better marketing, thanks to Mark Prensky and follwers, what made a lot of damage between those who understand that the history of human knowledge is not a way of exclusion, but a sharing one.
    Congratulations for this blog, is excelent.


  2. This is a much softer way of expressing the different. It also creates less of an “us” and “them” perspective as it is easier to become a resident after being a visitor than to become a “native” from an “immigrant”. I also think it may remove some of the stigma with age as you don’t need to be born somewhere to be a resident. Thanks – I like the adjustment.

    On another note – I’d hesitate to apply the following excuse from your post “some people ‘just don’t get it’ which is why your new approach has failed so badly…” on the basis of “immigrants” or “visitors”. Isn’t it part of our role as online educators to ensure our learners can contribute and benefit from their learning environment? Aren’t we being arrogant in suggesting that the learner may be to blame for not understanding the medium – perhaps it is us as educators who “just don’t get it” by placing unrealistic expectations or tasks upon them, perhaps without providing appropriate support or assessment of readiness.

    Thanks for a thought provoking post.

  3. Just come across this through a link from Kate Sim. The descriptors visitor and resident resonate with me too. Just wonder if David has developed his argument at all since the original blog posting?

  4. I much prefer this visitor resident view to the Prensky natives concept. As resident visitor also allows for those not yet utilising technology to adapt, rather like non-travellers deciding to become tourists then getting the travel bug.

    Perhaps there needs to be additional categories to account for those that refuse to have anything to do with technology or for whatever reason cant get access to the technology such as “avoiders” and “outsiders”.

  5. Like the descriptors of resident and visitor much better as a descriptor. I think it comes down to peoples priorities in life as to which category they fall in. I listened to a debate on the Jeremy vine show following the announcement that the governemnt are going to get broadband to every home. Many people were happy without being connected to the internet at all. Having just finished an e learning course currently feel overwhelmed at the vast potential of the web as a reosurce for teaching and learning. Still think I will stay in the visitor camp though.

  6. It’s a very clear and accurate distinction. It may be that more people become residents as social media continues to explode. Facebook and twiiter are now used everyday by a high proportion of the internet population.

  7. This is a rather interesting and thought provoking piece! After reading it, in my head I tried to bracket everyone I know (in class and otherwise) into the 2 extreme categories mentioned and the ‘gray’ areas between the two. Do you agree that although currently age is not the only differentiator between visitors and residents, the number of visitors is definitely shrinking especially with the advent of Web 2.0? I would not be surprised if in say 10 yrs almost everyone atleast in the western world falls into the resident category.

  8. My digital native daughter and myself, a digital immigrant have just posted an article, titled ”On Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: How the Digital Divide Affects Families, Educational Institutions, and the Workplace”available at It provides differentiation between different types of digital immigrants and different types of digital natives.

  9. After hearing Dave talk about visitors and residents I realised that within the analogy I have holiday homes. There are places and things I do online and people I know, where I feel very comfortable, confident, familiar, valued and relevant. If I stray ‘a few miles down the road’, I’m disoriented, lacking in confidence and struggle to find people who I recognise or can help me.

    We need to understand that it takes time and effort to build these zones of confidence and acceptance.

  10. Pingback: wms affiliate

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *