Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants

In the essay Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Marc Prensky uses the term Digital Native to refer to (young) people who are ““native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.” Prensky confesses that Digital Native is “the most useful designation” for the “new” students of today. He sets Digital Natives against Digital Immigrants—that is those “who were not born into the digital world,” but who have become “fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology.” He further embellishes this analogy by arguing that Digital Immigrants “always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past.” Prensky presents his argument in a tongue-in-cheek manner.

“Digital Immigrants can, and should,” according to Prensky, “laugh at [ourselves] and [our] “accent.”” In proper dramatic fashion he asserts that “the single biggest problem facing education today is that [our] Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” [Prensky’s bold italics]

Though Prensky’s analogy is attractive, albeit superficially, and works to highlight in a hyperbolic, comedic form intergenerational clashes, I found his analogy inherently problematic. Conceptually, Prensky’s analogy fuses the political with the digital in a way that invites us to think about highly politicized issues like, belonging, and ownership of space, border crossing, and the temporalization of difference (modern versus backward) in a way that diminishes their political weight.

Moreover, through a “temporalization of digital space” Prensky regards the difference in the ways Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants engage with technology as a temporal gap. Digital Immigrants are essentially framed as anachronisms—as people who belonged to an earlier time. He even implies that the difference between Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants is much more structural. He contemplates that “it is very likely that our students’ brains have physically changed – and are different from ours – as a result of how they grew up.” Be that as it may, I find the biologization of difference troubling—especially since his analogy has an undeniable racial undercurrent.

What’s more, his description of Digital Immigrants as “a population of heavily accented, unintelligible foreigners,” along with his call to “laugh at [ourselves] and [our] accent,” is offensive for all of us who have faced difficulties in life due to our “accents.” Those of us whose “foreign accents” have been mocked will find it difficult to crack a smile.

This analogy invites us to conceptualize the digital divide in diasporic terms, and the rigid juxtaposition of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants forecloses “digital hybrid identities,” meaning users who grew up using both “old technology” and “new technology.” Prensky obscures the dynamic and fluid and highly contextual nature of accents. We all have accents, and there’s no standard way of “speaking new technology.”

Also, Prensky’s description of “accented modes of behaviour,” for example “bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL),” creates, whether intended or not, geographies of technology—“digital space,” where natives feel at home, and IRL, where immigrants feel more comfortable. Specific bodily performances invariably betray one’s “Digital Immigrant status.” Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are, thus, not only distinguished in terms of specialization, but also spatialization.

Needless to say, I found this text iffy, if not objectionable. I must admit that I am disappointed with the quality of the texts. Up till now, I’ve generally used the listed texts as “spark plugs,” that is as means to get me think about e-learning and digital cultures in a broad sense. I’ve not mined them for “things to learn.” That is not to say I haven’t learned anything from them, it’s just that I have learned more from the “off-syllabus” reading I’ve done.

Word cloud of Marc Prensky's essay "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants"
Word cloud of Marc Prensky’s essay “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”

12 thoughts on “Digital Natives versus Digital Immigrants

    1. Thank you for reading my post, and commenting!

      Even though, Prensky offers some interesting suggestions as regards new ways of learning, I found his analogy quite off-putting. In addition, it unintentionally opened the door to a whole different set of questions (whether it is helpful to use these terms in relation to the “digital divide,” and so on). In the end, it got me thinking about the digital diaspora.

    1. Thank you for your comment. Why do you think, if you don’t mind my asking, that it’s going to be more challenging for you to teach students?

  1. I agree that the text was objectionable, however we are looking at it as a historical document, which it is, and how this attitude has become cemented. Also on your point of the prescribed texts, I think they are meant to start your thinking and set you off on your own learning journey about an issue. We are meant to engage with “off syllabus” reading.

    Anyhow, it has sparked some interesting discussions, one that resonated with me was looking at immigrants in general. In Australia, we are very multicultural and many of our prominent business, intellectual and public figures are immigrants. I see immigrants as adaptable, pioneering, resilient and creative because they had to be firstly to move into a new culture and secondly to survive and thrive in an environment with a different language, accent and understanding of many things. Similarly, digital immigrants like you and me will be innovating and exploring this realm when the “natives” are moaning about the good old days of ipads, still lolling and atming while we have moved with the times because we are adaptable!

    Thats my prediction anyhow. I think Prensky did use rather xenophobic terms when you think about it. Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it.

    1. Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on my blog!

      I agree with your assessment that immigrants are adaptable; often our circumstances require immense flexibility. However, I think we mustn’t romanticize/mythologize the immigrant experience: not all immigrants are the same. Especially, in settler colonial states, like Australia, the question of who’s the immigrant, and who’s the native, becomes very messy; from whose perspective are we looking?

      I’d have preferred the term “Digital nomad” instead of the terms submitted by Prensky. I see myself more as someone who travels across digital spaces, picking up skills that I need. Digital nomad gestures toward the fluid nature of spaces, and connotes (continuous) mobility, which is much more in line with how people use technology/experience the digital today.

  2. I agree with you Egbert that the nomenclature of immigrant versus native is a bit problematic for me as well since I am a first generation American. I am sick of hearing people being referred to as immigrants or natives in terms of any context. I love how you say, “who’s the immigrant and who’s the native” because what difference does it make in the end? It is messy, but this type of language helps us avoid the core issues. It helps us place blame on someone or something. I wrote a post for this reading about my father, an immigrant to US, who is in his late 70s, yet not a digital immigrant. He embraced tech a long time ago and acculturated well to U.S. culture; however, Prensky’s reference to the brains of older folks being wired differently, makes my father’s age a perfect target for people to stereotype his relationship with tech. And in terms of his being an immigrant, although he is a naturalized citizen, many natives may still consider him an outsider. That’s the problem with this type of language. Instead of identifying that the core of the problem is not why some educators aren’t using technology, it’s about why they are not competent to teach in general, even if they had the tech. We end up with a clever little euphemism instead of addressing and finding solutions to correct the problem. If you were a bad teacher without tech, the tech is not going to miraculously improve your performance. If you lacked the creativity and brains to seek out tech to implement in your lessons, being forced to implement tech, again, will not change who you are. Every person’s experience with tech is fluid as you mentioned. I know some outstanding master teachers who do not use any or little tech in their lessons, but still inspire and challenge students to create and think. So, we must always consider all sides. In the Google Hangout last Friday, one of our professors asked, “does the tech shape pedagogy, or does pedagogy influence our use of tech”? I believe we need to have conversations about pedagogy as well when we discuss technology, and I wonder if there’s a speech by Prensky about what constitutes effective teaching and learning.

    I also agree that the text suggests that the digital native accent is the only accent when perhaps Prensky should be saying, as you state, “there’s no standard way of ‘speaking new technology’.” In the U.S., though, some people tend to generalize a lot, and have this obsession with labeling and categorizing people, and with this attitude all sorts of negative connotations and stereotypes emerge. Like you say, “belonging, and ownership of space, border crossing, and the temporalization of difference (modern versus backward) diminishes their political weight” because we are scared of addressing the truth. Thanks for writing a great piece! 🙂

    1. Thank you so much Ary for your insightful comment, and your kind words! Your comment cuts right to the bone, especially this section: “If you were a bad teacher without tech, the tech is not going to miraculously improve your performance. If you lacked the creativity and brains to seek out tech to implement in your lessons, being forced to implement tech, again, will not change who you are.” I recently read an article on Afrolicious in which the author writes, “[T]he internet is merely a tool for communication and information delivery. It won’t ever replace the human to human needs we have; it only amplifies them.” I think this quote complements yours beautifully. Technology simply augments (or diminishes) some of our capabilities.

      I subscribe to a decolonial pedagogical model, which means “to critically understand history, to reposition emancipatory teaching practices and to decenter the colonial epistemic approach.” This approach forces me to think more on what texts “do” instead of what they “mean.” And how my engagement with a text/technologies help shape how others might interpret/engage with them. I agree, that we should definitely talk more about pedagogy, and how knowledge is created. What is considered knowledge (or worth knowing), and what do we mean by learning?

    1. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. It’s good to know Prensky eventually let go of this Digital Immigrant idea, however, I’m not sure I’m willing to subject myself to one of his texts again… 😀

      Thank you for comment, and for joining the discussion.

  3. I was intrigued by the comments you received in facebook so I came over here to read your perspective as you had a very different interpretation of the implications of this text than I did. As an immigrant myself I didn’t feel uncomfortable with the characterisations that Prensky used in explaining his point of view – in fact I felt very identified with ideas that he was expressing. From my perspective I believe that the use of the words “native” and “immigrant” can be descriptive as opposed to a derogatory label. Yes my accent when I speak in either of my 2 languages can be strong or not easily understood if the person to whom I am speaking is unfamiliar with them. Sometimes my literal translations into my second language do get laughed at because quite frankly, they sound hilarious to a native speaker.

    I felt that Prensky was more targeting towards with his references is what is commonly experienced by foreigners as encountering the cultural iceberg. Therefore people who have had to adapt to this new culture, the (insert your preferred term here), may at times only be addressing or adapting to the obvious parts of this new culture. That one third of the iceberg which is explicit in nature. Where the challenge lies is connecting with the implicit or unspoken parts of the digital cultre – the things that are just “known” by “natives/residents/”.

    I agree with the point that not everyone speaks in terms of technology in the same way – there is not one language. However if you put an American, a Brit and (I believe especially) an Aussie or a Spaniard, a Mexican and a Costa Rican together you will find that although their basic native language is the same, they will not use that language in the same way or in the same accent.

    I saw in the associated facebook post that someone had suggested that the terms Resident and Visitor would be more appropriate. Maybe its semantics, but I feel that this analogy misses the cultural context. Why? I am a resident in my current country but I still struggle with that bottom part of the iceberg in my country of residence. If I am a visitor I believe that implies that you will leave again and therefore not adapt or only adapt to the most obvious parts.

    I appreciate the opposing view that people have expressed here and respect that you felt the terms were offensive. I would ask you only to consider if the terms are offensive to you because of the negative political connotations that they have earnt in history and the media or if they were used in a descriptive sense that helps people connect with some of the educational challenges that are present in this point in history.

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