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 immigrantsprocess 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 theMillennials (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.