So digital natives don’t exist?

20 Jul 2008

I was sitting in one of Ewan McIntosh‘s sessions at BLC08 and couldn’t help noticing how much delight he took in disputing the digital native/digital immigrant distinction. The native/immigrant comparison may not be accurate (so Ewan says), but it sure is useful. I’ve used those terms many times since reading Prensky’s original article (PDF, 132kB) to bring the issue of relating to today’s kids more sharply into focus with groups of educators. So if there’s no such thing as a digital immigrant or native, is there any useful distinction to be made between today’s students and their teachers?

There are a couple others that I’ve used at various times. The first is a sort of attribution theory I read about some time ago whose reference I’ve misplaced. The basic message was that when adult learners encounter a technological obstacle such as a button that doesn’t do what they expected it would, they often respond by attributing their failure to their own lack of technology savvy. Kids, on the other hand, usually assume that the technology is poorly designed and try to identify a workaround. Ewan hinted at this when he talked about how kids will just press buttons to see what happens. I don’t see adults do that very often.

The other comparison I like is one that became clear to me when I was in the classroom teaching physics. We were talking about Newtonian mechanics, and the story of Isaac Newton and the falling apple came up in our class discussion. The classic story of the apple falling on Newton’s head is a myth; the actual story involved Newton observing the moon rise in the distance as an apple fell from a tree across the yard. When Newton witnessed those events he realized that the same force that caused the apple to fall must also be affecting the moon. He surmised that the moon is actually falling just like the apple. Of all the people who had ever witnessed a similar scene, what was different about Newton? Oh, I don’t know… how ’bout genius? πŸ™‚

Geniuses see connections that regular people miss entirely. I think the same difference applies to experts and novices. How long does it take you to learn a new word processor? Not very long I’d guess because you’ve probably used a bunch of different word processors in the past, and you realize that all word processors work pretty much the same. Technology novices tend to get hung up on the small differences.

I don’t know if either of those are as immediately useful as the immigrant/native comparison. I’d sure like to know if anyone has any proven techniques to accelerate the move along the novice-expert continuum.

22 responses to So digital natives don’t exist?

  1. Hi Tim,

    I also tend to agree with Prensky’s Digital Native/Digital Immigrant theory, but what history shows us is that many immigrants have been more successful than a country’s natives.

    It’s as much about intelligence, adaptability, and perseverance as it about place (or time) of birth.

    Good to see you writing again. Hope there will be more forth coming.


  2. Hi Tim,

    I think the novices/expert distinction bears a bit more time here.

    As novices gain expertise, the amount of cognitive load required for a particular activity lessens. As the behavior becomes automatized, the amount of load required lessens. Then, once expertise is gained the newly crowned expert can reinvest the extra cognitive load into other things.

    The classic example is driving. Of course your recall how much you had to pay attention to the brake, gas, shifting, etc when you first started to drive. As that became more of a routine (automaticity was reached) you had to invest less load into driving and could focus on the other things like eating or talking on the phone. A bit silly, but you see the difference.

    Take this in the classroom and a new teacher. The new teacher is at such a high level of cognitive load that he or she cannot focus on much more than lesson delivery. Once the behavior of delivering a lesson (for example) becomes more automatized he or she can then reinvest the load into more effective behavior management, etc. That’s why teachers who have been in the classroom for a long time (experts, veteran teachers) seem to have eyes in the back of their heads. The truth behind that is that they are investing load in watching students while the lesson delivery is automatized.

    As for proven techniques, from a cognitive load perspective (Sweller, Kalyuga, Feldon, Ayers, Van Merrionboer and others) in order to accelerate that continuum as you say, one must practice. It is only when behavior becomes automatized can the extra load be reinvested in other things.

    How does this help a new teacher? He or she should practice classroom routines ad nauseum. Not necessarily with students, but they need to be down. Everything from attendance to transitions to where to put stuff and so on. This way he or she can focus on lessons and students effectively lowering load.

    There was an excellent article that speaks directly to this. It’s called Cognitive Load in the Classroom, the Double Edged Sword of Automaticity. Here is the citation, devour it and you’ll see the research behind what you think here intuitively.

    Here is the link, but it’s in Educational Psychologist, so you’ll need journal access.


    If you don’t have access, email me and I will send it to you (with the author’s permission, which I have).

    Hope this helps..


  3. I agree that the metaphor has some merit. I think where it goes sour for me is when leaders make the leap to digital native equally proficiency and skill. Prensky, at times seems to devalue teachers in this process. Not explicitly perhaps but that message comes through.

    This assumption quickly moves to the idea of “just let kids go, they’ll figure it out.” While this may work in the case of early explorations, it quickly falls flat as students are asked to invoke critical thinking or even understanding the complexities of networks and social connections.

    I do use the term but quickly add my caveats. It certainly is important to set teachers at ease. For the most part, I think this works.

  4. I’ve been struggling with this concept as well. I’ve used the terminology since I first heard it, but I’m finding some of my teachers are using that terminology as an excuse. “Well, I’m just a digital immigrant” is just pathetic when the problem is, they don’t want to bother to try new things. And then there’s the fact that I’ve seen same age kids with the same access to technology react very differently. Some are stereotypically digital natives, but some just don’t try to figure things out for fear of “breaking it” or because no one has told them exactly what will happen when they do x. I’m running too late to comment fully, but I’ll link back if/when I post my own blog post on the same topic… Food for thought. Thanks for posting this!

  5. I should add that the way I express the expert-novice distinction is usually something like, “Experts focus on similarities where novices focus on differences.”

  6. Chris, great comment. I’m reminded of the time in college when, at the end of a busy day, I decided to go get a haircut. I got into my car and five minutes later found myself at my apartment instead. Talk about automaticity!

    I think the cognitive load concept is useful. It certainly matches my experience coaching technology novices. It’s no wonder they feel out of control in the classroom when they’re so far out of their comfort zone.

  7. Dean, I agree. I’ve never understood why we automatically ascribe such technology skill to students. Mad Nintendo DS skillz don’t necessarily translate to mad critical thinking skillz, do they. (Positive effects of some kinds of gaming notwithstanding.)

    We need to find a way to empower teachers to use their great content and process knowledge and help them get beyond whatever technology skills they’re lacking.

  8. It’s a good discussion for showing that it’s how people choose to interpret research (as an excuse not to learn, or a helpful distinction to make up on unknown areas?) rather than the research or ideas themselves that make the difference in practice.

    Bearing this in mind πŸ˜‰ please do have a gander at the JISC research from last year which broke down the immigrants/natives distinction to show it’s rather flimsy for educators’ purposes:

    Important research that educators, I believe, need to know before deciding to use the immigrants/natives paradigm to bring educators’ confidence in technology forward.

  9. Forgot to install cocomment on the new machine – want to keep track of this conversation now πŸ™‚

  10. I think that many teachers, especially those for whom it has been a long time since they were students, forget that learning is not easy and learning new technologies is not necessarily easy either. The frustrations they encounter when trying to learn how to use, much less how to utilize, a new technology are largely felt as a personal deficit or shortcoming. Where the student is used to this and has active strategies for dealing with this frustration (some better than others) the veteran teacher who has not been a student themselves for some time (especially the teacher for whom delivery of lessons is automated as Chris Craft illustrates) no longer has this strategy. The Digital Native/Immigrant argument is ideal for this teacher because it provides an explanation for why they have tried and failed or tried and only had minimal success. I completely agree that this argument has hindered progress.

    Also, modern technology has an effect on the cognitive load that is disruptive to experienced teachers. By having to integrate technology into instruction (or alter pedagogy) the part of teaching that was once automated has to be unlearned and retooled. For a teacher who was used to having their eyes in the back of their head functional this can be blinding, especially if done effectively. Effective integration of technology in the classroom involves a substantial pedagogical shift; its big enough to turn expert teachers into novices.

    It is easier to say, “I can’t learn this, I am a digital immigrant,” and to say, “We need to figure out how to reach these Digital Natives.” than to say, “What implication does this technology have for teaching and learning and how do I modify my teaching methods and policies to benefit my students?” More often than not the answer to that question involves a teacher giving up some control of the learning that occurs in their classroom and empowering students by making them responsible. It also usually involves individualization of learning where the student is placed in the center and the teacher acts as guide or mentor. This is offsetting in many ways to the teacher who is comfortable with traditional behaviorist teaching methods, spending many years perfecting their lectures and worksheets, and has developed secure classroom procedures to perpetuate an illusion of respect from their students. “I am just a digital immigrant,” simply means, “I am unwilling to change what I do if it makes me uncomfortable,” or “I am unwilling to give up control or look stupid.”

  11. Hi Tim:
    Thanks for posting this – I’ve always found the Marc Prensky article to be really thought- provoking. Prensky’s article also addresses our very human need to categorize things in order to understand them.

    At the MEMO Summer Leadership Conference, Carol Rinkoff of Concordia University in St. Paul gave us yet another perspective. Carol provided a presentation on “Generations” that examines the learning/interaction needs, historical perspectives and attributes of the common general groups (Veterans, Boomers, Generation X, Millenials, and Homelanders). By examining the attributes of these generation categories, we can reach some conclusions about each group’s preferred styles for learning and interaction which then provide guidance in terms of their general attitudes towards using technology for learning and other life purposes.

    It’s good to see you writing again!


  12. I’d strongly caution the use of Prensky’s terminology as it sets up artificial (and potentially damaging) divisions, gives the unmotivated (inexperienced) excuses to sit back and do nothing, and produces bad pedagogy. I find the terms offensive and wrote about that offense in a blog post on July 17 The conversation continues in the comments as many other offer resources in their comments about the troubles with this kind of language. Even a few who have commented here left responses there as well. The trouble with these kinds of arbitrary distinctions is they unnecessarily divide when unity and coherence is truly needed.

  13. I agree with the idea that digital native – digital immigrant is a false dichotomy. I suggest that those younger people refered to as digital natives (by some) are simply more familiar with technology. Familiarity may appear as some kind of native intuition or gift, but could also be explained by experience – more time immersed in using technology. It certainly does not automatically translate into being a critical thinker about how technology might be used in education.
    From my point of view, all educators need to become more familiar with technology – they need to develop into “natives” by participation. There is no substitute. Standing on the sidelines observing and commenting will not create true expertise. This is accomplished by doing. One of the comments mentioned the old driving a car example to show difference between expert and novice – the good thing about that example is that it is a clear example of earning expertise by participating, by driving. Educators need to drive technology themselves to become experts, to look like “natives” and then to join that new expertise to their educational expertise to lead students in using technology for learning, communicating, creating, and sharing.

  14. I want to take the concept “initiating a way to solve a problem” rather than waiting for assistance on a problem and develop it further.

    It doesn’t really matter your age or generation, rather your level of experience with the equipment at hand. It can be a bulldozer or a software program. The user develops has more confidence with how things work. Just so happens that children gain their confidence earlier than adults ever had the opportunity to when it comes to technology.

    I am forty-some years old and I find myself just pushing buttons to see what happens!

  15. Tim,

    The author of the book “the Googlization of Everything” has something on the Chronicle of Higher Ed’s web site today (9/16) that looks at the idea of a “digital generation” from a pretty critical perspective.

    He makes some good points:

    ~Nathan Rinne

  16. Hi, I found your blog on this new directory of WordPress Blogs at I dont know how your blog came up, must have been a typo, i duno. Anyways, I just clicked it and here I am. Your blog looks good. Have a nice day. James.

  17. Tim,

    Another piece on the topic:

    The author talks about “residents” and “visitors” – I seem to be a hybrid. πŸ™‚


  18. Hi,
    It’s so refreshing to see that I am not really alone. I am one of those novices trying to move along the trail of tech-related world in education. Would it be possible to have access to the article you mentioned?

  19. Do you ever update this?

  20. I have enjoyed reading all of the ideas for how teachers can improve their technology savvy. I am currently trying to better my understanding of Web 2.0 and I am excited about all the ways it can benefit my students.
    The thing that I think is a problem, though, is that school districts (at least in my area) are not helping teachers with technology education training. Unless teachers are self-motivated to seek out these new uses of technology, their students will not have access to it. I would like to believe that all teachers would want this new knowledge, but we all know this is not true.
    Our education system is being slow to catch up with the newest technologies.

  21. I also feel that districts need to support their teachers by providing somewhat of a technology coach if you will. Classes should also be offered but many teachers are not going to seek the education unless required.

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