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Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives

I don’t like the terms “digital immigrant” and “digital native”. They misrepresent the true nature of learners and learning today. Unfortunately, they are also adopted by numerous trainers, teachers, and academics. While false, the immigrant/native distinction is one that can be readily understood and embraced by most people. It’s a simple framework with which we can think, organize, and partially understand huge changes. As educators, we see that our students are different than we were/are (an experience that every generation in history has encountered). The distinction of immigrant/native may be accurate (i.e. that my children have grown up with digital tools and therefore cannot think of a time when they were without them, whereas I recall a time before email and laptops). What is wrong is the implications drawn from this distinction. And the age distinction is perhaps the most discriminatory. Yes, stats show that younger learners do different things with technology, that they use it more than previous generations, and so on. What is missing is an analysis of the depth of their understanding of technology. Most younger learners have a utilitarian understanding of technology. They know how to download, instant message, and participate in facebook. That is the focus of their current use of technology as a tool. Nothing wrong with it. But the distinction is one of interest and use, not age. Anyway, Henry Jenkins posts some thoughts on natives/immigrants: “…these terms also distort many aspects of the phenomenon that they seek to describe…There are at least three major distortions involved:
1. The terms are ahistorical
2. It collapses all young people into a so-called digital generation.
3. It ignores the degree that what’s really powerful about most of the new forms of participatory culture of fans, bloggers, and gamers is that such affinity spaces allow young people and adults to interact with each other in new terms.”


  1. Very true. The term coined a believe by Prensky is used to too often to shock and reaffirm to many teachers that they just don’t get it.

    It’s polarizing. My experience is the term often leads to people debating the lifestyle and habits of young people rather than exploring as you state the powerful networks and participatory opportunities.

    Obviously as a 40something who uses this stuff everyday, I would likely be considered more of a native which shows it’s not exclusive to age and nor should it be. It’s about those who are comfortable with and are leveraging the power of networks to connect and learn.

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  2. Alec Couros wrote:

    Thanks for this, George. I share your feelings on these terms as together they are polar representations and absolutes. It’s great to see that others feel this same way, and are expressing their views.

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 12:14 pm | Permalink
  3. Hi Dean – I agree…I imagine that the digital habits of many “40 somethings” fits more closely into the profile of natives than immigrants. The big error I see with immigrant/native thinking is assuming that experience creates different beings – i.e. because someone can’t remember a time without a cell phone, they are somehow fundamentally different than someone who can. Based on my experience, the defining attribute is one of attitude and willingness to experiment…

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 1:55 pm | Permalink
  4. Hey Alec, you’re right – these terms are opposites and intended to reveal differences based on age/experience. Like most things, a gradient view is more likely to be accurate.
    Take care

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 1:59 pm | Permalink
  5. Doug Belshaw wrote:

    I reckon it was around the middle of last year when people started using the terms all the time. It prompted a post towards the end of the year on my blog entitled Digital Natives, Mountain Men, and Pioneers where I argued that putting people in pigeon-holes isn’t very helpful.

    I stand by that opinion: I’ve got students who really don’t like using technology

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 4:16 pm | Permalink
  6. Hi Doug – thanks for the link to your earlier post. Your statement (in the blog post) that we’re dealing with a spectrum of skills rings true with my thinking. On some levels, we use simplifications and frameworks as sensemaking devices (or at minimum as a means of looking at the world). Simplification is fine on some levels. But the natives/immigrant distinction is too simple. It doesn’t accurately reflect the concepts it is trying to help us understand.
    Take care

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 4:22 pm | Permalink
  7. col wrote:

    Hi George – you make a fair point about pigeonholing or oversimplifying but I don’t think that the terms are completely without usefulness or validity.

    I seem them as shorthand descriptions of the participants in a cultural shift as much as an age based definition.

    Something else worth considering is that if you extend the native/immigrant analogy, you could say that immigrants often benefit by working harder in embracing their new environment and everyone there benefits as a result of it.

    I don’t quite get the point about young people not understanding the technology – if it works for them, why does it matter? Maybe not being as caught up in what is conventionally done with a tool leads to more, unexpected uses being found.

    Just a few thoughts anyways. :)

    Wednesday, August 29, 2007 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  8. VYonkers wrote:

    I agree Col. If you look at the “culture” of technology, then just like any cultural stereotyping, you are going to misrepresent whole groups within a “culture” if you assume all fit the stereotype.

    On the other hand, by using a cultural approach to learning and technology, these terms allow us to understand the knowledge base from which our students base their understanding of technology and its use. I personally like Hall’s framework of high context/low context cultures, in which those from high context cultures have many implicit rules that those from outside of the culture have trouble learning unless they were brought up within that culture. Thus, it is difficult for a foreigner to assimilate into the Japanese culture because there are many subtle nuances that are learned behavior which are contextually based. Low context cultures on the other hand have a few iron clad rules, but otherwise are very flexible, thus allowing non-natives to assimilate quickly into the culture. The US and Canada are considered low context cultures.

    I wonder if we could use the same categories for technologies, which would make more sense in the use of digital natives and immigrants concepts in our teaching. For example, blogging seems to be a low context technology. There are few iron clad rules (comment control, length of posts, tagging) that makes it easy for anyone to start blogging. On the other hand, some social software, such as facebook or myspace, have some very advanced, subtle nuances that is difficult for “immigrants” to understand. A “foreigner” to myspace or facebook will be a stranger for a long time and will stick out to “natives”.

    Monday, September 3, 2007 at 9:27 am | Permalink