Digital Native, Digital Immigrant, and Shades of Gray

February 8, 2010

 Who are the digital natives?

According to Prensky (2001), digital natives are “those who have grown up speaking the digital language.” My interpretation of this would be that digital natives are those who are so comfortable with ever changing technologies that they are able to adapt, adopt new technologies quickly, and easily upgrade without ever becoming attached to a new technology, because they truly understand that technology is dynamic, not static.

Defying the Myths that Drive the Stereotypes

According to the defined age bracket, I fall into the Digital Native (DN) category. But I would hardly consider myself a digital native, nor do I fit the rest of Prensky’s DN mold. When considering Prensky’s (2001) characteristics of a digital native vs. a digital immigrant, I found that I was a combination of the two.  I prefer information quickly, but in a sequential order. I prefer graphics and text at the same time, and I multitask out of necessity. The problem with labels is that we are not cookie cutter people, and therefore, very few of us will fit a mold perfectly. I think that my classmate’s “tapestry” metaphor best describes the various abilities, tendencies, and preferences of technology users today.

Problems with creating the DN label?

Cheryl Oakes (2009) describes Sarah Fryer’s ability as a DN to quickly watch with her eyes, no verbal explanation, then create her own animation through trial and error. Oakes (2009) commented on the fact that verbal instruction was not necessary as Sarah Fryer learned to use Animation-Ish to create her own storyboard. I hesitate to assume that all our young students would be able to catch on to this technology so quickly, without verbal prompt. And this is one of the problems with creating the DN label: that we are attempted to make assumptions about the experiences, prior knowledge and skill set of those who appear to fall into a particular category.

Another problem with creating these very general labels is the number of people who are offended or discouraged by being slated into a “group.” Kathy Schrock makes it clear that our digital status is not black and white, native vs. immigrant, and that there is a shade of gray, which she labels, “digital pioneer.”

Barriers to teaching digital natives:

As mentioned in Greenhow’s (2008) article, “Who are Today’s Learners,” students want to be prepared for the creative use of technology that can be applied both in their recreational use after school and in potential careers. Teachers are in a really tough spot in many ways. Even if a teacher wanted to spend all of their spare time (which so many teachers don’t have a lot of) trying to keep up with new technologies, there are certain factors that are beyond teachers’ control. In many school districts/divisions, 

a. there is little funding for new technologies in schools

b. very few professional development opportunities or “time to explore” are offered

c. teachers continue to feel the pressure to control the classroom environment so that they can cover all the necessary content in order to teach the test.

Another barrier to teaching Digital Natives is the assumption that all digital natives are equally tech savvy. However, there does still exist a digital divide. How do we ensure that all students have equal access to technology? How do we ensure that all students receive the same critical literacy and information literacy skills instruction when, as we learned in last week’s discussions, standards vary from province to province and country to country?

Implications for those who teach Digital Natives:

Some might argue that the behaviours of DN’s online are guided by a set of social rules different from those expected in face to face interactions. This may be a result of the DN’s feeling comfortable with forming relationships online that exist only as long as is necessary, but can quickly be abandoned. As several of my classmates pointed out, this really isn’t a new phenomenon. As our social environment changes, so do our relationships. The only difference now is that this may be happening at a much faster pace with the help of technology. It is for this reason that I feel it is my responsibility to teach students online etiquette and the fact that their online presence should be a true reflection of who they are in person –  their values, strengths, interests, etc.

A Teacher’s Role

What is our role as educators of these “digital natives?” We are no longer “experts” at everything. We become the guide on the side while we teach our students how to learn, by learning along with them.  We need to differentiate in order to help all students, regardless of their online experience, reap the benefits of unlimited possibilities that technology provides. This means training our students to be leaders, to be able to collaborate with their peers and build on each other’s strengths.  This means letting go of control, seeking student input in the direction of our lessons, and being okay with the idea that, “I will learn something from my students today.”

Dr.John Grohol (April 2009) states that, “This task — of helping parents and teachers to understand the particular challenges of educating young people for a world of search engines, online social networks, and mobile media — is not overwhelmingly complex. It’s too bad that this kind of education is a low priority, while the moral panic that drives dangerous censorship, ineffective legislation, and frightens parents away from introducing their children to media practices that will be important to their lives in this century is overwhelmingly popular.”


Greenhow,  Christine. (September/October 2008). “Who are Today’s Learners?” Learning and Leading with Technology.ISTE. Pg.16-17.

Grohol, Dr.John. (April 2009).  “Forum on Our Digital Future.” Digital_Nation: Life on the Final Frontier. http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/blog/2009/04/live-discussion.html

Oakes, Cheryl. (February, 2009). “When was the last time you watched someone teach a digital learner?” http://cheryloakes50.blogspot.com/2009/10/digital-learner-last-week-while-someone.html

Prensky, Marc. (October 2001). “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” On the Horizon. MCB University Press, 9;5.

YouTube.com . Google D.C. Talks: Born Digital. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pyMln5GVyag



  1. Thanks for including the digital pioneer in your essay…you hit the reason I developed it right on the head!

  2. Thanks, Natasha. I loved that you included the notion that a teacher’s role is no longer that of the ‘expert’ but rather a 21st century teacher needs to be a guide and a facilitator and a ‘pioneer’. Your post reminded me of a conversation I had this morning with my daughter’s kindergarten teacher. I asked her how she liked her new smart board and she said she loved it (for a lot of reasons) and found it so great that the kids were teaching her things about it. I like that notion that students and teachers are learning together!

  3. […] integration can be implemented in schools.  One is at a personal level with small pockets of digital pioneers  who are risk takers and life long learners. This is the method I feel is most effective as […]

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