Digital Natives and Immigrants

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This page originally authored by Jennifer Hanson and Andrew Jevne (2009)
== Editing Dital Natives and immigrants == Eric Bankes ETEC 510-65D This page was revised by Sandra Netzel (March 2010)
This page was revised by Kiersten Walker (March 2014)
This page was revised by Sarah Fedko (February 2015)

A digital native refers to an individual who has grown up using technology and is considered a “native speaker” of electronic media's digital language.

Students who are labelled “digital natives” are said to have a “natural affinity with technology, and seemingly, are able to effortlessly adopt and adapt to change in the digital landscape” (Waycott, Bennett, Kennedy, Dalgarno, & Gray, 2010, p. 1202). This generation of learner multi-tasks efficiently, works quickly, and favours interactivity while learning (Prensky, 2001a; Tapscott, 1998). A digital immigrant is someone who was not raised in a digital environment but still uses and adopts many aspects of technology (Prensky, 2001a). These terms gained significance in education when Marc Prensky (2001a) made claims that educational systems were not meeting the needs of digital native students.

Emerging research is starting to question the digital native phenomenon on a number of fronts. Claiming a lack of empirical and theoretical evidence, researchers are beginning to question Prensky's assertions, pointing to an urgent need for more studies (Bennett, Maton, Kervin, 2008; Guo, Dobson & Petrina, 2008; Wolf, 2008).

In 2009 Prensky, himself, reconsidered and questioned the relevancy of the distinction between the digital native and immigrant. He introduced an alternative term, digital wisdom which transcends age. The digitally wise person not only understands how to use technology but is able to use it to enhance cognitive processes. ( Prensky, 2009). A less polarizing distinction was made by David White and Alison Le Cornu (2011) who use the terms visitor and resident as opposed to digital native and immigrant citing that the spectrum between visitor and resident evolves is not static or based on generational differences.

Digital natives are most often taught by digital immigrants.


Researchers have referred to this generation of learners born after 1980, who have lived their lives immersed in digital technology, as the net generation, the millenials or generation Y (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008; Prensky, 2001a; Tapscott, 1998). However in 2001, Marc Prensky coined the most popular name for this group calling them “digital natives.” His well-known and oft-cited metaphor of the digital divide between “native” and “immigrant” is based on the belief that early and habitual use of digital technology alters the brain’s physical structure. He claims that “today’s students process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors” (Prensky, 2001a, p.1) and that the immersion in a digital culture from youth has “rewired” the brains of digital natives in a way that cannot easily be reversed (Prensky, 2001b). He calls this generational digital divide "the biggest problem in education" (2001a, p. 2) as students disengage because they perceive schools as boring and irrelevant, due to their reticence to adopt digital technology. Prensky has written extensively on strategies that educators and schools can use to appeal more to the digital native learner. His most recent book, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning, was published in March 2010.

Digital natives

A young digital native

According to Prensky (2001a), the term digital native refers to a generation that has grown up in the age of digital technology (computers, video games, digital music players, video cams, cell phones) and because of this possesses an ease with the use of technology that can be compared to a linguistic native’s comfort with their mother language. This generation of learner is proficient at interacting and communicating with technology and rely on it to access information (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008; Prensky, 2001a; Tapscott, 1998). Prensky (2001b) argues that the bombardment of digital input experienced by young people has increased the processing speed of their brain, causing them to be less linear and reflection based. Neurobiological research has led to a greater understanding of how the brain adapts to external stimuli, which is inline with Prensky's hypothesis. A cognitive view of digital natives are “claims regarding a distinctly “digital native” set of learning habits and behaviors [which] are based on the assumption that immersion in digital technology during childhood and adolescence, when neural plasticity is high, habituates certain behaviors that affect the way the digital natives think and learn ” (Thompson, 2013, p. 13). Much of the latest research supports the idea of neuroplasticity, where the brain's structure is highly plastic and malleable allowing the brain's capacity to reorganize itself in response to continual external stimulation.

Digital immigrant

For those born before 1980, Prensky (2001a) defines them as digital immigrants. Digital immigrants are those that who are not effortlessly proficient in modern technology. They may learn new technologies, however, will never be fluent with these forms of technologies. Prensky likens this to a difference “between learning a new language and being a native speaker” (Helsper & Eynon, 2010, p. 504). According to Prensky a digital immigrant will not go to the internet first for information, will print items out rather than reading them online or will search for information manually rather than using online tools.

Educational implications

Prensky (2001a, 2005a) claims that the most significant challenge facing education is that teachers, digital immigrants, are alienating digital native students due to the disparity between technological skills and appreciation for their use between the two groups. Teachers, digital immigrants, are using methodologies which are no longer valid for the digital native brain.

Prensky (2001a) asserts that as non-natives in a technological culture, digital immigrants need to develop a pedagogy that is better suited to the learning style of digital natives. The term digital native denotes a generational difference that supports a view of society “ as a new era that is fundamentally different and signals a break with previous times where technology is a key driver of this change” (Helsper & Eynon, 2013, p. 518). Technology being the driver of this change is seen as the “fix” or “solution” to many educational challenges (Helsper & Eynon, 2013).

This increasing demand for technology implementation as Don Tapscott(1998) noted is due to concerns with more traditional methods of teaching: 'There is growing appreciation that the old approach [of didactic teaching] is ill-suited to the intellectual, social, motivational, and emotional needs of the new generation' (p.131).

George Siemens, who developed the learning theory known as connectivism, observed that with the short half-life of knowledge, earlier educational priorities such as “know how” and “know what” need to be replaced by “know where” (2004).

Digital natives have grown up receiving immediate feedback from modern communication devices and video games, and they require a level of interactivity and energy in class that traditional educational practitioners—even tech savvy digital immigrants—are not accustomed to providing. Prensky favours a more game-based delivery method to keep students engaged, noting that digital natives, who are frequently criticized for short attention spans, have no difficulty in paying attention to video games (2001b). Prensky also advocates teaching future-focused subjects such as "software, hardware, robotics, nanotechnology, [and] genomics" (Prensky, 2001a, p. 4). Jukes & Dosaj's, (2003) chart outlines the key differences between digital native learners and their digital immigrant teachers.

Digital natives and immigrants.jpg

The digital native debate

Emerging research is starting to question the digital native phenomenon on a number of fronts, claiming a lack of empirical and theoretical evidence and pointing to an urgent need for more research (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008; Guo, Dobson & Petrina, 2008; Wolf, 2008). Bennett et. al. (2008) argue that Prensky and others are creating an academic moral panic -- a state in which the reaction is more severe than the problem -- by suggesting that the neurological gap between instructor and students is creating a crisis in our schools. Indeed, there is no research to conclude that there is widespread disenchantment amongst Digital natives with schools and learning (Bennett, 781). In fact, some studies suggest that while students have little interest in more technology in the classroom, they highly value face-to-face interaction with the teaching and see it as key to their academic success (Stoerger.)

A major criticism of the digital natives paradigm is that it homogenises an entire generation, discounting access and technical skill disparities resulting from developmental, socioeconomic, gender, and cultural differences; effectively erasing the educational needs of the individual; and privileging the technically adept (Bennett, et. al., 2008; Guo et. al, 2008). Students who are considered “digital natives” are thought to be better able to be involved, and learn within the classroom if they are able to connect and interact with technology they are familiar with, however, “the discourse on digital natives treats everyday knowledge and academic knowledge as equivalent and therefore assumes that the practices young people engage in everyday settings are unproblematically transferable to educational settings” (Jaffer, 2010, p. 281).

Other studies question whether digital natives' technical skills are actually more advanced than older generations. Recent studies found no real differences between the two groups (Guo et. al., 2008). Other researchers note that digital natives may know how to use technology, but lack a critical understanding of the media. They argue that that educators and schools have a critical role to play in building new media literacies (Bennett et. al, 2008). Indeed, some academics believe that technological literacy has more to do with experience than being part of a particular generation (Oblinger & Oblinger.) Therefore, it comes as no surprise that technology skills vary widely amongst digital natives (as they might against any group) based on a variety of factors such as country of origin, socioeconomic status, rural or urban background.

In research performed, Helsper and Eynon (2013) used three variables in determining how to classify a digital native: age, experience and breath of use. Their definition of a digital native is “someone who multi-tasks, has access to a range of new technologies, is confident in their use of technologies, uses the internet as a first port of call for information and…uses the internet for learning as well as other activities” (p. 506).

Their research exemplifies that “breadth of use, experience, self-efficacy and education are just as, if not more, important than age in explaining how people become digital natives” (Helsper & Eynon, 2013, p. 504) suggesting that inaccurate assumptions regarding students’ ability to use technology are harmful in educational settings.

Others question whether children's brains are changing in response to digital media stimuli as hypermedia is supposedly modeled on how the mind works (Bush, 1945; Jonassen, 1990 cited in Guo, et. al., 2008). They ask if this is the case, why would the brain need to adapt to something made in the image of itself? (Guo et. al., 2008).

Cognitive psychologist Richard Mayer, however, doubts the brain has changed. He asserts that people learn according to the constructivist learning principles outlined by theorists such as Vygotsky, Piaget and Dewey. He advocates applying constructivist learning theory to the design of multimedia instructional tools, and suggests extensive experimentation is required to determine their most fruitful learning applications (Landis, 2008).

Other detractors believe, like Prensky, that the brain is changing as a result of digital technology. However, they are alarmed by the unknown and potentially damaging effects of those changes (Wolf, 2008). Wolf (2008) argues that the human brain has evolved to be able to read deeply, what she defines as the ability to interpret, infer, gain insight and comprehend. She worries that because the Internet promotes a frenetic and superficial style of reading, the thinking style of digital natives will develop with those same characteristics. Prensky's critics ultimately call for more research to determine what effect digital media has on the human brain, and if there is a difference in its effects on children and adults (Bennett et. al., 2008; Guo et. al., 2008; Wolf, 2008).

Digital wisdom

Prensky's (2009) latest research rethinks the digital native/digital immigrant debate. He writes that it may no longer be relevant as we move further into the 21st century and nearly everyone is online. He states that the question we should ponder for the future is no longer whether to use technologies but rather how to use them to become wiser people. He makes a case for digital wisdom, which he describes as "wisdom arising from the use of digital technologies to access cognitive power beyond our innate capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities" (Prensky, 2009, para. 2). Digital tools like databases, laptops, simulations -- and increasingly complex future tools that link directly with the brain, such as technology that allows gamers to control onscreen action with their minds -- scaffold cognitive processes like memory and judgment beyond what the average human is capable of (Prensky, 2009). Prensky (2009) argues that the 21st century person who embraces these future tools and realizes their full potential through them is "digitally enhanced" or a "homo sapiens digital." But, he contends digital wisdom is more than just being able to use digital tools, it is also the ability make informed, wiser decisions because of technology and this ability is not soley the domain of the net generation. Prensky (2009) sees digital wisdom as a learned skill that must be taught in schools and encouraged by parents to give students opportunities, context and guidance in using future digital technologies.

Visitors and residents

White and Le Cornu (2011) propose an alternative to the term digital native and immigrants: visitors and residents which is not meant to be a replacement, but a more flexible paradigm. White and Le Cornu (2011) while critical of Prensky’s terms recognize the usefulness of typologies in differentiating learning theories, styles and theories themselves, but state that Prensky’s metaphor was useful in a time when technology was not as prevalent and ubiquitous.

Visitors “understand the Web as akin to an untidy garden shed’ (White & Le Cornu, 2011, IV.1, para. 1) taking tools they need out of the shed when needed and putting them back. Visitors may progress in terms of the complexity and frequency of tools they use, however, there is not always a necessary need to progress towards being a resident.

Residents “see the web as a place, perhaps like a park or a building in which there are clusters of friends and colleagues whom they can approach and with whom they can share information about their life and work” (White & Le Cornu, 2011, IV.2, para. 1).

They tie the metaphor of tool and place in describing differences between a visitor and resident. With the inception of social media they state that the metaphor of place is one that lends itself easily to the "experiences people have when they are engaged and interacting socially with others via a computer" (White & Le Cornu, 2011, III.1, para. 4)

White and Le Cornu stress that their typology be understood as a continuum and not a binary opposition. The goal is not for visitors to become residents, and it may not be true that visitors are less technologically adapt than residents. They stress the understanding of digital literacy in differentiating between visitors and residents. Residents may have prevalent online profiles leaving a much greater digital footprint than that of a visitor. When Prensky used the terms digital native and immigrant he did so before a time when social media was widely used and popular and before many current forms of social media were invented.

Watch Lynn Silipigni Connaway & David White S. White discuss "Digital Visitors and Residents: What Motivates Engagement with the Digital Information Environment?"

Stop Motion

Eric Bankes Submission for ETEC 510 65D Digital Natives and Immigrants stop motion video

Amanda Iadeluca's stop motion video for ETEC 510, 65A (2018):

External links

Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation is Changing Your World

Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives

Dumbed Down

Searching for Dummies

The Digital Melting Pot

Computers in Schools Could Do More Harm than Good


Visitors and Residents

Not Native/Immigrants but Visitors and Residents

Digital literacy


Bennett, S., Maton, K, & Kervin, L. (2008). The 'digital natives' debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5), 775-86. Retrieved February 21, 2009 from Education Full Text database.

CBC: The Best of the Sunday Edition in the Summer (2008, July 19). Interview with Maryanne Wolf [Audio]. CBC Radio Podcast. Retrieved July 20, 2008 from

Guo, R X, Dobson, T, & Petrina, S. (2008). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: An Analysis of Age and ICT Competency in Teacher Education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 38 ( 3), 235-54. Retrieved February 21, 2009 from Education Full Text database.

Helsper, E. J., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503–520. doi:10.1080/01411920902989227

Jaffer, S. (2010). Educational technology pedagogy: A looseness of fit between learning theories and pedagogy. Education as Change, 14(2), 273–287. doi:10.1080/16823206.2010.522066

Jukes, I, & Dosaj, A. (2003, February). The differences between digital native learners and digital immigrant teachers. The InfoSavvy Group. Retrieved February 23, 2009 from

Landis, M. (2008). Face Off – Mayer v. Prensky: Two Views of Multimedia Instruction. Retrieved January 31, 2009 from

Oblinger, D., & Oblinger, J. (2005). Is it age or IT: First steps toward understanding the net generation. Educating the net generation, 2(1-2), 20.

Oblinger, D. G. (2008). Growing up with Google. What it means to education. Emerging Technologies for Learning, 3, 11-29.

Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On The Horizon, 9(5), 1-6.

Prensky, M. (2001b). Do they really think differently? On The Horizon, 9(6), 1-9. Retrieved February 20, 2009 from

Prensky, M. (2009.) H. sapiens digital: From digital immigrants and digital natives to digital wisdom. Innovate, 5 (3). Retrieved February 21, 2009 from

Siemens, G. (2004) Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. Retrieved February 27, 2009 from

Smith, E. (2012). The digital native debate in higher education: a comparative analysis of recent literature. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 38(3).

Stoerger, S. (2009). The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide. First Monday, 14(7).

Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Thompson, P. (2013). The digital natives as learners: Technology use patterns and approaches to learning. Computers & Education, 65, 12–33. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2012.12.022

Waycott, J., Bennett, S., Kennedy, G., Dalgarno, B., & Gray, K. (2010). Digital divides? Student and staff perceptions of information and communication technologies. Computers & Education, 54(4), 1202–1211. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.11.006

White, D. S., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and Residents : A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). Retrieved from