Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants: Do they exist in the wild?

Posted: July 26, 2016 in Uncategorized

This post is written in response to Michael Barbour’s blog post Examining Generational Differences.

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I can remember one of my undergraduate teachers telling the class that Sesame Street changed education. Gone were the days of long lectures and practice on reading, writing and arithmetic. Children were spending hours watching shows like The Electric Company and Sesame Street, shows that offered information in bite-sized chunks, almost like commercials. Because children had changed, schools needed to change too. Students required teachers to offer information in, you guessed it, small bite-sized chunks, the better to accommodate their now shortened attention spans. Fast forward to today, and schools are again being told to change because students today are, again, different. But are they really?

Marc Prensky, the author of “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” believes they are. He has written several books about how best to teach digital natives, and the issues involved when the teachers are immigrants to this strange new world. The quote below has taken on heraldic proportions, being used by professors and students alike. It’s a great sound bite, but is it true?


Dr. Jamie McKenzie doesn’t think so. In a thorough rebuttal of Prensky’s article, (found here), McKenzie refutes almost everything in it with references and data, both items that he accuses Prensky of lacking. Unfortunately, McKenzie’s presentation, to me, is off-putting. I have a hard time hearing his message through all the negativity.

So who is right? When I look in the mirror, is that a digital immigrant looking back at me? What about my students? The poverty rate in my classroom is very high, leaving most with little or no access to today’s technology outside of school. Are they still considered digital natives? Last year, I had to teach a large percentage of my students how to use email. Most have no idea how to search Google effectively. Does that change our roles, making me the native and they the immigrants? I’m not sure any of us can be pigeon-holed into these roles. There are areas in which I am much more tech-savvy than my students. Just like there are areas they can run rings around me. Can you say stereotyping???


Technology, like special education, is a gray area. There are no absolutes, no perfect way to use it that will work for every teacher and every student in every classroom. In fact, what works one day, may well not work at all the next. Teachers need to view technology as a tool and use it accordingly. When the relative advantage of using technology is taken into consideration, you might find that going old-school makes more sense. You will understand this if you insist on your students completing their math homework in a Google Doc. While the opportunity to share with peers and figure out as a group what worked in a problem and what didn’t  is valuable, typing mathematical equations and making them look correct is difficult. For many of my students, the effort is not worth the time and frustration involved. It is so much easier and makes more sense to grab a piece of paper, and everyone sit together and work the problem out. The communication and collaboration are still there. It is just not in a digital format. And that’s ok.




  1. Kimmy says:

    Agree with you that if the implementation takes more effort than the learning it may be of little use.


  2. Amy Spencer says:

    You make an excellent point about the gray area of technology. It cannot sit only at one end or the other end of the spectrum to work or not work. You phrased it correctly when you stated, “In fact, what works one day, may well not work at all the next.” While the students may be thrilled by a new website or app on day 1, it may have lost their interest by the 2nd or 3rd time. Not to mention, we all know that sudden technological difficulties (lack of connection, malfunctioning website, no battery power, etc..) can quickly derail a fabulous lesson so even if it works during 2nd period, 5th period may still miss out due to circumstances beyond our control.


    • lisakmcleod says:

      Oh, sudden technological difficulties. The bane of all the more techie teachers. I use a tablet projected onto a screen for my lessons. Everything is in OneNote and Classroom. When the tech goes down, it creates huge problems. And for me, it always seems to crash when we are dissecting word problems. Such a pain!


  3. Tabielle Holsinger says:

    Exactly! A lot of stereotyping. I like your graphic about objectives. Where did you find it? I want to use it.


  4. I had similar feelings about the labeling of digital natives or immigrants because of similar classroom dynamics as yours. Most of my students don’t have the luxury of technology in the home. Every year I have to teach my students the simple basic steps of logging into a computer and I would say only 10% of my students know how to type. I think there is a gray area and sometimes I think it is okay to say we are using paper today!


    • lisakmcleod says:

      Our dynamics are very similar. I think as teachers; we need to be thoughtful about when and how we are integrating technology, making sure it has a purpose, rather than using it just to say we are using it.


  5. I completely agree about the digital divide that separates those who have access from those who do not. Would Prensky believe that students who have not grown up with the latest technology have different learning preferences?


    • lisakmcleod says:

      Or those who have not been exposed to any technology at all? Many of my students, if they even have cell phones, have track phones and those are usually dead because there is no money for minutes. Access has quickly become a need rather than a want, and students in poverty are again left behind.


  6. As an educator, I use technology. With that being said, there is a fine line of using to supplement and using it as a way to which it enhances the students thinking and learning. Educators take using technology to one end of the spectrum or the other. The “either you use it” or ” you don’t use it”. Rather we should be looking at how the technology needs to be used in order to get maximum enhancement in student learning. I agree that that the digital divide hinders this process, but there are solutions to the problems if we as educators just think outside the box.


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