Foundations and Assessment of Education/Edition 1/Foundations Table of Contents/Chapter 13/13.5.2

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Digital Natives: Effective Education v2.0

by Beth Miller

The twenty-first century will be characterised by enormous, exponential technological change. Our socalled ‘Digital Native’ generation (that is, our students) is already embracing these changes, creating in the process an ‘emerging online digital life’

-Marc Prensky

Learning Targets

Readers should be able to define the terms “digital native “and digital immigrant.”

Readers should be able to describe the differences between a “digital native” and a “digital immigrant.”

Readers should be able to identify at least one argument against educational reform for digital natives.


Ideally, the field of education strives to meet the needs of all students. Educators use tools such as, research, assessment and training, to build a foundation for teaching. However, more and more teachers are finding it difficult to keep students engaged in the classroom. Topics such as violence in schools, differentiated instruction, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and standardized testing have all been critically evaluated with regard to student performance and engagement in the classroom. However, there is also another theory being discussed and that is the idea that this newest generation is completely different from past generations and teaching methodologies need to change. This new generation of students being taught was born roughly between the years 1980 – 1994 (Carey, 2006). Some of the terms used to classify this generation are, generation Y, the net generation and digital natives. For the purpose of this article, the focus will be on digital natives.

Digital Natives

What is a digital native? A digital native refers to the current generation of students (born between 1980 and 1994) that have grown up with technology and are “’native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” (Prensky, 2001, p. 1). This term was first used by Marc Prensky, founder and CEO of Games2Train (Prensky, 2002). To explain further, in their paper, The 'Digital Natives' Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence, Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin (2008) describe the characteristics of digital natives as follows:

1. Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with information technologies.

2. As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students. (Bennett et al., 2008, p. 777).

It is these differences in learning preferences and styles that have been the focus of most research.

Digital Natives Microsoft Keyboard.jpg vs. Digital Immigrants Triumph-gabriele25.jpg

Prensky (2005) believes that there is a fundamental difference between digital natives and prior generations. He describes those individuals born before 1984, which have knowledge of a world before technology, as digital immigrants. He explains:

I refer to those of us who were not born into the digital world as digital immigrants. We have adopted many aspects of the technology, but just like those who learn another language later in life, we retain an "accent" because we still have one foot in the past. (p. 9) Prensky sees the differences between digital natives and immigrants as a major deficiency in education. Although Prensky and others have been discussing these ideas centering on digital natives prior to 2001, the topic has become even more prevalent.

Noting Prensky’s and other’s research, Gregor E. Kennedy, Terry S. Judd, Anna Churchward, Kathleen Gray and Kerri-Lee Krauseet (2008) explain the perceived opposition seen between digital natives and immigrants:

[Prensky] labeled lecturers in higher education ‘Digital Immigrants’; foreigners in the digital lands of the Net Generation, and regarded the disparity between the Natives and the Immigrants as the “the biggest single problem facing education today” (p. 2). The preferences and skills that characterise the Digital Natives were said to be incompatible with the current teaching practices of the Immigrants. Prensky and other commentators (Oblinger, 2003; Frand, 2000) suggest that because of this disparity educators need to adjust their pedagogical models to suit the new kind of learner they are encountering in this new generation of students. (p. 109)

They go on to explain that the above ideas are made on the “general assumption that students coming into universities have had a comparatively universal and uniform digital upbringing. It is assumed that the technological experiences of students are more or less homogeneous and that most, if not all, incoming university students are Digital Natives” (Kennedy et al., 2008). Because Prensky’s research focuses on the gap between the natives and immigrants, there is little consideration with regard to the consistency of access to technology among digital natives from a variety of backgrounds.

Comparisons taken from Marc Prensky’s article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.

Digital Native Students

• used to receiving information really fast

• like to parallel process and multi-task

• prefer their graphics before their text

• prefer random access (like hypertext)

• function best when networked

• thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards

• prefer games to “serious” work

Digital Immigrant Teachers

• teach – slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time

• don’t believe their students can learn successfully while watching TV or listening to music

• think learning can’t (or shouldn’t) be fun

Digital Natives and Education

While Prensky and others continue to cite research in support of their argument for restructuring education to meet the needs of digital natives, not everyone is convinced that reform is the answer. Bennett, Maton and Kervin argue that more evidence and discussion is needed before action is taken (Bennett et al., 2008). They explain, “Without critical rational discussion, little progress can be made towards a genuine debate about digital natives. Neither dismissive skepticism nor uncritical advocacy enable understanding of whether the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and in what ways education might need to change to accommodate it” (Bennett et al., 2008).

In his article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap, Timothy VanSlyke (2003) also questions Prensky’s idea of education reform. He states: “But before we discard all of our digital immigrant notions of teaching and learning, and before we turn to video games and simulations as the primary modes of instruction, we should answer a number of questions. First among these is whether all of today's students fit Prensky's definition of digital natives. Are all students, for example, exposed to information technology and video games to the same extent? What are the demographic differences?” (VanSlyke, 2003). Van Slyke explores Prensky’s native/ immigrant analogy to give further details about his questions. He is critical of Prensky’s assumption that students aren’t capable of learning from traditional methods. He explains:

We can learn much from looking at the digital natives and immigrants as diverging cultures, but we need not take the analogy too far. Education does need to adapt and evolve with the times, and educators need to understand the learning styles of their students, but we do not have to assume that our students are incapable of learning from or communicating with the digital immigrants even if we suspect that their thought patterns are different from our own. (VanSlyke, 2003)

Quoted from Timothy VanSlyke's Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: Some Thoughts From the Generation Gap

One of the most significant problems I see with Prensky's description of the digital native culture is the g eneralization that all of today's students fit the stereotype of the kid glued to the computer or the television 20 hours a day. A typical classroom is much more diverse, with students coming from a range of backgrounds. Many do not have computers at home, some have disabilities, and some are simply not interested in computer games. Can a computer game adapt its lessons to this diverse population?

While Van Slyke (2003) understands that technology can play an important part in education, he also recognizes that teaching goes beyond equipment (2003). He stresses the following points about good teaching:

1. it aims to improve students' ability to engage in higher-order thinking;

2. it recognizes the diversity of learners' abilities and needs;

3. it reflects an awareness of both the complexity of the learning process and the need to make adjustments in different circumstances

In a sense, Van Slyke is arguing that there is already a kind of educational restructuring taking place in the classroom everyday and it is called teaching.


If this new generation is so different from previous ones, to the point that even the learning style is different, how does this affect teaching? And if it’s true that today’s teachers are indeed digital immigrants, what does this mean for education? At the very least, education will continue to implement and meet technology standards as required. As for an entire restructuring of the education system for the sole purpose of meeting “digital natives’ needs, there seems to be a need for more data to justify such a significant action. There are too many questions concerning the accuracy of statements that insist that everyone born to this new generation is indeed a “digital native” and that they can no longer learn through the same teaching strategies by which past generations were taught.

As Prensky and others continue to focus their arguments on education reform to reach digital natives, others will continue to sift through all of the research to gain a better understanding of this unique generation. One thing is certain; as technology advances, and our world continues to change, this topic will continue to gain popularity.


Bennett, S; Maton, K; Kervin, L (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. Britsh Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786, (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. AN 33902985). Retrieved September 27, 2008 from ERIC database.

Carey, S. J. (2006, Fall). Editorial. Peer Review , 8 (4), pp. 3–3. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. AN 23426418). Retrieved September 27, 2008 from ERIC database.

Kennedy G. E.; Judd, T. S.; Churchward, A.; Gray, K.; Krause, K. (2008). First year students' experience with technology: Are they really digital natives? Australian Journal of Educational Technology , 24 (1), 108-122. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. AN 31238704). Retrieved September 27, 2008 from ERIC database.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.. On the Horizon , 9 (5) NCB University Press. Retrieved September 27, 2008, from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf.

Prensky, M. (2002). Marc Prensky-Home. Retrieved September 15, 2008, from

Prensky, M. (2006). Listen to the Natives. Educational Leadership , 63(4) 8-13. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. AN 19270008). Retrieved September 27, 2008 from ERIC database

Prensky, M. (2007). How to teach with technology: keeping both teachers and students comfortable in an era of exponential change. Emerging Technologies for Learning , 2, 40-46. Retrieved September 27, 2008, from

VanSlyke, T. (2003). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants:. Some Thoughts from the Generation Gap. The Technology Source at the University of North Carolina. Retrieved October 4, 2008, from


1. Which characteristic does NOT describe digital natives?

a.Born between 1980 and 1994

b.Possess sophisticated knowledge of information technologies

c.Have particular learning preferences

d.Have difficulty keeping up with new technologies

2. According to Marc Prensky, which of the following traits is NOT a characteristic of digital immigrants?

a.Born after 1980

b.Prefers to multi-task

c.Think learning can’t be fun

d.Prefers games to serious work

3. Which option would be the best for getting a digital native engaged in a class?

a.Assign an independent reading assignment in the textbook

b.Create an interactive computer game to review test questions

c.Lecture for the entire class period

d.Pass out worksheets as an independent class work assignment

4. Which answer explains the gap between digital natives and immigrants?

a.Natives are uncomfortable with technology; immigrants are not

b.Natives are accustomed to technology as a part of their everyday life; immigrants are not

c.Natives prefer to be taught with a lecture; most immigrants prefer to use interactive technology to teach material

d.Natives feel overwhelmed when they have too many tasks to deal with; immigrants perform better when they can multi-task

Answers: 1.d; 2.b; 3.b; 4.b