In 2001 Marc Prensky divided the world into two broad groups, Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. His idea struck a chord with popular culture and has become a dominant paradigm in education. Since then the concept of Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants has been widely discussed, debated and through this much of what was originally stated by Prensky has been misunderstood while other parts have been shown to not quite fit reality. Given the core concept remains a feature of educational dialogues it is worth re-visiting and seeing how the idea might evolve to better serve our needs and understandings of how people born after the internet, learn with and think about, technology.
Core to the concept is the construction of a group of people termed Digital Natives, describing those who were born into a world of digital technologies. 'Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.’ according to Prensky. This idea of young people being native speakers is essential, it impacts how they approach learning tasks, social interactions, multi-tasking, distractions and gratification of needs. This group of people take technology for granted and have expertise 'acquired and perfected through years of interaction and practice’. By comparison Digital Immigrants are those born prior to the widespread dissemination of digital technologies. They will at best come to see the affordances of this new technology but will as Marc describes retain an ‘accent’ that gives them away. This accent is seen in their propensity to utilise digital technology after trying other methods, of falling back on old ways of completing tasks and of relying on the habits from a pre-digital age.
As with many ideas which may be simply stated Prensky’s world of ‘Digital Natives and Immigrants’ has been oversimplified and misunderstood. In part this is the danger that comes with relying upon a cultural metaphor and a consequence of society’s love affair with neat dichotomies. The reality of cultural groupings is always more complex than can be readily described and subcultural leanings and individual dispositions towards their cultural heritage significantly influence ones personal cultural narrative. A closer look at our Digital Natives and Immigrants reveals unsurprisingly a wide variety of narratives centred around engagement with technology and when applied to the classroom these narratives tell a story of how technology will fit with the learning that occurs.
Perhaps the first story to be told is that our Digital Natives do not all experience or value technology in the same ways. Prensky’s natives seem to come from a world dominated by fast paced gaming and MTV. This is clearly not the case for all natives and in a world where social gaming is becoming dominant the pace is changing alongside new styles of interaction. There is also the gendered aspect of this description as ‘fast-twitch’ first person shooter type games were never the norm across genders. Nor has the experience of technology remained constant across the years. Young people born today might take technology for granted but they very much expect it to fade into the background. At its extreme there is almost a counter culture emerging against pervasive technology that is not in the service of individual needs. Shiny new toys do not have the alure that they once did and technology that gets in the way, requires any degree of learning curve or is not built into an existing ecosystem is shunned. For another emerging group of students, a division between technology as a social tool and technology as an unwanted or unappreciated aspect of their learning can be seen. Students who are happy to use technology to message their friends but fail to see the utility, that same technology can bring to their learning, are becoming a larger group who need to be reminded that they have access to all the worlds information in their pockets, if they just choose to use it.
Much of the assumption around the Digital Natives is that they should be able to call on their vast experience with digital technologies to learn and collaborate in new and exciting ways. That the only obstacle to this is that their Immigrant instructors stand in the way of this occurring. The reality is that our Digital Natives do not have experiences that allow them to learn in the wider sense required for todays creative and innovative world. They may in some cases have skills required to learn new tools but they combine that skill with impoverished models for thinking and inquiring that prevent them from using their digital skills in meaningful ways. They rely on instant gratification from game play but lack the required grit and resilience to move forward when this is lacking. Our Digital Natives still need to be shown how to learn and how to use their digital tools for learning.
On the other side is the oversimplification of the place that technology plays in the lives of Digital Immigrants. Prensky kept this at the level of an ever present accent that can be detected by the native speaker. This interpretation is not common and the term Digital Immigrant carries with it an assumption that members of this group just don’t get technology and that the older you are the less likely you are to use technology. The reality is that it is not one’s age which determines one’s level of engagement with technology but one’s disposition towards it. Some of the most successful integrators of technology I have encountered are (in my politest voice) ‘older members’ of the profession. They see the affordances of the technology and are able to weave its use into their teaching in meaningful ways. Whats more, they ensure their students are active partners in learning, their classroom is a shared space and they allow at every turn for quality learning to be owned by the students. Like all effective teachers they use technology to enhance long-life learning and they help their students to recognise the many tools they have available. They may retain an accent as Prensky describes but counter to the implications of many of the oversimplifications of his writing, they do not present a qualitative divide.
We are beginning to see the first Digital Natives return to our schools as teachers and while they bring with them an experience of schooling arguably tainted by the beliefs of Digital Immigrants we could expect to see a difference in approach. As with all individuals the differences between new graduates has more to do with their individuality than with their membership of a particular group or more importantly their birthday. Yes, they assume access to the internet, they are aware of certain digital tool sets but they are also unaware of many of the skills and tools considered important for success in a digital age. Coding skills remain rare for example and strategies for the use of technology for critical thinking and innovation are as wide spread in this group as amongst their older colleagues. Clearly their is much room for ongoing learning and the construction of a pedagogy with technology at its core is yet to become a natural part of teacher training programmes.
Prensky’s analysis continues to spark debate and that is a positive thing. The reality of how our supposedly Digital Natives or Immigrants engage with technology and learning reveals a more complex landscape than a simple dichotomy allows for. A richer subcultural analysis is required where individual narratives of technology's meanings may be revealed.
By Nigel Coutts
Marc Prensky, (2001),"Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1", On the Horizon, Vol. 9 Iss 5 pp. 1 - 6