HomeDigital technology & MultimediaDigital Natives: Fact or Fiction?

Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction?




Smiling young woman on computer vs frustrated woman on computerZöe Handley, our resident EFL technology guru, considers the notion of the so-called “digital natives / digital immigrants” divide and whether such a divide exists between learners of English as a foreign language and their teachers.

Ever since I became aware that the digital natives / digital immigrants opposition is having a negative effect on teachers’ confidence in their use of technology in language teaching, the topic has frustrated me. In this post, I will explain why.

Where did the terms digital native and digital immigrant originate?

The terms first appeared in Prensky (2001). In this article, Prensky argued that an unsurmountable digital divide has developed between the young who have grown up with technology and older people who have become acquainted with technology later in life; and consequently between students and their teachers. Prensky coined digital natives to refer to the former and digital immigrants to refer to the latter and argued that, as a result of interacting with technology, digital natives “think and process information fundamentally differently” (Prensky, 2001: 1) to digital immigrants.  Digital natives, according to Prensky, process information quickly, enjoy multi-tasking, and enjoy gaming, while digital immigrants process information slowly, working on one thing at a time and do not appreciate less serious approaches to learning. This divide, Prensky argued, is the greatest problem facing education today and teachers must change the way they teach in order to engage their students.

In other literature this generation has been referred to as the Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998) and the Millennials (Howe & Strauss, 2000) and more precisely defined as those born on or after 1982 (Oblinger, 2003).

Prensky’s ideas have since influenced policy-makers and many researchers have adopted them as their point of departure. But, what evidence is there to support the native / immigrant divide?

Prensky’s original article is merely an opinion piece. In it he provides neither evidence that the young engage with different technologies to the old, nor evidence that they learn in different ways. While his  follow-up article (Prensky, 2002) promises to provide such evidence from neuroscience and social psychology, it is similarly little more than an opinion piece and makes huge leaps from neuroscience and social psychology research to claims about the way in which today’s digital native students learn.

Studies that have questioned the validity of the digital native /digital immigrant divide have found that students do not engage with technology as much as we might think. They are not the most frequent users of technology, rather 35-44 year olds are (Bayne and Ross, 2007). While in some families computers are seen as valuable educational tools and parents actively engage their children in their use, in others computers are only used for the purposes of entertainment and parents restrict their use (Bennett & Maton, 2010). Further, while we are led to believe that students are constantly online and engaged in a variety of activities (Kárpáti, 2009), surveys of students’ use of technology suggest that most are engaged in social networking, but only a small number are engaged in content-creation activities such as blogging and creating wikis (Bennett & Maton, 2010). In short, beyond the most common uses of technology, students’ experience of technology varies widely (Bennett & Maton, 2010).

In light of this evidence, even Prensky himself has modified his position (Prensky, 2009). In particular, Prensky now accepts that through their experience with technology, older people may be digital natives. Yet, Prensky’s original claim of a divide between the old and the young continues to be perpetuated.

Would you consider yourself to be a digital native or a digital immigrant? Does your experience reflect the digital native /digital immigrant discourse? It would be great to hear your views on this issue.

Bayne, S. and Ross, J. (2007). The ‘digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’: A dangerous opposition. In procs. Annual Conference of the Society for Research into Higher Education. www.malts.ed.ac.uk/staff/sian/natives_final.pdf
Bennett, S. and Maton, K. (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning. 26: 321-331
Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millennials rising: The next great generation. New York: Vintage Books.
Kárpáti (2009). Web 2 Technologies for Net Native Language Learners: A “Social CALL.” ReCALL, 21(2): 139-156.
Oblinger, D. (2003). Boomers & Gen-Xers, Millennials: Understanding the “New Students”. Educause. 38(4): https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERM0342.pdf
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9:1-6
Prensky, M. (2002). Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6): 1-9
Prensky, M. (2009). H. sapiens digital: from digital immigrants and digital natives to digital wisdom. Innovate Journal of Online Education, 5
Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw Hill.

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  1. “…students do not engage with technology as much as we might think. They are not the most frequent users of technology, rather 35-44 year olds are (Bayne and Ross, 2007).”

    Fascinating! Seriously, as someone smack-dab in that demographic, I can see this being valid — but I know most of us assume students are the biggest users. Of technology. You get what I’m saying…

    Very interesting post. I think for those of us in the 35-44 demo, we grew up in an age when tech was all cutting edge, so we immersed ourselves — learned everything we could — tried every trick — experimented ad nauseum. For those who’ve grown up with it, it’s a bit more passive…and “old hat.”

    • Passively learned technology – absolutely. My 4 year old has a better grasp of aspects of her new ‘toys’ than I ever could with my sequential trial and error approach.

  2. I consider myself to be a digital expat. I was a native, but have since left for other lands.

    I’m currently teaching EFL in Germany and haven’t noticed the difference Prensky proclaims. If there IS a difference, it’s in the attention span of the younger generation. Classes need to be active and exciting to keep 20-30somethings’ attention, while the 40+ age bracket seems to be fascinated with learning the grammatical intrecacies of the English language. In some cases I would even say that younger people are SLOWER EFL students than older people.

    Regardless, I’m fascinated with this topic and am excited to hear observations from others.


  3. This is the first time I hear the notion of such a divide. It is particularly interesting to me as I my personal life has taken me in uncharted waters with really much younger fellow students.

    I was victim to a car accident very, very many years ago and had to spend all those years recovering as much as possible of my health. Now I go back to the university as a student of plant ecology. My fellow students with just one exception could be my sons and daughters very easily.

    I was very nervous picking up lectures and labs in fungus and lichen ecology because I thought they would all be computer savvy like no one else and they would network on facebook and sms and I would be excluded from the flow of information necessary to have my student’s life organized.

    As it happens there is nothing of the kind. My fellow students do know how to research scientific papers on the web, which they teach me in minutes. They do now how to properly create a powerpoint presentation which I need to figure out painfully in the course of a few hours.

    Very obviously they use computers only in a very technical way as a tool, a machine that does a specific purpose. Only to one or two of them staying online is a way of life.

    This insight came as a peculiar observation when I discussed global warming and the controversy around it. They can easily find a few websites that explain the principles of how global warming is supposed to happen. But they are far from actually understanding the controversy around it and they are in no way capable of finding the arguments and the points of view in this matter.

    As I said, we are ecologists and the environment is our primary concern. The potential effects of a possible global warming are part of our teaching at the university and are part of our daily trade. So you would expect my fellow students to research the topic. They do not do so beyond the common believes.

    I am 46 of age and the last time I was in class was in 1994. My fellow students are between 21 and 24 years of age. So by the standards of your article I am stumbling on the far side of this digital chasm.

    By the way I live in Switzerland and it is said to be the one country with the most broadband connections per capita in Europe.

  4. I’m sorry,
    I might sound peevish for saying this, but i wholeheartedly beleive that the perceived “Divide” that stands between digital natives/immigrants is just that: Perceived.
    People CAN learn anything, will they get off the couch, turn off the game, and learn it?
    We should never create boundaries for ourselves, lest they become self fulfilling prophecies, where we lose the original causes/roots, and in the future simply accept them to be truisms.
    Thanks for highlighting this issue in a coherent, well worded article!

  5. My impression has always been that the true divide is between those with a positive mentality (“Computers are great!”, “I can learn how to do this!”, …) and those with a negative mentality (“Computers suck!”, “I need someone to do this for me!”, …)—mentalities that strongly affect both amount of time spent doing X and proficiency at doing X.

    Unsurprisingly, the older someone is, the stranger the gadgets of today seem and the greater the risk that similar skills that could be helpful are missing (on average). However, the partition into negative–positive is far from identical to the old–young partition.

    (In addition, some other factors can play in to make mastery easier, notably intelligence. These, however, are mostly age-indepent.)

  6. Well, that’s reassuring. I fall ten years outside the ’82 cutoff. I like to think I’m in touch with technology, but investigating how to improve my website has proved I’m too knowledgable to be a beginner, but adrift once people start talking about the nuts and bolts behind the GUI. Is there a term for those of us who can run a home network, but not program in Java?

    • You’re not alone on that – there appears to be a steep learning curve between using existing tools to run a blog-as-website (say, through wordpress.com), and starting a site that requires a bit of programming knowledge (say, through wordpress.org). The web is full of very elegant blogs and not-so-elegant personal websites that testify to the challenge of crossing over.

  7. Very interesting post.

    A point that comes to mind from a modern-parenting perspective, which you do touch on, is the trend to see a lot of technology on offer these days as a negative influence in children’s lives. I know many parents who refuse to let their children watch TV or use the internet, and don’t want them having cellphones.

    They are (perhaps over) reacting to the increasing number of studies which find fault with the presence of these technologies in young children’s lives. However even preschools encourage and teach children to use the internet.

    As an overall comment though, I think the divide you describe at the start is overly simplistic and the way its effect on learning was described was unhelpful and inaccurate. That’s coming from my background as a tertiary teacher, having taught what would be considered both natives and immigrants.

  8. I personally don’t think anyone is a digital native. I didn’t own a computer for most of my childhood. But now I know more than my students. I am only 23 yrs old, but I honestly don’t think that has anything to do with it.

    If there is any divide at all, then it would be between types of people. Some people want to learn and explore things, like technology, and others don’t. I use my computer every day and I’m online constantly. I’m not a programmer, hacker, technician, engineer, or anything else of the technological nature. But I do explore, and so I usually get by just fine with the classroom computer.

    Besides, if I don’t know how to use something, that doesn’t stop me from utilizing it. I just ask one of the students—who IS a programmer or hacker or engineer (in the making, anyway)—to help me out.

    I think jaredblakedicroce is right. We’re all so busy trying to classify, analyze, and otherwise divide ourselves that we forget the power of working together.

  9. Being recently in the university community teaching, I can say that the idea that new students spend more time multitasking while their profs are more single-minded in their teaching/ learning processes is accurate. What wasn’t mentioned was that multitasking with respect to learning really means that the student is having 2 or more poorer educational experiences rather than learning twice as much. In this case the prof is right, focus on one thing – be serious about what you’re learning. It has been my observation that those students who can focus on one thing at a time do learn far more and are better able to critically evaluate the information, relate it to larger contexts and can use the info to ask better questions.

    • I agree. Multitasking while learning is nonsense. Even when I was much younger I would spend a week or two in the libraries researching information on one topic and then proceed to the next.

  10. Digital native here.

    I think the terms do have value, but not as a distinction between levels of ability in the digital world, merely how that ability arises.

    One who academically studies (and studies in) a foreign language, starting in midlife, can become more skilled, on a deeper level, in that language, than a generally uneducated native speaker. That being said, the native speaker may still have some advantages, in certain contexts.

    -Joel, of echoesoffire.wordpress.com

  11. Great article. I have only anecdotal evidence myself, but as a 26 year old I’m among the oldest of the so-called digital natives. At a very young age, I was drawn to the computer. I remember quickly learning how to navigate through my dad’s old DOS system and then the first few versions of Windows, and even exploring the internet in its early days back in 1996-1997 when I was in middle school. I even taught myself HTML in 7th grade! I thought nothing of using the keyboard, mouse (when it came around), controls… I just memorized what to do to get to my games or create my webpages, just like a young child might dutifully remember how to say “I want to eat an apple please” in his/her first (or second, if required) language to get the reward. I am most certainly “fluent in computer” because of my early exposure and exploration of everything this technological device could do. Thankfully, my parents encouraged me.

    Now, I literally integrate it into everything I do… I communicate only with smartphones, Twitter, emails; I cook from online cookbooks, have programs and apps to perform literally every accounting duty in my life and keep notes and calendars; telecommute to work; basically every aspect of my day is shaped by the use of a computer or smartphone in some way. I see my peers doing the same, more or less. We rarely if ever struggle or get frustrated when using different features on a phone and are unafraid to explore and push the boundaries of what these devices are capable of. Instead, we take to learning new functions and features quite naturally; everything is very intuitive to us.

    My mom is a digital immigrant, and doing a great job of living in this world in her early 50s. She actually teaches computer class to elementary students. She does her best to learn different programs and show her students how to use a variety of computer applications, functions, features online like Wikis, etc. to perform their school tasks (i.e., make a poem and post it on a Wiki, for English class, etc.) She is proof that you can be a digital immigrant and be a very successful teacher, but you have to be aware of your limitations and shortcomings as an “immigrant” and push yourself hard to overcome them in order to be an effective educator. She definitely asks me a lot of questions and I walk her through using different applications and websites that might be natural to me but take her a bit longer to learn. It doesn’t mean she isn’t a great teacher. She encourages her students to explore and create things that she herself cannot.

  12. Recently while talking with a buddy, I realized something about him or should I say his belief system. I had a burning question (assumption) for him with regard to how he values an in person real time conversation to that of a text message chat, so I asked. I think it is important to note that my friend is 37 and I am 46. He looked at me with a puzzled look on his face and without one second of hesitation said to me, “There is no difference, they are the same”. I almost fell off my seat! I wanted to be wrong about what I already knew was true. He honestly believes this and feels strongly on the subject. I find that so truly sad and disappointing. When a few lines of text displayed on a cell phone can be viewed equal to that of real time in person conversation. I see this being a huge loss for the next generation and generations to come if this feeling and belief becomes common place amoung our young people.

    • Why? Different people have different preferences, goals, and priorities, and it would only be sad for those who are forced to work against their own preferences.

      Consider e.g. that some people use communication mainly as an excuse for bonding (personal contact is important), while some others use it mainly for exchange of information and ideas (the advantages tend to lie with email, comment fields on blogs, and the like).

      For that matter, there are actually cases where text-based communication can give advantages even on a “human” level, in that factors like physical appearances or annoying voices have no effect and the communication is more “mind-to-mind”.

  13. I am a high school English teacher and I understand and use technology (laptop/lcd projector/blackberry/various software) far more often than my students do. My hours of use may be the same as some of my students, but the purposes for which I use my laptop and blackberry are much more constructive. For the most part, my students only use technology to communicate with each other for the most mundane reasons. I would say that the age discrepancy is a false boundary on which to judge someone’s capabilities. I will be 37 next week and I find that I wholeheartedly agree with the findings of Bayne and Ross. I think better divisions might be based around reason for use, rather than age.

    Thanks for highlighting this error in popular understanding. Great article.

  14. I have to say that I find the idea of there being digital natives and digital immigrants a bit idiotic. I learned how to use the computer all on my own when my kids were little and in grade school because they were learning how to use them and I wanted to be able to help them with their homework. I wanted to keep them safe and knew the only way I could do that was to learn everything I could about a computer. I went to Barnes & Noble, bought a book, sat down at our computer, and proceeded to teach myself. Now, we all 3 (my two kids and myself) have our own computers and I probably work more on my computer than anyone else in the house. My son uses his mostly for gaming. My daughter socializes and uses it for research when doing her homework. I use mine for blogging, socializing, and photography and graphic works.
    My point is, we are divided by age, but we all were capable of learning how. I don’t think it was any harder for me because of my age. The only difference was they learned in little doses over time, and I had to learn as much as I could immediately so that I could operate and safeguard the use of the computer. There may be more of a unrealistic fear of trying to learn the computer if you are older, but that can be overcome and doesn’t have to hinder the actual ability to learn to use it.
    It’s true my kids have more technological devices than I do, but I still blast my music on my old turntable when they’re at shool while they are walking around in between classes with an earbud on. 🙂 I am planning on getting a music device for myself when I start walking outdoors again in the spring. I’m sure I’ll have no trouble learning how to operate it either!

  15. Interesting. I think how fluent I am in technology depends on how familiar I am with the particular type of technology. For instance, I can work my way around a PC better than my mother, but I’m still trying to figure out the finer workings of Macs. You might say I’m a PC native and a Mac immigrant. I’ve had a lot of middle aged and older teachers who are quit fluent with Macs. Also, I can handle digital cameras and photo software much easier than my sister (about the same age as me) because I have experience with them, and she does not. It has much more to do with experience than age.

  16. considering the fact that my generation, the Genxers, were perhaps the last to bring typewriters to college, and the first to complete senior their senior thesis on computers, we should be considered the poineers of the digital age. My three children consider the computer and internet an indespensible tool in their education and homework, but I still try to emphasize the value of low-tech things like getting a book – a paper one- from the library.

  17. Here is what I know: Younger generations (18-25 year olds) are not able to multi task in terms of media. Texting, TV, gaming, social media… none of these outlets can be shared with the real world in the moment. Anyone who has had lunch with this age group, walked into the room with them on their gaming station, had to swerve into the next lane. Younger age groups are no different than any other.

  18. I’ve heard this terminology before. I’m a high school teacher and many an in-service leader has admonished myself and my fellow faculty members for being technology-shy. But the fact is, we’re not. It’s MONEY. Our school has very little to spend on technology. And no money to spend on a faculty liaison to help us integrate the gadgetry into meaningful lesson plans.

    The main difference between my students’ interactions with technology and mine is: they don’t have to pay for it! Mom and Dad foot the bill for their 10,000 text messages per month and all their music downloads. Sure, I can learn how to use a droid or an
    i Pad. But I have to pay for one first! Then I have to buy a media package, etc, etc. One’s technology “needs” vs. wants change greatly when one is paying for it all oneself. I don’t have a lot of gadgets because I’d rather spend money camping, skiing, and scuba diving!

    I agree with Max: from what I’ve seen with my students, they use the web in a very limited and specific way for school stuff (most of us teachers at my high school have websites with assignments and down-loadable notes or worksheets) and social networking. But they don’t necessarily know a lot about it. They can’t trouble-shoot connection issues; they don’t know how to print just certain pages from a document (until this old digital immigrant tells them how); they rarely look up words or topics from class that they are struggling with. They come up to me and ask, “How do I do such and such on my graphing calculator?” I’m the one that has to say, “Why don’t you just Google it?” It doesn’t seem to occur to them that they have an enormous resource at their fingertips.

  19. I’m a 38 generation Xer and since being sucked in by Facebook I’ve become less intimidated by computers and more inclined to use them for things such as blogging, using my iphone with such amazing enthusiasm that I never thought possible! I found this article really interesting and something that I’ve found myself thinking about as I’ve become more techno savvy.

  20. I do find the term digital native to be divisive because I find that for myself it fosters a false sense that I should be better at technology than I am. I fall a few short years over the “digital native” birth date cut off and find that I feel I am an “imposter” that generally only uses social networking and online databases. I can’t code, create and edit movies, or reinvent online interaction every six months (all things that articles describing digital natives seem to allude to). I think it’s time to stop talking about digital natives and focus more on what students *don’t* know–and help them figure it out. Assuming they know more than they do can only harm them scholastically and make them feel “less than” for what they don’t already know. No one is interested in looking stupid and asking for help if they’re already ‘supposed’ to know something.

  21. I train a bunch of 22 year old corporates. My observation is this. There are those who know the computer and those who know ABOUT the computers.The Divide exist in all generations. I just think that the older generation are not too excited to learn about technology.

  22. Persons who make good use of modern technology ought not to be demographically defined. Personality, with all its randomness, is an honest and accurate measuring line. I’m 19 and I consider myself tech savvy, but I’m a very flexible learner, and sometimes I prefer tangibility.

    In ministry school I knew a wide range of differing opinions on this point, among students and faculty. Persons of any demographic may find themselves drawn to digital interaction and learning. I personally would hesitate to attempt a hasty extrapolation such as that made by Prensky in the past.

  23. When I started teaching at a Toronto college six years ago, one of the first things I noticed was how little knowledge the students actually had about the technology surrounding them. They could download videos and music and visit sites their friends visited, but beyond that they were almost completely incompetent. Word processing, which they’ve been acquainted with since they’ve been in grade four, appears to be a foreign subject, and I have to spend (waste) a significant portion of my class time teaching them how to set up paragraphs, fonts, and spacing.

    As for research — their skills ranged from nil to pitiful.

    I have sat in on numerous computer classes in the college (programming and web design) and been astounded by the lack of sense in design and navigation — and these are the technical students who will be creating the websites and programs of the future (and I speak as someone with profound experience in IT).

    Thumbing through an iPod or texting friends does not a tech-savvy person make.

    For a number of years I covered various aspects of advertising, including a beat in Second Life marketing. Despite clear metrics showing that the major users of the virtual world were over 30, marketers continued to drink the Kool-Aid and aim their marketing at 12-18 year-olds.

    Great article, and very well written. Thank you for doing your part to break down this pernicious myth.

  24. When I returned to do a Masters degree in photography at the age of 51, I found that those who had adopted digital photography tended to be closer to my age whereas the younger students were confirmed users of film almost to the extent of retro obsession!!

    When I as lecturing in various universities, one technology-related problem I came up against was that students considered research as being typing a word in to Google and printing off a few pages. In fact, I had a disagreement with the Head of Dept., over one student his visual work was wonderful, but there was no accompanying research . .an integral part of the project. I gave him a 2.1, the Head changed it to a 1st. This highlights a much greater problem than technology, that education is based on ‘results on paper’ not actual achievement. Unless there has been some major change in the brainstructure of human beings, it seems unlikely that the distribution of ‘achievement’ can have changed from a Normal distribution curve, yet in the UK more and more people seem to get A’s- this highlights for me the greatest problem in education: being ‘paper-results’ based then the emphasis is either on lowering standards or ‘training to pass exams’ rather than education. A few anecdotal examples from my own experience in higher and further education.
    1. a 16 year old girl advised to stay on at school to do a multimedia qualification, in which she had no interest and no ability: why? another body ups the statistics
    2. Being told by a (different) head of Department, that ‘we just have to get everybody through the first year.’ I resigned shortly afterwards. He had a nervous breakdown due to the stress management was putting on him to get results.

    PS I now live in Italy where they are discussing the idea of supplying laptops to all students from the youngest upwards. This has clearly come from people in management, who have never heard ‘the dog has eaten my homework’ So now my laptop won’t work/it crashed/the battery is faulty/the software has glitch- delete as applicable,

  25. I was very interested in your post given that I teach in high school and have recently completed an M.A. in Media Studies that was broadly sociologically and educationally based. During the course of my research I arrived at the conclusion that this divide is more a state of mind in the relationship between particular generations and technology. We – the digital immigrants – will always, to a degree, have an awe at the technology now available and the amazing things we are now able to do, whilst the children I teach take these things for granted and a unconscious of a world without technology and the, sometimes, liberating effect of it. It is, consequently, more embedded in their lives in an integral way and perhaps makes them less aware of their interactions. I would suggest that, like all children who play with tools, just consider toddlers who like to hammer bricks and young children who play house, they make use of technological tools as a form of learning and engaging with everyday implements as a means of developing skills and engaging with the world – adult or otherwise – and therefore they are natives inasmuch as they have the opportunity to do this whilst those of us born before their advent did not. This could, possibly, change their relationship with technology in the more distant future which, at the moment we could not be aware of as they are still too young to have arrived at the point where this would be evident. I believe that most people who use the term ‘digital native’ are thinking about relationship and attitude as much as use. Sorry this is such a rambling reply. 🙂

  26. […] ELT Global Blog makes “freshly pressed” with their post concerning digital natives and digital immigrants. Ever since I became aware that the digital […]

  27. I’ve always seen the two terms as a very simplistic approach to a complex issue – a bit like the terms native speaker and non-native speaker to describe language users. In some contexts the terms are useful – in others they are quite misleading.

  28. I would most likely be a digital native but every thing that is technology based does not come to me naturally. I can’t do any programming or write code because you need a level of aptitude in math for that. But I can install a wireless printer to a laptop, retouch some photos in a basic manner and use word processing skills like track changes. So it is kind of undermining when everyone assumes one is blessed with digital skills since childhood.

    Many of my teachers including some likely to be past 50, can operate software very well. It is similar to technical writers who lack programming knowledge but are gifted with the ability to explain.

    It is a case of mind over matter, I think.

  29. The most frequent users of technology are the adolescent. They are digital native because they use technology as their resource for education.

  30. Being that the Amstrad cpc464 was my first computer, it was a gradual introduction. 90% of my time is working with computers, that may be creating documents, emails, blogs. I am not too fussed about pushing my kids into technology as at some point they will themselves become familiar. Technology is great but I have often heard it can bring more stress, more so opinions from The Digital Immigrant. I am often suprised and it happens in my family, how all the toddlers know their way around the iPhone, it’s scarey.
    Maybe the Digital Native is now using technology to reach deeper parts of the brain and turn over the notion that as human beings, we only use “10%” of our brain.

    Good Post.

  31. My un-educated aunt is 45 and her very smart daughter is in 8th standard. Both of them learn computers at home from a tutor and the strange thing is that both of them pick up the subject with equal grace. But,the Immigrant uses it on purpose and native uses it for amusement.

  32. Actually there’s more to this… experience shows that younger surfers tend to be more casual in their engagement with websites while older ‘digital migrants’ consume content more seriously.

    Over the last few years, marketers caught in the wave of social media, have invested disproportionately to engage ‘digital natives’ only to discover that the younger netizen is actually just window-shopping without any real intent to buy or enter into any kind of a relationship.

    Great article though!

  33. I think this article is on the money. My 13 y/o son is definitely a digital native, but at over 40 I use computers much more than some of older teens in my network, and I dare say I’m probably more competent at many tasks than some of them are – so maybe I am too. You just can’t stereotype people.

  34. I am definitely a digital immigrant while my cousin a decade younger is so comfortable with technology I would consider her a native and I have even younger cousins 2 decades younger who were using a computer at age 2.

  35. I was born in 1980. When I started teaching, differently from some teachers who feel insecure about their students’ knowledge on technology, I was craving for learning with them! But I got really disappointed. They taught me nothing. All they knew was chatting on MSN, signing up on Orkut and downloading movies, games and music. They didn’t know not even how to create a blog. I really worry about this generation who can’t focus on anything properly for more than 5 minutes.

  36. I work at an elementary school that serves the needs of heaps of ELLs after looking at your tags, I will say my students use technology to learn English. However, they don’t initiate the use of technology, their teachers and parents do. For example, many of the students are taking lessons on skype to supplement their lessons. A former colleague created an iPod ap to teach vocabulary. I use online videos to support the science and reading curriculum. The children aren’t adept at finding this information because they really don’t know what to look for. Everyone still has to learn how to research and use technology, whether it’s a computer or an outdated encyclopedia. Just because I have a computer and a cell phone at age 5 doesn’t mean I’m tech savvy. However, if I have a mobile phone at age 5 and it awakens some desire in me to find out more, then I can become the next software genius.

  37. I’ve been a professor since 1993 and my experience matches the results of the 2007, 2009 and 2010 studies you mention.

    To be specific, the main use of technology on the part of my students seems to be social based: texting and checking out Facebook in class.

    I have also noticed that while students use technology, they do not generally seem to possess the sort of technological skills that some folks attribute to the young (for example the commercials that show brilliant children helping their clueless and inept elders do some basic task). My own experience is that most students simply use the technology in fairly basic ways and generally have no more understanding or skills then people in my age range (I’m 44).

    Of course, it is reasonable to infer that people who grew up with the technology would have more familiarity than people who grew up with very different sorts of experiences and who try to make a sudden transition into technology (like the person who gets his/her first computer at 75). However, while the students grew up with the technology, this does not seem to give them a significant edge over people who have been keeping up with it.

    In some cases I suspect that people use this alleged divide as an excuse. For example, I have lost track of the times that people my age have told me that they are too old to understand all this technology-as I am fixing or setting up their PCs. They simply seem to not be inclined to take the effort to update their skills and knowledge.

  38. Thank you all for your responses. It is really interesting to read about your experiences of using technology in and outside the classroom and how they relate to the digital native/digital immigrant divide.

    I personally became interested in the topic when I realised that I am on the cusp of being a digital native. Born in 1979, I, however, do not really feel that my experiences align with those of digital natives as described by Prensky. I did not grow up on digital. We first got a computer (Amiga 500) at home when I was eleven and my parents did not get a PC until I left home, if I remember right. In terms of my experience of technology in school, there were only a few computers in our school at primary school and it was very rare that we got to use them. The first computers that I used at secondary school had green screens and, while our school did get Internet access, thanks to a grant for rural communities, it was restricted to a very small number of computers and we did not get to use it for ourselves. It was only when I got to University that we used computers on a regular basis, and then possibly only because I was studying . Further, unlike Prensky’s digital natives, I just can’t play computer games and, with few exceptions, they don’t interest me either. Nor am I continually immersed in technology – I don’t have a smart phone. My use of technology is very purposeful as some of you described and as such I feel that I tend to have a more in-depth knowledge of the technologies that I do choose to use.

    So, what is the reality? What are the determinants of digital literacy? In support of the research, the experiences that have been related on this blog suggest that digital literacy is a highly complex multi-faceted construct which is determined among other things by:

    – Self-efficacy – the degree to which people feel that they will be successful in using technology
    – Age – different age groups use different technologies because they are naturally interested in different things
    – Access to technology – due to financial constraints and rural/urban divide
    – Parental attitudes towards technology
    – Purpose for using technology

    They also suggest that there is a difference between digital literacy and literacy – there is one thing being able to find information at the touch of a button another being able to critically assess and synthesise that information to come to an understanding of the issue in question.

    Finally, one of the comments alluded to an interesting question. Given the rate of development of technologies, and the range of uses and applications, can anyone claim to be a digital native?

    Thanks again for your comments on this topic


  39. Really enjoyed your post and the comments. Only this morning, I posted to my blog on the same topic, after participating in a webinar by Mark Bullen on Wednesday. Interesting coincidence to come across your post on the same day! Amazingly, the DN/DI metaphor has remained potent, even after 10 years — though a more nuanced understanding of the Digital Generation discourse seems to be evolving. Good to see this.

    Catherine Cronin

  40. Tweets that mention Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction? « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Zoe Handley, Catherine Cronin. Catherine Cronin said: Synchronicity! Great @zooloo79 post https://ow.ly/3I09H found after posting my similar thoughts: "A Digital Generation?" https://ow.ly/3I0f0 […]

  41. Hi Zöe, a fascinating subject and one that I am devoting a bit of interest to myself. I definitely believe that there is or has been a seminal change in the way people communicate and interact with each other. Perhaps this is more pronounced to me from my ‘Baby Boomer’ perspective but there is a definite break with the long-established means of interaction!

    I would venture an opinion in that I think technology can be a socially isolating factor in modern day interaction leading perhaps, to a more introverted society?

    As to the native/immigrant divide, is it not how you choose to apply this epithet? If you use it as a description of a group of people, then I believe it is accurate. However if by this description one must infer that you can only be technically proficient if you grew up with technology, then I would agree that some serious questions arise. I am a digital immigrant, and regard myself as technically professional. Having said that, when it comes to the new social interactive programs ala Facebook, Twitter etc., I must say that the current generation do appear to have an edge!

    My interest lies in how religions (particularly the established Western Religions) will adapt to the new social construct, particularly as ‘church’ is very much a socially collaborative human activity.

    Thank you for your article.

  42. I have no problem in defining myself as a digital immigrant, but quite a successful one, I must say! The truth is I still need tutorials and the occasional instruction leaflet, I still wear a watch and I can’t picture myself reading a book online, but I also know that I am more into technology than most of my students and than my own children. They know a lot about social media, games and websites that allow for free downloads, but they often need my help when they have to work, to do real research, to present their work creatively to the class. It’s also true that the moment I show them some new software or website where they can develop their work creatively or in an interesting way, many of them adapt to it immediately and they soon find ways to use them, I had never thought of before.
    And then everybody learns, both digital natives and immigrants. Digital literacy is for all, you just have to be interested!

  43. Tweets that mention Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction? « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog -- Topsy.com

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Naomi Moir, OUP ELT Global. OUP ELT Global said: Loads of fantastic comments on the Digital Natives post (https://bit.ly/fELUAe), including @zooloo79's response: https://bit.ly/dQw9bA […]

  44. […] Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction? (via Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Global Blog) Zöe Handley, our resident EFL technology guru, considers the notion of the so-called "digital natives / digital immigrants" divide and whether such a divide exists between learners of English as a foreign language and their teachers. Ever since I became aware that the digital natives / digital immigrants opposition is having a negative effect on teachers’ confidence in their use of technology in … Read More […]

  45. […] Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction? « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Globa… […]

  46. I am nearly 60. I am a digital native – but I think it is because at every opportunity I throw myself into learning new things. I started in the early 80’s and was using the internet when you still had to use Unix. I have taught computers to children and adults. The problem with most adults is they do have an old style system of learning – they want to write everything down and study it later instead of just thinking as they go. They also tend to view every page – website or written page in a top to bottom, left to right orientation. They want to read every word right now and understand it. Those who are open to learning – do fine. I do meet some adults who just can’t handle technology at all. I haven’t met many children like that.

    • Your comment is worth its weight in gold. That ‘oldlearn’ is real: it’s very noticeable at my workplace when it comes to inhouse training of typesetters (I’m a printer, by the way). It isn’t a matter of young(er) people having more contact with technology either: I’ve had apprentices in their teens and 20s with practically no computer exposure and yet they learnt the stuff by winging it along the way – ‘newlearn’. So, my feeling is probably that the digital native vs. non-native divide probably comes down to how we’ve been taught to learn things. Heaven knows I used to do ‘oldlearn’ until it just took so much time from my motorcycling that I just packed it in and did ‘newlearn’ instead.

  47. […] Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction? « Oxford University Press – English Language Teaching – Globa… […]

  48. Moving Beyond Papers and Testing: Multimedia Options for Students | Daringsearch

    […] Digital Natives: Fact or Fiction? […]

  49. I’m 47 years old, I started using computer for my masters when I was 30 years old. Today I consider myself a digital native .
    In short, I’m a good counter example of someone that developed that skill well after adolescence time.

  50. Day 5 – Aug 24 – Social Bookmarking « EDIT2000: Introduction to Computers for Teachers

    […] Read “Digital Nativism” by Jamie McKenzie and this blog post from Oxford University Press. Revisit what we talked about in class. Who is right? Who is wrong? What does this mean for teaching […]

  51. […] digital natives bestaan niet, maar dat wist u al. Als je volwassenen voorstelt om een hele week zeven uur per dag op een stoel […]

  52. […] Actualmente existe una amplia gama de formatos para presentar y acceder a la información. En la sociedad, hay grupos de personas que han logrado adaptarse a la transición de lo análogo a la digital con perfecta fluidez, mientras que otros grupos se han quedado atrás debido a la rapidez con la que ha sucedido el cambio. Aquéllos que han logrado adaptarse, y no sólo acostumbrarse, sino utilizar, crear contenido y acceder a la tecnología digital como principal fuente de información y medio de comunicación, son particularmente las personas que nacieron a partir de 1980 en adelante. Este grupo de la población, conformado principalmente por jóvenes y personas menores de 41 años, ha nacido en la era digital. […]

  53. Some parents refuse their children access to computers because they do not have the ability to educate their children. will cause most children who are exposed to computers to be keen on games

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