Of Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants and the “Digital Naive”

I joined a TV show, Rubbin’ Minds, yesterday to discuss what the show host (Y! Naija’s Adebola Williams) described as “eSpace”. It was an interesting discussion that covered topics such as what it means to be an Internet entrepreneur in Nigeria to the opportunities that exist in the space – and more. I was specifically asked to touch on the role that technology plays in PIN’s Ajegunle.org project and we also discussed the subject of certifications. Well, my thinking on the Certification vs Proficiency debate is all over this blog – and it’s best summarised in a phrase that seemed to catch on from yesterday’s show: “get certified but don’t be satisfied with the paper certificate because proficiency is what will get you a seat in the room even after certificates open the door.”

Discussing the ease with which the younger generation adopts – and uses – technology, I naturally had to touch on the concept of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. I was also tempted to add a third category that I’ve been thinking about of late – the “Digital Naive”. Much has been said about Digital Natives, the generation that was born into technology just as many from my generation were born into the era of coloured TV sets. We were comfortable to open boxes that were marked “Betamax” or “VHS”, as long as we knew what would emerge was going to be connected to the TV so we could watch movies like Sound of Music; The Good, The Bad and The Ugly; and Clash of the Titans. [By the way, I’m looking forward to the remake of the first two classics.]

We just knew how to handle the technology of the day, we were the remote control geeks. So, no one is surprised when 2 year-olds – who basically spent the first few months of conscious existence seeing mobile devices as toys – unlocking iPads and demystifying our thousand-dollar toys. They are Digital Natives, and there are millions like them in their teens who don’t know the caution that we exercise regarding online privacy or don’t shrink for a second when we mention the possibility of wireless communications without gadgets – just from one mind to another. But then, there are “we-we” (if you understand that, you’re a Nigerian), the Digital Immigrants. Our voyage led us, as immigrants, to the world of digital opportunities. We still remember the period when access was plug-and-pray, when we literally took a break between launching the Yahoo! Mail page, logging in and right-clicking to open each eMail in a new window – not tabs.

But then, both camps have been known to make the best of digital experiences, and what I’ve noticed over the past few months is a new class – the naive. They may be natives or immigrants by historical interpretation, but they are unaware of the potentials of technology beyond the surface. They spend countless hours roaming the social media space – signing up until they confuse passwords – but have not mastered the art (or is it science) of using the tools beyond play. They retweet for possible attention, chase followers for numbers, threaten friends who have refused to show digital allegiance, but do not bring either content or value-laden interest to the table. For the Digital Natives or Digital Immigrants who are yet to see the true networking potential of Facebook, the content/feedback prowess of Twitter, the career value that LinkedIn brings, just to mention few social media-specific examples, there’s a chance the word “naive” is what truly qualifies their digital status.

If the multiple hours spent online does not increase your wholesome experience or add tangible value, either as a student, entrepreneur, employee, etc, then you may also be part of the “Digital Naive” club.

Education in Nigeria: A relevant 2003 presentation

On Saturday, June 28 2003, at the Lady Bank Anthony Hall of the University of Ibadan, I made a presentation at The Internet in Education: Together in Technology seminar organized by the University chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE). I looked at the presentation again while discussing today’s university entrance examinations that 1.49 million Nigerians (and some others) will write in locations that span 7 countries. I find the issues in this 8 year-old paper relevant today and hope it adds value in some way. Enjoy the full presetation, below, exactly as presented in 2003:


They filed out of the dormitory, just to catch a glimpse of “the star”. The news was all over the school… an ex-student had returned! That he was an ex-student wasn’t the issue, and that he was even in the University was of no serious weight. But that he was a student of Engineering said it all! Here was someone who could look at a problem, come up with a solution and implement his idea… it was no exaggeration to say a wizard was in town.

They were in secondary school, and had an unusual respect for engineers because they were creators – maybe not on the scale of the deity, but in a class of their own. The dream of becoming an engineer dwelt in the heart of many … if only they could cross the examination hurdles. A few friends therefore decided to embark on the prestigious journey – the journey into the world of engineering. It was a tall dream, but it was worth it. They were not exactly thrilled by the monetary prospects, but the power to create solutions and calm chaos was an adventure they were willing to embark on.

They knew that one of them would solve the problem of erratic power supply in their country (a developing one) if he could implement his “Independent Electric Power Generation” pet project. That was John. He was not endowed with so much flesh on his body but his brain was full of an idea. He had hurdles to cross but he was willing to give up anything just to become his dream… an engineer, and not only an engineer but the one to solve the “Christmas light” phenomenon he grew up to know. John finished as part of the top 10% of the class and proceeded to one of the foremost universities in his country to study Electrical Engineering and he did not hide his dream from anyone who could spare a few seconds. He must have used the phrase, “I have a dream” more than Martin Luther did.

The first tragedy struck when, at the Physics laboratory in his first year, he challenged a theory while conducting an experiment on gravity. He was willing to explain to the laboratory attendants that there was an error in the lecturer’s calculations during the lecture on gravity but they would not listen. “My friend, will you write what you see and stop feeling like Albert Einstein…”. He wouldn’t allow the case to settle there as he proceeded to the lecturer to clarify issues – and he was right.

What was “stop feeling like Albert Einstein” supposed to mean? He discovered the answer to his thoughts over time. He graduated from the university with good grades but he knew that he wasn’t ready to create anything. He could remember the course titles but applying them to real life problems was going to be difficult – if not impossible. Then came another hurdle – he needed a job. He was at an interview and the only proof that he studied Electrical Engineering was his certificate!


There are thousands of young people like John in developing nations today. Their dreams are being assassinated and their hopes being erased. These young men and women will be the ones to lead their nation’s engineering industry tomorrow but may we ask what they are made up of today? How many of them still carry their dreams of revolutionising the engineering industry? Or has that been replaced with the drive to settle down to a plum job? How many of them are equipped with practical/working knowledge? How many of them can handle tomorrow’s tool – Information Technology? Or what can an engineer do without Information Technology? From Geographic Information Systems to automated manufacturing processes, the sustainability of any engineering experience is built on the application of Information Technology.

I’m sure that this distinguished profession is conscious of its future. If the future is built around people and a profession around what its people-players know, we must then ask a sincere question: How much of engineering do today’s engineering graduates know? We may be quick to blame students – they don’t read like we used to. Or we may be tempted to accuse lecturers of teaching theory and the nation of not producing a conducive environment but I think a holistic view will do a lot in helping us maintain standards of excellence in this non-compromising industry and also create an enviable future for the same.

2.1 Laboratories Or Museums

The state of laboratories/equipment rooms in much of engineering training institutions in developing nations needs some attention. It is embarrassing to know that there are graduates who never touched or handled tools of their profession. If there were to be an honest Engineering Equipment Audit for all institutions that award Engineering degrees, many of emerging engineers could have their certificates recalled!

2.2 Lecture Notes Or History Texts

The reports we get from the international community are not fair on us, and on the coming generations. One of such reports called us half-baked graduates and another one revealed that a Nigerian student that graduated in the First Class category was subjected to another test in order to ascertain the quality of his degree. That is humiliating!

The course curriculum of our Universities must be revisited if we must break this cycle of half-baked graduates. The idea of not updating lecture notes should also be discouraged – I would not be surprised if some lecturers’ notes are as old as their BSc certificates.

2.3 Should Engineers Be Innovators?

Many young Nigerians grow up as innovators but pass through school to become job seekers! It is a cycle that must be broken by all parties concerned – students must hold on to their goals and school should be an environment that rewards innovation above CPF (Cram-Pass-Forget, which many students employ to satisfy the lecturer in exchange for good grades).

That way, we can once again recreate the beauty of engineering in Nigeria. I grew up hearing of a certain Okati Motors that was building automobiles from 70% local materials. Course advisers should please identify and assist young people to become tomorrow’s innovators. Final year projects must be solution-specific endeavours and not the usual reproduction of some forgotten thesis from the school library. We would never move forward that way!

2.4 Where’s The Government?

One of the most common questions today is, “what is the government doing about…?” While we await the sleeping giant’s revival, we must not stand still. The Private sector should partner with institutions in both infrastructure availability and human resource development. The truth is that your manpower comes from these institutions, equip them today and have a solid workforce tomorrow!

We have spent enough dollars on our ignorance, its high time we had private sector sponsored Computer Science laboratories and Civil Engineering. Life is not all about how much we can get but how much we can give… business is not always about how much profit we make but how socially responsible the organisation is.

2.5 Certificates vs. Proficiency

Without trading faults, we must sincerely acknowledge that the present educational system is certificate-driven, but that should not be so. We need to build our lives and careers around being proficient because that is the only way we can stand up to be counted.

The usual trend is that when certain certificates become commonplace, there’s a drive towards another level, which goes on to become “too popular”… and on goes the cycle. We must put an end to this cycle, and break away before its too late. And if I can borrow from the wealth of a friend’s words, be certified but not satisfied!


It is not too late to awaken the spirit of excellence in Nigeria’s emerging engineers – recent graduates and students. The student branch of the Institute of Electronic and Electrical Engineers is an initiative that must be commended, among others. But beyond that, young people should be involved in mainstream decision-making, as they will be the ones to maintain the outcomes of such decisions. I grew up being told that “today’s young people are tomorrow’s leaders” but is that saying still valid today? If we do not equip young people today, we must not complain if they derail the society tomorrow.

3.1 Taking The Law Of Your Future Into Your Own Hands

Lifelong learning and personal development are two philosophies that each young person must adopt in order to stay competitive in today’s global village. While the educational system is set to improve the student, it is the responsibility of each student – regardless of possible excuses – to carve a niche for him/herself.

In the days to come, there will be no excuses for anyone to claim that his background is the reason why progress in not in sight. The world has become a level playing field that has no respect for class, style, colour, age or location – the man who has what others need rules the day. The whole world will stand aside for a man who knows where he’s going. Why stand aside for others when you can have the red carpet below your own feet – by preparing for tomorrow today.

3.2 Information Technology And Engineering – Together In Technology

Engineering and Information Technology cannot be isolated from each other. It should be a taboo for a graduate of engineering to say he/she does not have a working knowledge of the computer – at the very least! This is a challenge to every emerging engineer as the days when we had all the excuses are gone. We can now access information on practically every sphere of engineering on various websites, including those built by Nigerians and Nigerian corporations.

We have enough information on the web and must take advantage of such – www.itrainonline.org, http://ocw.mit.edu are two examples of a whole web of data that is waiting to be converted into information. The fact is that Information Technology empowers you regardless of your chosen career path, but engineers have the advantage of using this “tool” and understanding the principles of its operation.

3.3 Engineering A New Nigeria

The task of building a new Nigeria is a general responsibility but I know that it is not a question of whether Nigeria will be great again, its only a question of when and who. We can decide to answer the when question now but can Nigeria’s engineers be the ones to answer the who question?

I believe that the future of the Engineering discipline in Nigeria can only be assured if tomorrow’s key players are equipped today. What tomorrow will look like is a reflection of what we paint on the canvas of today.

Dead or Alive: Thoughts on Nigeria and Technology

The clicks from the unfastening of seat belts went on like a symphony as I closed my eyes to catch at least 73 minutes of sleep – since I’ll have to wake up few minutes before touchdown in Geneva (again) – but my mind keeps racing from one topic to the other. All the topics focus on two themes: Nigeria and technology.

I left Lagos, on May 29, to speak at a workshop organized by Freedom House at the 17th session of the Human Rights Council meeting, and to also join a delegation that Freedom House referred to as “experts” and “activists” depending on the country we were meeting with. The few days in Geneva got busier than planned, thanks to the various shades of news from Nigeria: telecom service shutdown in Abuja, attack on government websites (and threats of more) and the presidential assent that gave Nigeria a Freedom of Information Act (after 12 years of demand for the same). As usual, such news items from Nigeria attracted impromptu requests for comments, and the usual “tell me Nigeria isn’t that bad” trick questions. I digress.

During the few days at the United Nations meeting, I had the chance to discuss the Nigerian component of the Freedom on the Net 2011 report, a most-interesting assignment commissioned by Freedom House. Nigeria is “partly free”, as far as the ratings – which basically measure Internet Freedom – are concerned, but there are few worrying signals such as provisions made in the “cybercrime bill” which remained at the level of discussions till the end of the last National Assembly session. An example is the dangerous provision that allows any security official to seize equipment on suspicion of any cybercrime-related activity. We all know what that means for the Nigerian Police Force, as they stand today, and the potential misuse by a government-gone-wrong. Of course, Nigeria needs a cybercrime law, and Paradigm Initiative Nigeria is working to support that possibility, but recent actions such as shutting down telecom service in the nation’s capital (for security reasons, I’m told) and possible response to increasing “hacktivism” that targets government websites leave me with questions.

During the week in Geneva, the delegation – which also had Internet Freedom experts from Pakistan, Zimbabwe and Egypt – met with various country representatives (and Foreign Missions) to have two-way conversations about our countries and what recent developments may mean for Internet Freedom globally. I came out of most meetings wondering if the tension between “security” and “freedom” will ever have an answer beyond case-by-case provisions. For one of the embassies, we were stripped of all communication gadgets before going in for a discussion on freedom. Hmmm, ironic, isn’t it. But then, one man’s freedom ends where the other’s security concerns begin – or is that not what reality tells us? Again, I digress.

I left Geneva without a chance to meet with the Nigerian delegation, which was one country we all hoped to meet with. But it was a very busy week for the Nigeria mission in Geneva, as I gathered from “our” intervention during the council meeting where a Special Rapporteur (a UN term for “unpaid consultant with an office”) discussed Internet Freedom. “On behalf of the Africa Group”, the statement began, when the microphone turned red and Nigeria’s representative took the floor. Nigeria is very busy, as usual, coordinating African response as our eyes also remain on that permanent Security Council seat. If only we spared some time to look more inwards instead of contesting for the crown of “Africa’s Big Brother”.

I return to Geneva for a last day of finishing up work for the 2-week trip, and while the news of a cancelled meeting means more time to prepare for the week ahead in Abuja and Ile-Ife, I can’t get my mind off the many technology opportunities that Nigeria can take advantage of if government can catch up with a fast-paced private sector and growing number of young tech enthusiasts who will help grow Nigeria’s non-oil economy. With a little more coordination by the lame duck agency (the National Information Technology Development Agency) actually tasked with the responsibility, we can identify where we want to be in, say, 2020 (since we have a national plan that aspires to make Nigeria a “top 20” economy by that year), measure the gaps (especially skill-wise) we need to fill, and then support the education of talented young minds in these areas of need.

But we can’t just keep hoping or rot on the spot, we’ll continue to push in every way possible, hoping that islands of effort will connect and cause an explosion of innovation across Nigeria. From Paradigm Initiative Nigeria’s little contribution to the recent series of networking opportunities, and the announcement of a social innovation hub opening in Lagos this August, one can at least smile even though the thirst for more remains. Napoleon once said of China, “Let China sleep, for when she wakes she will shake the world”, and I know the same is true of Nigeria’s technology slumber. Actually, the sleep is near its very end, and though it could use some more policy/conducive environment support, something of a silver lining is in sight.

However, I’m reminded of the story of the young man who caught a bird and took it to the wisest man in town, saying to him: “If you’re the wisest, tell me if the bird I have in my hand is alive or dead.” The bird was still alive and his plan was simple: to crush it to death if the wise man said it was alive or set it free if his verdict was “dead”. Though the wise man couldn’t see the bird as it was held in the young man’s hands behind him, his response rings true for the various stakeholders of the Nigerian tech space: “Whether the bird is alive or dead, the power is in your hands.”