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Connectivism Blog

Connectivism is a learning theory for the digital age.

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October 2007 Archives

October 22, 2007

Digital natives and immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date

Over the last few years, I've increasingly encountered reference to Marc Prensky's distinction between "digital natives and digital immigrants". I'm currently editing a journal special edition, and find almost every article provides some reference to the concept. Last week, I was in Edmonton presenting at ADETA. The reference to natives/immigrants was again abundant. I personally find the distinction offensive (after all, it casts a conflict between immigrants and natives in mild tone of intolerance). David Thornburg recognizes this and writes about his own presentation at an entirely different conference, and concludes that he owes his audience an apology for relying on the false distinction.

Why has the idea of immigrants and natives gained so much ground, in the apparent absence of effective research?

I assume the concept of immigrant/native gained popularity because it expresses emotions/feelings many educators have about next generation students. They are, like every generation before, different. The memorable distinction between immigrant/native is a theme that transfers readily amongst educators, largely because the inherent ambiguity allows us to see/speak our experiences and biases into the terms. The life we see in immigrant/native terminology is what we ourselves bring to the definition.

But I don't think the distinction has merit beyond a buzz phrase that has outlived the role it initially played in getting educators to think about the different types of learners now entering our classrooms. Let's explore Prensky's thoughts on digital Natives and immigrants (Part 1 and Part 2 (both .pdf)).

Prensky begins by saying that today's students are different. Our school system hasn't been designed to meet their needs. This is the first generous step taken in the argument - namely that we change our schools because learners are different, but we'll get back to that shortly. Prensky states (accurately, I think) that our students think and process information differently. Then he takes his second (very) generous step: the differences in our students today is tied to age, not simply experiences. As a result of these differences, we are immigrants, they are natives. Pop-culture-science is then liberally added to the discussion to generate appropriate levels of hype. Digital immigrant instructors, we are told, speak an outdated language. Multitasking is actually effective (though the immigrants don't understand this - after all, research is still uncertain (btw, that's sarcasm)). Then we have the personal slant: "every time I go to school, I have to power down". I hear 1-800 numbers being listed in the background as I survey a landscape of students unable to connect their computers to the internet...a voice saturated with concern states: "please, send 30 dollars a month to give these children internet access".

Prensky is blurring too many concepts here. I agree learners are changing. I agree our institutions need to change. But our institutions need to change because of the increasing complexity of society and globalization. Schools and universities play a dual role: accommodating learner’s method and mode of learning and transforming learners and preparing them to function in the world that is unfolding. This distinction may seem slight, but it's important.
Why should schools react to learner's methods of learning and interacting with content? Well, obviously, if we ignore how they interact with each other and with content, we are largely subjecting them to a mode of thinking (linear, certainty-based) that is at odds with how they experience life (complex, social, and collaborative). Contrary to Prensksy's views, this distinction is NOT a function of age. It's a function of attitude...a mindset of experimentation...experience with technology. Secondly, education plays a role in society that goes beyond reacting to emerging trends. Education's role is one of preparing people for life, for engagement in academic discourse, for awakening and nurturing talents learners are not yet aware of, for critical dialogue on "big trends" and how we should conduct ourselves in relation to these. Quite simply, education utilizes the tools and manner of expression and dialogue of a particular culture in order to transform learners into citizens capable of tackling the increasingly complex problems of the world. Prensky neglects this vital distinction.

Toward the end of Prensky's first article (p. 4), he adds a discussion of the need for teaching good thinking skills and "legacy content" (reading, writing, logical thinking) and "future content" (software, hardware, politics, ethics). He is moving in more productive directions here, though I again disparage at his attempt to force a duality based on age.

The age distinction is entirely false, unnecessary, and conflict prone. The school system is in need of overhaul, but as mentioned above, the overhaul is needed because society has changed, not because learners have iPods. Secondly, the discussion of immigrants and natives overlooks the fact that the younger generation often understands technology at a utilitarian level (i.e. how to use a piece of software for its intended purpose, but not much beyond that). Depth of understanding, social implications, trends, and other more advanced concepts are often not present (I wish I could point to research to support this - at this point, my opinion is based on what I've seen with students in the classroom).

In his second article (listed above), Prensky continues his general line of reasoning, but begins to rely on neuroscience to support his arguments. I would encourage Prensky and others to review The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations (.pdf) before beginning any discourse on research which finds its roots in neuroscience. As we were. Prensky suggests that because people have different experiences, they are physically different, which then requires that we design our entire school system to align with - here's the shocker - the field in which he consults: digital game-based learning. By page five of this article, the paucity of Prensky's toolkit is revealed. Even concepts like "reflection" must be handled in digital native language. If all you have is a hammer...every problem looks like a nail (Maslow).
I’ll leave things there. More criticism could be levelled at Prensky, but I’m content by simply stating: the premise is wrong (and offensive), the remedy suggested is wrong, and the research is needlessly twisted to lead readers in directions at conflict with even the slightest amount of critical thinking. Prensky’s articles takes readers through a very shallow dive of a very deep pool.
I recently attended a workshop by Susan Crichton and Karen Pegler. They presented research they were conducting at U of Calgary on the distinction between learners based on age. They found that individuals involved in work-based tasks had very similar technology use rates. However, when outside of the workplace, the younger generation was more likely to use technology for social means. While the research is emerging, I draw a few quick conclusions:
- Technology use is determined by context, not by age
- Our peer-group influences the manner in which we use technology for socialization

Aside from insulting an entire generation and coddling to the needs of younger learners, Prensky doesn't provide us with a compelling model forward (other than "use digital games"). Lately, I've noticed an increasingly strong resistance among educators to technology use in education. I think we are at a push back stage - many are afflicted with "technology weariness"...too many failed implementations, too many promises that didn't materialize, too many hyped-conference presentations, too much "rhetoric of the electrical sublime" thinking. The over-hyped "I've fallen in love" mindset often presented in relation to technology helps to drive hype for a while, but in the long run, the impact of this approach damages future - less hyped - approaches to learning and technology.

As I was preparing this post, I saw a link from Migel McGuhlin to Jamie McKenzie's article on Digital Nativism - a critique of Prensky well worth reviewing.

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