Reflections on Prensky by a digital immigrant

Most of you have read and commented on the two Marc Prensky articles I flagged up at the beginning of the course and some of you have provided useful critiques of the papers on your blogs. There do seem to be a few misconceptions, however, which I would like to deal with here.

It is important to realise that Prensky is not saying that all children born after a specific date are automatically digital natives and the rest of us immigrants.  Rather, he is suggesting that people who grow up in environments where computers and other information and communications technologies are commonplace and accessible tend to use them as tools of choice for learning, socialising and recreation. Given that these tools also have the potential to enrich the learning environment, we need to give serious consideration to using them in educational institutions if we wish to provide a relevant and meaningful educational environment for the growing number of people who fit into the digital native category.

A number of you also queried the validity of the claim that the brain’s of natives are ‘wired’ differently. Perhaps the wiring metaphor is not a good one, suggesting an almost ‘androidal’ manipulation of wires and connections. However, it is generally accepted that the way we think and interact with the world is influenced to a good extent by the tools we use and the way we work. Our environment impacts on us and we impact on our environment and change is ongoing. Powerful technologies enable us to do things in different ways and even to do things that we could not do before. This is bound to impact on the way users of powerful technologies think about the world. There is a reasonably well established body of literature on this topic, including this article by Davidson and Lutz (2008).

A number of people queried the issue of one’s “immigrant accent”, suggesting that it is over emphasised.  It is true that we interface with digital material in different ways. Printing out a pdf of an academic paper so as to highlight ideas and write comments on it is fairly commonplace, given that it is difficult to work with a pdf electronically. However, working electronically with word processed files is possible, using highlighting and comments. Some, myself included, find it easier to work with very long documents such as dissertations in hard copy but printing out e-mails so as to file them would seem to be silly, given that email applications provide useful tools for managing messages. We all need to print less in an age where we green issues are important.

The bottom line is not to get too hooked up on the native / immigrant issue. We develop strategies which work for us. Do what works for you, but be open to changing your practice as you go along. Most importantly, take into consideration that not everyone shares your approach and allow for individuality.

The work of Prensky has triggered other research. Of particular interest for us in the UK is the work by Canole, de Laat, Dillon and Darby (2006) and Trinder, Guiller, Margaryan, Littlejohn and Nicol (2008).

Canole et al’s work looked at the way students in UK universities used technology. They found students using their own devices (mobile phones, laptops, pdas) extensively. Furthermore, they suggest that there is “strong evidence of peer support and peer community, resonant with the rhetoric inherent in the idea of social networking and the world of Web 2.0” (5) with students “appropriating technologies to meet their own personal, individual needs – mixing use of general ICT tools and resources, with official course or institutional tools and resources” (5). The researchers suggested that this represented “a profound shift in the way in which students are working…” and… “a rich and complex inter-relationship between the individuals and the tools” (5). I think you will probably agree with this, looking at your own practice, especially if you can reflect back to the way you worked five years ago.

Trinder et al’s work explored the way “e-tools and the processes which underpin their use can support learning” (5) in educational institutions, the aim being to improve the quality of students learning in higher education. Their findings (6) were that “new e-tools and technologies afford processes with an informal focus on self-direction, communities of practice, collaboration, sharing and even identity exploration.” Furthermore, students showed that adaptability in their use of e-tools to support their learning and they are prepared to use their own tools if none are provided. However, they also found that students did not always realise the potential of new tools for learning.  This notwithstanding, the way that students used tools helped the researchers to see a way to equally develop their own “understandings and conceptions of processes and tools as our engagement with technologies can have an impact on their experiences” (7).

Both of these studies would seem to support the claims that Prensky makes. Both saw students working in non-traditional ways, using digital tools to develop their own learning. More importantly, they also saw the need for teachers to take cognisance of the way students worked so as to provide a more meaningful learning experience for them. According to Canole et al, “HEIs need to conceptually change their perspectives and rethink their positions as institutions of learning within the 21st century media landscape. They will be required to respond to the ever growing body of personalised, handheld devices, which will allows users to access content in contexts which were previously not possible. This will require rethinking not only how content is delivered to such devices, which maybe distributed across wide networks and locations but also how students interact, contribute and repurpose this content within their communities and for their own ends” (99).

Perhaps the most important thing for you to consider as a future teacher is the extent to which you can enhance the learning environment in your classroom.  We know that ict has the potential to enhance the learning environment and that it enables us to do some things more efficiently (quicker), effectively (better) and to do things which we could not do before.  As such, it is a technology which is has to potential to emancipate and empower learners and add value to the learning environment.* We also know that young people enjoy using digital devices and that they regard them as relevant both as personal and learning tools . However, it is also a technology which is seen by some as overly complicated, difficult to master and threatening.  Such people are unlikely to buy into the idea of using it much, if at all, until they are able to see good practice and get good support for their own efforts.

This is where you, as a digital native or successful immigrant, can help.

* There has been a longstanding debate with respect to aquiring clear evidence that the use of ICT raises attainment and standards. In my opinion, this is a non-issue. ICT has become a part of the very fabric of our society, used by the majority of people as a work, communications and recreational tool. It provides access to a vast amount of information and is changing the way we think about and interact with the world and people around us. For this reason, if no other, it needs to be used in a proactive way in our schools.


Canole, G., de Laat, M., Dillon, T. & Darby, J. (2006) JISC LXP: Student experiences of technologies. Final Report.

Davidson, R. & Lutz, A. (20o8) IEEE SIGNAL PROCESSING MAGAZINE, January.

Hall, H. & Davidson, B. (2008) Article Note: On blogs in LIS course as reflective tools.

Trinder, K., Guiller, J., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Nicol, D. (2008) Learning from digital natives: bridging formal and informal learning. The Higher Education Academy.

Additional resources:

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.

Frand, J.L. (2000) The Information-Age Mindset. Changes in Students and Implications for Higher Education.

Oblinger, D. (2003) Boomers, Gen-Xers & Millennials. Understanding the New Students.

Oblinger, D. (2008) Growing up with Google. What it means for education. Becta.

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