Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants

Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants

The terms Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants were termed by Marc Prensky in his article ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants’ (2001) and that the rise of the former has necessitated a change in the way educational institutions teach.

Prensky asserts that there is a fundamental shift in the students of today from the students of the past. He suggests, quoting Dr Bruce D. Perry of Baylor College of Medicine, that ‘Different kinds of experiences lead to different brain structures’ and argues that this shift has been caused by the explosion of technology over the past thirty years. These students, those born since 1980, are the Digital Natives and are fluent in the tongue of technology. Particular qualities are assigned to these Digital Natives. ‘They are used to processing information really fast, like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer group work and enjoy instant gratification and rewards and prefer games to ‘serious work’ (Prensky 2001).

The older generation, even those who may proficiently use technology, he terms Digital Immigrants. They may know the language, but ‘speak with an accent’, so to speak. They may know how the technology works and use it successfully themselves, but they did not grow up with the language and as such will always be immigrants, no matter how efficient they are.

Prensky’s Proposal

Prensky advocates a new approach to teaching, one that rethinks the methodology and the content of teaching.

In regards to methodology, he suggests that teachers communicate in the language and the style of their students and to have the Digital Natives guide the most effective methodology in educating them, whether it is by using videogames or social networking functions or other relevant technologies.

In regards to content, he suggests that education should teach both ‘Legacy’ (the traditional content) and the ‘Future’ (digital and technological content) content in a fusion. Classrooms need to learn and strive to teach ‘Legacy’ content in a new fashion so as to hold the attention and engage the Digital Natives.

Prensky also advocates ‘edutainment’, particularly around the use of video games for educational purposes. Below is a link to a game from the website founded by Prensky. This game, moveit, is in a board game format, where the player roles the dice and is then asked multiple choice questions on their subject matter.

The Bennett, Maton and Kervin Critical Review

Bennett et al take to task the conclusions and assumptions contained in Prensky’s work, looking critically at the terms Digital Native and Digital Immigrants. It suggests that Prensky’s work has created a ‘moral panic’ amongst the academia, where there are suggestions of wholesale changes to the method of education used for the Digital Natives. The article uses empirical evidence to conclude that there is no evidence to suggest that there is a strictly homogenous group of Digital Natives. Skill sets and digital literacy differs amongst the ‘Digital Natives’ and as such there is no clear need for the current education principles and methods to be rejected completely out of hand and replaced with a new way tailored to the Digital Natives. It effectively argues that there is no singular Digital Native group and that to cater for a group, in reality whose digital literacy and access to technology greatly differs, is tantamount to hysteria and throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

The Bennett et al article calmly looks at the claims of Prensky and debunks them systematically providing evidence and research to back up their criticisms. They rightly assert that Prensky has not backed up his arguments with hard evidence and strengthen their own by researching the empirical evidence available. This paper’s strength comes from not dismissing the need to improve or alter parts of our educational approach, particular when it comes to ICT, but rather looking to quell the ‘moral panic’  that suggests a complete overhaul of the education system to cater for a group that does not definitively exist.

My opinion

One could argue, cynically, that Prensky, as an author on Digital Learning and founder and CEO of companies and organisations that specialise in game-based learning, has identified or created a need, via a ‘moral panic’ around the changes in technology. Of course, this is not to completely discredit his arguments but to suggest that perhaps by being in the business of digital education, Prensky himself can either be considered a holder of intimate knowledge on the subject or, conversely, that he holds some bias in the educational qualities of ICT.

Whether teachers like it or not, the nature of the classroom, teaching and student-teaching interactions are going through change. There are more and more academics and teachers lending their voices to the need for educators to begin tailoring their lessons to a new generation of learners. Prensky’s article articulates this growing need, and, despite the basis of his argument resting heavily on his personal experiences as an educator, he has a point. Does it require a complete overhaul on how teachers educate as he suggests? No. What it does require, as Blackall (2005) suggests, is a greater concentration on Digital Literacy, either in conjunction with or as a part of the traditional literacy of reading, writing and arithmetic, recognising the growing impact that technology has on our present and our future.

As for Prensky’s distinction of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, growing up in a certain era should not be taken as a determinate for ones digital literacy. There are many people born post 1980 who struggle with technology, whilst there are many born before 1980 who are adept, and expert, at using new technologies. Bennett et al put up a convincing argument for there being a non-homogenous group of ‘Digital Natives’, that to consider them highly involved with technology is to only look at a small cross section of students and that interactions with technology are facile for many students today. Whilst technological advancements are less shocking to those who are born with them, it is false to say that a Digital Immigrant cannot be a fully immersed Native, especially if they were the ones who came up with the language.

To conclude, there is definitely a need to address the growing technology and the changing needs of students in the classroom. This does not suggest a complete overhaul of the education system, but a growing recognition that to effectively educate new generations of students, ICT and technology should be blended through educational interactions and delivery. This shouldn’t be done due to some moral panic, but to provide information to students that they are both familiar and comfortable with. As digital literacy grows, then the use of technology should with it. As per the findings of Bennett et al, there is nothing to suggest that even all the Digital Natives speak the tongue and that interactions with technology are for many purely a tool based relationship. With that said, it may be some time till we have a generation of undeniable Digital Natives.


Prensky M (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. Retrieved from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Bennett S, Maton K, Kervin L (2008) ‘The Digital Natives Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence’, British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786

Blackall L, (2005) Digital Literacy – How it effects teaching Practices and networked learning futures – a proposal for action research. Retrieved From:

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