Digital natives/immigrants – how much do we love this slogan?

How many times have you heard that kids are “digital natives” and adults are “digital immigrants”. That adults will never “get” technology like the kids do, because their brains are actually wired differently, and as digital immigrants, we will always “speak with an accent” — we can’t really see what they see.

This catchy turn of phrase seems to completely capture the ease with which kids accept technology that baffles adults. However, it creates a number of traps in its use. We don’t want to pretend that jargon is a guiding principle for education.

It’s attributed to Marc Prensky, but even he says the concept was around before he made it popular.

Calling students “digital natives” is an excuse for not actually teaching them about technology. Even if we accept that many students are more facile and less intimidated by technology that many adults, it doesn’t mean they know anything.

Digital natives they may be, but they still need teachers and parents. Kids need adults to guide them to use these tools wisely and for appropriate academic purposes. A teacher can take them further and to a place with real meaning. Parents can model values. Kids are less afraid of technology, and don’t usually worry about breaking things, but this doesn’t translate to intellectual curiousity or comprehending boundaries. They are just used to having technology around, but also more than willing to just ignore it when it isn’t immediately obvious what to do with it.

If we walk away from our responsibility to teach them about appropriate, academic uses of technology, it’s our fault when silly, or worse, inappropriate uses of technology fill that vacuum.

And we should go further than just helping them use technology. They should know why we think it’s important. By giving students a role in helping out, and insight into how decisions are made to use technology in education, we give them the excitement of discovery and empower them to think beyond themselves and their own enjoyment of the moment. We have to share the “whys” of educational technology with them.

And just like “digital native” is an easy label, “digital immigrant” creates the same problem in reverse by providing a convenient excuse for teachers who don’t want to learn something new. I have all the sympathy in the world for teachers who are overburdened, and who patiently listen to all the hype that never pans out. But it’s time to accept that the world has changed.

No one is saying that fundamentals aren’t important, or that critical thinking and reading and math aren’t required for today’s world. But technology makes those things accessible to students who might have been left behind before. Blogs allow shy students to have a voice in a class discussion. Or allow a student who is not even physically in the classroom to participate. Wikis represent the technology of democracy. It’s everything we try to teach students about collaboration and teamwork. Getting these tools up and running is important, using them even more so.

Creating labels like native and immigrant only solidify boundaries and create implied adversaries. It’s simply the wrong mental picture for a collaborative learning environment where teachers and students are all lifelong learners.

Other conversations:


Also published on Medium.

11 Replies to “Digital natives/immigrants – how much do we love this slogan?”

  1. Sylvia,

    In my first go-round introducing my students (Current Events, grades 9 thru 12, nine kids) to the K-12 Online Conference, I had them listen to Clarence Fisher’s Keynote (the video wouldn’t play on our network). Wise in the ways of notetaking, I had prepared a sheet with questions to accompany each section of the presentation, ending with a query re. what a studio, as opposed to a traditional classroom, might look like and asking for suggestions on transforming our learning space.

    Most of them got the concept of “noisy with multiple activities”, but a few said that it should be a “space to chill in” where they could access any site they liked without having it blocked. There were a few workable ideas, but no reference to what type of learning should take place or how the space would facilitate this learning.

    We’ll be revisiting this exercise next class, in a slightly revised and much more specific activity. I value their ideas, but students definitely need guidance when it comes to redesigning and enhancing their educational experience!

  2. Not all the time. Well, they do. However, they do not necessarily need guidance, more direction or purpose. Something every good lesson should have to maintain interest or be worth any value to them. The second thing is they need to value it. It does not surprise me they view this; considering the US is considered a “free” nation.

    The reason MySpace and blog spaces such as these are so popular because these places allow them to do as they please to their own leisure. They think of it as a right that they’re being denied, and lots of times this is more true than it may seem. Students who feel they can’t express themselves publicly in school or do not feel they have enough say or autonomy, look to where they do and since they value it find purpose in it that it’s freedom. That’s why they dedicate so much time to the things they do.

    What can be considered educational varies from person to person as well. All things that should be considered in the activity you mention above.

    Ultimately, the main thing a student could need is how to manage their time. Which is why GenTECH is such a good model as it allows the student to learn how to do this. Students, especially in this day and age deserve more autonomy and there’d probably be better results int he learning field if the opportunity was given to them.

    There are several other points and details to this, but I’m trying not to make this comment too long or overcomplexify my point. This is the basic jist to the issue you’ve described.

  3. I agree with you that the term “immigrant” for adults using technology has become sort of a crtuch for teachers who do not want to learn new technologies. I also think it is not true. Many older people can learn and incorporate technologies into their classrooms and lives. My grandmother, in her sixties, recently learned how to take digital photography, e-mail it to our family overseas, and put her pictures into greeting cards. Being that she’s in her sixties, it’s absolute laziness and nothing more that keeps many fourty, or even twenty year old teachers from trying to learn new technologies and calling themselves technological “immigrants” is an excuse. There are many many benefits to technology, and yes, teachers need to show these to kids. Teachers need to guide them and help them to understand that change and technology are a frequent and desireable part of life. They cannot do this by being lazy and acting as though they cannot learn. Learning to use technology is just like anything else. With a little work, and a positive outlook on one’s abilities, it can be done. This goes for both students and teachers. Like a foreign language, computer technology may be easier for kids to learn, but that does not mean that teachers do not have the ability. They just might have to work a bit harder.

  4. Dianne,
    I really think there is value in talking to kids about their own learning. It’s strange that we want our classrooms to be a learning community, but we don’t share our own expertise in learning and teaching with students. Sharing expertise is one of the hallmarks of a learning community.

    I’m a big proponent of “student voice” — but I’m not an “out of the mouths of babes” fanatic. Not everything a student says is a most precious gem! It takes a long time for them to have practice with reflection and make it work. You trying out different things with your class is important! But “asking them for suggestions” is a tough one. They don’t have any experience with anything other form of classroom, so have little to judge it on.

    Maybe ask them what makes them feel welcome in a classroom, or have them share experiences of learning, and then talk about how the space enhanced (or detracted) from that. Otherwise, it’s sort of like asking a fish if it would like different water better – it’s too close, and at the same time, too far from where they are.

  5. Your clarification of what I was attempting to accomplish is very helpful. I don’t think I would have been that different as a teenager: might have opted for quiet spot to read all day, no science allowed!

    I guess it’s akin to what we do with younger children. We don’t ask, “What do you want to do now”, we give some possible choices and let them indicate their preference. It’s hard to remember sometimes what young and inexperienced minds reside in those maturing bodies.

  6. What a breathe of fresh air Sylvia, this is…I have wanted to write earlier. Your comments ring so true.

    Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Digitally Deficit, and Digitally Dazzling … where are you and what categories do you fit into.

    I have often wanted to strangle, choke or do violence to some person who has no idea
    what it is I do and what it is that I know.

    There are wonderful students who do know a lot about technology. There are also teachers who really know there technology.

    I think of the ways in which we create broadening participation . in case you don’t know that , those are the new ways of describing the digital gap, divide, or problems of the underserved whomever they are …

    I like the idea of the participation gap. That applies to all of people who are
    distant from the use of technology.

    Bonnie Sutton

  7. Anything that is exaggerated and provocative like some of Prensky’s stances can be critiqued, which is fine, that’s part of thinking things through to a better understanding. But beware of the new bad trend that feeds off the previous questionable trend!

    I don’t like Jame McKenzie’s recent critique (Digitial Nativism Digital Delusions and Digital Deprivation) of Prensky. I think its a case of McKenzie the conservative critiquing Prensky the provocateur

    I’ve been to a McKenzie inservice and it was all about baby steps, making the technology fit the existing curriculum. eg. Inspiration for concept mapping. OK but limited. He wouldn’t dream of taking teachers out of their comfort zones.

    During the break I asked him about logo and he was quite dismissive. “It didn’t work”. What he really means is that he can’t make a living out of it because it is challenging, better to be less ambitious.

    His dreary quote from TS Elliot sums up his approach. Slash your wrists, life is so boring. He even has an article on his site titled, “Beware the Visionary”

    Prensky talks some nonsense but at least its interesting nonsense.

    Also Daniel Livingstone points out here :
    “In his (McKenzie’s) view of ‘digital deprivation’ he completely ignores a lot of evidence and published work that shows that (a) the main use of social networking sites by teens is to keep in contact with real-world friends that they DO meet face-to-face, and (b) there are many, many documented cases of people whose lives are significantly enriched through social networking and gaming.”

  8. Hi Bill,
    I haven’t heard Jamie McKenzie speak recently, so I can’t comment on that part, and I haven’t studied his current critique of Prensky to the point where I can honestly say that he’s found a thread to unravel the whole native/immigrant argument. I don’t think the acceptance of the slogan is based on research, so finding problems with the research won’t change people’s minds about it anyway.

    I think it’s interesting that the whole native/immigrant thing resonates so deeply. You always have to wonder about these things, similar to the “computer is just a tool” thing that also seems to allay people’s fears about this brave new world. I think it sets up kids as the enemy in a way that is both satisfying and provides an excuse to not change the status quo.

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