Digital natives and immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date

Over the last few years, I’ve increasingly encountered reference to Marc Prensky’s distinction between “digital natives and digital immigrants”. I’m currently editing a journal special edition, and find almost every article provides some reference to the concept. Last week, I was in Edmonton presenting at ADETA. The reference to natives/immigrants was again abundant. I personally find the distinction offensive (after all, it casts a conflict between immigrants and natives in mild tone of intolerance). David Thornburg recognizes this and writes about his own presentation at an entirely different conference, and concludes that he owes his audience an apology for relying on the false distinction.
Why has the idea of immigrants and natives gained so much ground, in the apparent absence of effective research?
I assume the concept of immigrant/native gained popularity because it expresses emotions/feelings many educators have about next generation students. They are, like every generation before, different. The memorable distinction between immigrant/native is a theme that transfers readily amongst educators, largely because the inherent ambiguity allows us to see/speak our experiences and biases into the terms. The life we see in immigrant/native terminology is what we ourselves bring to the definition.
But I don’t think the distinction has merit beyond a buzz phrase that has outlived the role it initially played in getting educators to think about the different types of learners now entering our classrooms. Let’s explore Prensky’s thoughts on digital Natives and immigrants (Part 1 and Part 2 (both .pdf)).
Prensky begins by saying that today’s students are different. Our school system hasn’t been designed to meet their needs. This is the first generous step taken in the argument – namely that we change our schools because learners are different, but we’ll get back to that shortly. Prensky states (accurately, I think) that our students think and process information differently. Then he takes his second (very) generous step: the differences in our students today is tied to age, not simply experiences. As a result of these differences, we are immigrants, they are natives. Pop-culture-science is then liberally added to the discussion to generate appropriate levels of hype. Digital immigrant instructors, we are told, speak an outdated language. Multitasking is actually effective (though the immigrants don’t understand this – after all, research is still uncertain (btw, that’s sarcasm)). Then we have the personal slant: “every time I go to school, I have to power down”. I hear 1-800 numbers being listed in the background as I survey a landscape of students unable to connect their computers to the internet…a voice saturated with concern states: “please, send 30 dollars a month to give these children internet access”.
Prensky is blurring too many concepts here. I agree learners are changing. I agree our institutions need to change. But our institutions need to change because of the increasing complexity of society and globalization. Schools and universities play a dual role: accommodating learner’s method and mode of learning and transforming learners and preparing them to function in the world that is unfolding. This distinction may seem slight, but it’s important.
Why should schools react to learner’s methods of learning and interacting with content? Well, obviously, if we ignore how they interact with each other and with content, we are largely subjecting them to a mode of thinking (linear, certainty-based) that is at odds with how they experience life (complex, social, and collaborative). Contrary to Prensksy’s views, this distinction is NOT a function of age. It’s a function of attitude…a mindset of experimentation…experience with technology. Secondly, education plays a role in society that goes beyond reacting to emerging trends. Education’s role is one of preparing people for life, for engagement in academic discourse, for awakening and nurturing talents learners are not yet aware of, for critical dialogue on “big trends” and how we should conduct ourselves in relation to these. Quite simply, education utilizes the tools and manner of expression and dialogue of a particular culture in order to transform learners into citizens capable of tackling the increasingly complex problems of the world. Prensky neglects this vital distinction.
Toward the end of Prensky’s first article (p. 4), he adds a discussion of the need for teaching good thinking skills and “legacy content” (reading, writing, logical thinking) and “future content” (software, hardware, politics, ethics). He is moving in more productive directions here, though I again disparage at his attempt to force a duality based on age.
The age distinction is entirely false, unnecessary, and conflict prone. The school system is in need of overhaul, but as mentioned above, the overhaul is needed because society has changed, not because learners have iPods. Secondly, the discussion of immigrants and natives overlooks the fact that the younger generation often understands technology at a utilitarian level (i.e. how to use a piece of software for its intended purpose, but not much beyond that). Depth of understanding, social implications, trends, and other more advanced concepts are often not present (I wish I could point to research to support this – at this point, my opinion is based on what I’ve seen with students in the classroom).
In his second article (listed above), Prensky continues his general line of reasoning, but begins to rely on neuroscience to support his arguments. I would encourage Prensky and others to review The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations (.pdf) before beginning any discourse on research which finds its roots in neuroscience. As we were. Prensky suggests that because people have different experiences, they are physically different, which then requires that we design our entire school system to align with – here’s the shocker – the field in which he consults: digital game-based learning. By page five of this article, the paucity of Prensky’s toolkit is revealed. Even concepts like “reflection” must be handled in digital native language. If all you have is a hammer…every problem looks like a nail (Maslow).
I’ll leave things there. More criticism could be levelled at Prensky, but I’m content by simply stating: the premise is wrong (and offensive), the remedy suggested is wrong, and the research is needlessly twisted to lead readers in directions at conflict with even the slightest amount of critical thinking. Prensky’s articles takes readers through a very shallow dive of a very deep pool.
I recently attended a workshop by Susan Crichton and Karen Pegler. They presented research they were conducting at U of Calgary on the distinction between learners based on age. They found that individuals involved in work-based tasks had very similar technology use rates. However, when outside of the workplace, the younger generation was more likely to use technology for social means. While the research is emerging, I draw a few quick conclusions:
- Technology use is determined by context, not by age
- Our peer-group influences the manner in which we use technology for socialization
Aside from insulting an entire generation and coddling to the needs of younger learners, Prensky doesn’t provide us with a compelling model forward (other than “use digital games”). Lately, I’ve noticed an increasingly strong resistance among educators to technology use in education. I think we are at a push back stage – many are afflicted with “technology weariness”…too many failed implementations, too many promises that didn’t materialize, too many hyped-conference presentations, too much “rhetoric of the electrical sublime” thinking. The over-hyped “I’ve fallen in love” mindset often presented in relation to technology helps to drive hype for a while, but in the long run, the impact of this approach damages future – less hyped – approaches to learning and technology.
As I was preparing this post, I saw a link from Migel McGuhlin to Jamie McKenzie’s article on Digital Nativism – a critique of Prensky well worth reviewing.

10 Responses to “Digital natives and immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date”

  1. Jon says:

    Thanks for this I thought it was just me :-)

  2. Great post! Omygosh, George Siemens linked to me! Ok…I’ll stop it.
    Seriously, this part caught my eye:
    “The school system is in need of overhaul, but as mentioned above, the overhaul is needed because society has changed, not because learners have iPods. Secondly, the discussion of immigrants and natives overlooks the fact that the younger generation often understands technology at a utilitarian level (i.e. how to use a piece of software for its intended purpose, but not much beyond that).”
    As you point out, more research is needed. We’re in search of a theory that explains the evidence.
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

  3. Larry Dugan says:

    An interesting commentary. As you make your case against the theories of Prensky, you do comment that, while the age difference is not as critical as the fact that there is a difference in learning styles based on social groupings.

    “Technology is linked by context not by age.”
    In a recent research project of my own, I studied 650 rural students from 4-12 grade. Some of the results in the Prensky book held firm, others not as much. I agree, the digital game based slant is apparently self serving, but over time, we saw a dramatic increase in technology and its use at home across the board. 10 years ago we were seeing 55-60% penetration of computers in the home. Now the “have nots” were coming in at about 3% (n=20). Of these students more than half made use of blogs on a daily basis. Heavy gamers, conversely accounted for only about 22% of the population. Based on these findings, we implemented new technology plan that focused on the social interaction with content as opposed to one way delivery systems used in the past. The results have been telling. Buy in from the students, especially 4-8th grade has been strong. Buy-in from the faculty has been stronger! Your comments on the “burn out” factor by faculty is dead on. We found this approach rejuvinating for the faculty. Students engaging content at any time of day, and engaging faculty on content specific challenges at any time has been terrific. I would not consider this type on pedegogy “coddling” as you say, but an effective implementation of researched based plan that has worked for both the students and faculty. We are currently taking this into our effective assessment plan, targeting challenging outcomes from the state assessments so that the outcomes are measurable.
    FYI – I applaud Prensky, not necessarily for his theories, which seem to have some basis in fact, but for reinvigorating educators to examine the real purpose for technology in the curriculum.

  4. Karol Adamowicz says:

    I agree that “technology use is determined by context…” I’ve always joked that I’m a “digital refugee” – someone forced out of one environment and into another. In my current workplace, I have had to become “technologized”. Actually, I appreciate the “new” way of working, but I miss some aspects of the “old” way (using pencil & paper).

  5. Bill Kerr has a collection of links to, and quotes from, critiques of the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant ideas on the LearningEvolves wiki.
    While there remains a lot of uncritical use of the native/immigrant metaphor, I do see more nuanced understanding and arguments appearing. For example, at the Blended Learning conference this year, the theme was ‘Supporting the Net Generation’. Several of the presentations I attended made clear that even where the net-generation are keen adopters of technology, they may still need support in using these technologies effectively for learning – and there may be surprising gaps in their understanding and use of tech.

  6. Karl Maton says:

    Hi all,
    Myself and Sue Bennett have written a paper critically reviewing the evidence for ‘digital natives’ that will appear in the British Journal of Educational Technology next year. A draft is available at
    look under ‘Publications’ (there’s also a couple of Australian newspaper articles there in which we’re quoted saying research is needed).
    There’s also a conference paper transcript and ppt slides in which we go further to venture some reasons for why such unevidenced claims have gained such widespread currency. They are available under ‘Presentation’ (look for ‘Mythbusting digital natives’).
    Karl Maton
    Dept of Sociology and Social Policy
    University of Sydney

  7. Pat Parslow says:

    Personally I am not convinced that the (perhaps artificial) distinction between digital natives and immigrants is offensive or unfounded (perhaps it is offensive if one has issues with the classifications in social terms rather than digital ones). However, I agree entirely that this has nothing to do with age. Even many students coming to study Computer Science (and in some dire cases, when leaving!) seem to have little or no resemblance to the concept of ‘digital native’, whilst several of my ‘older’ colleagues fit the bill quite well.
    Whilst considering the ‘keyboard gap’ recently, I was reminded that much of the technology-person fit has to do with specific skills, such as ability to spell on the fly (an advantage in synchronous technology mediated communication, but which is all but wiped out in asynchronous communication) and ones ability to engage effectively in f2f communication. Dyslexia, speech impediments, Asperger’s and (in my case) just being antisocial each have an immense impact on the possibility of being seen as a digital native, and emphasise the contextual nature of one’s status – I may not use the same gaming-influenced lingo as my younger compatriots (although on occasion I may pwn their ‘asses’) but I am preferentially at home using computers for communication.
    My first hand experience of university students recently strongly suggests that ‘digital natives’ are better equipped to make effective use of the increasing IT and decreasing amounts of paper in our library, and they are still able to cope with traditional materials and techniques. The problem (if problem there be), to my mind, is that there is such a small number of digital natives coming into the system, and the resistance put up by the digital conscripts overwhelms any statistical benefit we might otherwise realise in terms of increased grades. We are not so much about to be overwhelmed by a generation of switched-on technologically adept learners, but more, I fear, at risk of having our toys broken by the angry Luddite mob!

  8. Age is relative when it comes to computer skills. I constantly have to go next door and fix the neighboring teacher’s computer, LCD projector, DVD player, and help him with software issues. He is only 25 and a by default should be a digital native. Moreover, on occasion I find myself helping the other new hires throughout my building with technology issues year after year. As a matter of fact, over the past ten years I haven’t really found any new hires with the proposed superpowers that Marc Prensky’s so adamantly suggests with his digital native theory. In reality the digital native with superpowers just doesn’t exist! I’ll keep looking for this caped crusader, but I’m not going to hold my breath.
    In reality what I have found is that most digital natives can check their email, show presentations, surf the Internet, communicate in forums, but nothing more. Should I be impressed? I think not!
    I do believe that Marc Prensky coined a rather catchy phrase and for this I commend him. However, the last time I checked, I didn’t find any institutions of higher learning really promoting technology at the undergraduate level, at least not in their teacher education programs. As such, I don’t expect to be working with any digital natives with superpowers anytime soon.
    Furthermore, at 35, I wouldn’t trade technology skills with any of the digital native (educators) that I know. Maybe Marc Prensky can explain to me where these individuals are hiding or where they have been hiding. Until then, I’ll just keep on helping the digital natives with their technology needs within my system.
    Warm regards,
    William Bishop (Bill)

  9. R Dewar says:

    Great post. Sometimes I feel that there are sacred cows in the digital domain, and the digital natives idea was one of them. I am not an immigrant. I have grown up with pencil, ink, tyopewriter, wordprocesser, desktop, laptop, Blackberry, etc. I use the tools that make my life and work easier and better. I wait on some technologies for the price to come down or the device to become more user friendly. However, I do not feel I need a passport or green card to find my way into technology. I think that some people give too much credit to today’s students for their technical savvy and “different learning styles”. Question: if your phone can download music, text, movies, email and tv, why do you need an IPod as well? Where is the savvy there?
    STudents today live in a vastly more comlex world than I did when I was 14. I understand that. Given that fact, I also know that students today should read. they should write. They must think and must communicate well. Games will not help them do this. Nor will merely carting in technology. Schools are not obsolete, but they do need to change and help students learn to cope with the competition that they face globally and their need to be creative problem solvers. By the same token, so do I, so I get it that we need to use technology and expect our students to be able to use it as well. However, unlike my students, I am a much more careful consumer of technology, and that is also something that we need to teach in our schools. Perhaps when the students in my school want to “immigrate” into a course involving constructive problem solving, they can learn those things that are timeless values in education.

  10. Great post. I dont like the distinction between digital natives and inmigrants, because don´t reflect the way we, as humans beings, have builded our knowledge.
    There is no gaps in the history of knlowledge; its is like a river, flows from one generation to other.
    As an answer to one of my posts about the issue, somebody wrote some time ago: “Let the digital natives be”. But here there is also a hidden danger: who is building the web pages structure, the blogs structure that makes that “native world” works? Digital natives? Inmigrants? Or none of them? I mean, who has the power? The digital native, or the hidden programmer?