Skip to content
Skip to main content

About this free course

Download this course

Share this free course

Take your teaching online
Take your teaching online

Start this free course now. Just create an account and sign in. Enrol and complete the course for a free statement of participation or digital badge if available.

2.1 Visitors and residents

The different ways in which people interact with and understand digital technology are the subject of ongoing research and debate. For example, at the beginning of the century, Prensky (2001) made a distinction between ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’. He argued that younger generations (the ‘digital natives’) are immersed in technology when entering education and they have a different understanding of and relationship with it than the older ‘digital immigrants’ who have to learn to use it. This idea attracted much media attention, however, the claims about digital immigrants did not stand up to scrutiny. For example, Bennett et al. (2008) found as much difference within the technology use of the younger generations who were labelled ‘digital natives’ as there was between them and the older generations described as ‘digital immigrants’. Importantly, the technology skills of younger users were often limited. They were familiar with some tools and applications but knew little or nothing about others. It is a mistake to assume that someone is confident or proficient in using technology simply because they are younger.

David White rephrased this idea as ‘Digital Residents’ and ‘Digital Visitors’. This description covers a range of online behaviours, and the same person can operate in ‘resident’ or ‘visitor’ mode for different tasks. White and Le Cornu (2011) define the two groups in this way:

‘Visitors understand the Web as akin to an untidy garden tool shed. They have defined a goal or task and go into the shed to select an appropriate tool which they use to attain their goal. Task over, the tool is returned to the shed.

Residents, on the other hand, see the Web as a place, perhaps like a park or a building, in which there are clusters of friends and colleagues whom they can approach and with whom they can share information about their life and work. A proportion of their lives is actually lived out online.’

When making changes to your educational practice, be aware of how much the technology is shaping your advances. Try to decide whether you are acting as a ‘resident’ or a ‘visitor’ and whether you expect learners to be one or the other.

You should also reflect on the assumptions you make about who will be capable of engaging with online learning. It is important to assess and – where necessary – develop your learners’ skills as well as your own in order to engage successfully with online education.

Activity 1: Visitors or residents?

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes
Copy this transcript to the clipboard
Print this transcript
Show transcript | Hide transcript
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).

David White explains the Visitors and Residents model in this video.

As you watch the video, make notes on which elements you feel might apply to your learners – which activities do you think they would identify as ones that ‘residents’ engage in and which do ‘visitors’ engage in? Do you have a mix in your class or institution? If so, what is the balance between visitors and residents?

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


This activity is designed to help you to think about the technological skills and needs of your students. The models described might help you to categorise students with respect to different tasks or technologies. This, in turn, should help you identify how to meet their needs with online and blended teaching. For example, you may find that some students are always present and could be very comfortable with merging online learning activities into social media practices that are a part of their everyday lives. Others may go online to complete a specific task that is set for them but will not think they need to be connected all the time. Examine your expectations of their behaviours and be flexible in response to their approaches.

The video stresses it is important not to oversimplify assumptions about the need to teach digital skills to any audience. Instead, it is important to recognise that all learners and those involved in education may need to develop their skills in order to engage fully with online learning.