Ian Watson has been teaching at Northumbria University in Newcastle, England for almost 14 years. He is also a coordinator with the University delivery of transnational education through franchise operations to the Far East where undergraduate and postgraduate programs are delivered. His doctoral dissertation is entitled "Teaching the digital natives: Western and Asian learning theories in transnational higher education." His recent publication is: Digital Natives or Digital Tribes?  

Q: You’re a faculty member in engineering and environment. What kindled your research interest in digital native/immigrants?
A: I have been working for the last 11 years in the University’s overseas programmes, where a UK degree is franchised to the Far East. During this time I have noticed that some UK material is specific to our country, and not applicable or recognized by our overseas students. For instance when I first started my international work I noticed that the UK’s largest out of town shopping centre is located a few miles from Newcastle (the Metro Centre), I once saw an undergraduate assessment that was based on this shopping centre and wondered if students in the Far East would understand what the Metro Centre was. Within my University there is an established policy that the overseas staff teaching our programmes and using our materials can contextualize and regionalize materials for their students, to help aid their understanding. The staff in the partner institution renamed the Metro Centre to a local, similar shopping centre in their country. This led me to begin to ask questions about the use of ‘home’ and ‘host’ institutions and the relationship between students and the materials they were using on their degree programmes.

Q: You argued digital tribe is a more accurate term than digital natives, because of a host of factors accounting for people’s use of technology. Could you elaborate on that?
A: It is easy to see the digital native as being any student in the modern world. I feel this is a misconception, only by taking into account and appreciating where the student is from can we understand how they are learning and incorporating technology into their everyday lives. By using the term digital tribe I am hoping to open up the debate that there are a multitude of factors that we need to take into account when planning the use of technology in education. Because Marc Prensky in 2001 said all students are wired into technology, do we really need to take this to the extreme and assume that ALL students are using Facebook ALL of the time? And so incorporate Facebook into the curriculum and hope that the students will use the technology because we as educators think they will? Or is a more pragmatic approach to students and technology to appreciate that some students prefer to use Facebook for their education, and that others may not.

Q: How did three countries (i.e., UK, Malaysia, and South Korea) become your research context?
I have worked in TNHE (Trans National Higher Education) in the UK for almost fourteen years and been involved with our Malaysia Franchise work for 11 years, and the work with South Korea I started about 4 years ago. I noticed that from speaking to students from the three countries that the ‘student body’ (a generalization I know) are quite distinct from each other. Each has their own characteristics and approaches, closely linked to the society in which the student grew up in. The staff (teaching and administrative) at our partner organisations have always been keen on promoting links between ourselves and their own institutions, so it was easy to get permission to work with the student’s overseas and at home in Newcastle.

4. Why do you think it’s important to categorize people into digital tribe and non-digital tribe?
I don’t believe it is important to categorize people into the two categories per se. But by using the terms I was hoping to make people realize that not everyone is the same. Just as not every student is a digital native then not every student can be placed in a particular ‘tribe’ either. I am hoping to add to, and further the debate that not all students are the same, we need to realise that the students we are educating today is from a wide variety of countries, each with their own education systems and cultures, both of which have an impact on student’s preferred learning styles. Just because we in the West teach in a certain way it does not mean that this is applicable to teaching all of our students in this way, this in my opinion verges on ‘neo-colonialism’, as is now being studied in the academic literature.

Q: What are the implications of your research findings for educational leaders and policymakers in three countries?
Primarily the implications for educational leaders are similar to the answer to question number four, that not all students are the same. That it is wrong to assume just because an undergraduate or postgraduate programme of study is successful in the West that it will have the same level of success in the East. There are embedded cultural and pedagogic factors that need to be taken into consideration when setting up overseas franchise programmes, otherwise we run the risk of imposing a neo-colonial approach to education, where that from the West is seen as better than that from the east.

Q: What’s your future research plan?
My future research plan is already developing, I am now looking at the teachers of TNHE and how they teach Western programmes of study to their students. What processes and additional activities do these teachers of Western course have to engage in mentally and pedagogically If they themselves were educated in an Eastern style of education (instructivist is an overarching term) when the Western education is largely constructivist. If the teachers have no experience of Western education how do they approach the task of teaching this to students who again have no experience of being taught in a largely constructivist learning style? I have already carried out some primary research into this and I am releasing early findings and conclusions at the iSchool conference in Berlin in March 2014. This research forms the basis of my Professional Doctorate studies which I will complete in the next 12 months. I hope then to build a research programme into TNHE in the UK that can disseminate findings and recommendations to the providers and users of overseas programmes.

Q: What advice would you give to our doctoral students in school technology leadership program?
Advice is difficult to give, as I am not familiar with the background to your students. However, it is always valuable to keep abreast of current technological trends in education, not only at the HE level but at the primary and secondary level, as students at these stages of their education are the ones that will ultimately be progressing to University education. But alongside this, I find it is useful to combine the technology trends with current educational research, as the latter is often more focused on the students we teach and how they interact with the technologies they use, but it also takes into account the other factors that can affect our students, for instance their cultural and pedagogic background.