Prensky’s ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ dichotomy is just one current incarnation of the old “generation gap” cliché. Yes, I do concede that there might be a gap in the general knowledge and skills of what is happening in youth culture and what is happening in the culture of the parents of today’s youth. I also have to admit that Prensky’s notion has engendered a great deal of useful discussion among educators and the general public about developing new ideas to support learning in 21st century classrooms.
However, I think it is important that educators realize that they need to be very careful about making assumptions regarding student competencies with technology based on Prensky’s natives/immigrants concept. Often, I hear educators saying something like “my students know so much; they can teach me how to use all this technology.” While that might be true for a selection of specific uses and tools, all teachers still have a significant role to play in broadening student use of technology in the service of learning, collaboration, communicating, creating, and supporting critical thinking.
What follows is a cut-and-paste from the literature review section of a research paper I wrote in 2012 while studying at UBC. In it, I reviewed a number of academic papers that set out to evaluate the concept of the digital native.
The purpose of this review is to ascertain if there is solid empirical evidence that supports Marc Prensky’s generation-based conception of the digital native (2001a, 2001b). This conception, and the many ramifications for students, parents and educators, is very important to understand and critically examine because it can influence the decisions and policies of educators, administrators and politicians.
Don Tapscott (1998) and Nicholas Negroponte (1995) both laid the groundwork for the digital native concept. Prensky presents similar arguments (2001a) by stating that today’s students are the first to grow up with ubiquitous digital devices and instant access to information via the Internet: “our students today are all native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet” (Prensky, 2001a, p. 1). These devices, and the information, games and communication inter-activities they permit, have created a generation of youth who think and learn differently compared to the generation above them (whom Prensky, 2001a, labels digital immigrants). In a follow-up article one month later, Prensky (2001b) asserts that digital natives think in a fundamentally different way to digital immigrants and cites neuroplasticity brain research to support his claims.
Superficially, Prensky’s notions are readily accepted by many educators and resonate with the traditional generation gap cliché. This is nothing new. However, Prensky makes a very bold statement regarding the state of education built on his premise:
It’s very serious, because the single biggest problem facing education today is that our
Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age),
are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language. (2001a, p. 3)
Educators and researchers have a serious responsibility to engage critically with Prensky’s proselytism and hyperbole. Probing questions need to challenge the very premise of his dichotomous digital native-digital immigrant definition.
Selection of Studies
There has been a solid, critical response among academic researchers to Prensky’s digital native notion. In this review, I will present a balanced mix of very recent studies that seek to find evidence to support the digital native definition. A systematic assessment of all studies evaluating the digital native concept is beyond the scope of this review. Of the six studies included, there are three review studies, one quantitative study, one qualitative study, and one socio-historical study. I will demonstrate that a common conclusion exists in the studies selected. That is, that the technology use and competence of today’s students cannot be captured by a simple, general description such as the digital native portrayal. The reality is far more complex and variable.
Review and Critique
In 2008, Bennett, Maton and Kervin conducted a thorough literature review of studies examining the assumptions of the digital native characterization. They first detailed the claims made of this generation’s general abilities and then carefully examined these qualities and the results of research testing these statements. In their review of studies of university level students, they found that the primary use of technology were in the areas of word processing, emailing and using the Internet for leisure activities. Only a minority of tertiary students used Web 2.0 applications to create and share content. They also had significantly lower levels of competence than would be expected of digital natives. In their review of children’s and adolescent’s use of technology, they found a wide discrepancies in the ways ICT was being used with the sources of variation related to a number of factors such as age group, SES background, and the influences of home versus school. Bennett et al also examined the claim that digital natives prefer a specific learning style—one that is high speed, multitasking, and game based. Their review revealed that there is no evidence that supports the theory that today’s students belong to a homogeneous generation characterized by an idiosyncratic learning style. When researchers identified and measured learning preferences, wide variability was found in the group. The results are clearly at odds with Prensky’s broad notion that current students all learn and operate at what he calls “twitch speed” (2001a, p. 4).
In a related, later study, Bennett and Maton (2010) more closely examined the specific competence-based claims made about digital native youth. In their review of ICT access studies, a wide variation of access levels were apparent and connected to variables such as age, home, school, location. The complexities of measuring provision versus access also complicated the understanding. In terms of technology-based activities, Bennett and Maton state that while a majority of students did use technology to communicate and access information on the Internet, a minority used Web 2.0 tools to create content online. Interview data from some studies reported that students were often unaware of tools such as wikis and blogs. Additionally, studies revealed that groups of young people developed narrow competencies, specializing in one or two areas, for example online gaming, social networking, or messaging. The general conclusion of this review was that there exists wide variation of activities and proficiencies in the various samples surveyed or interviewed. This contrasts with Prensky’s view that all young people today speak with a new digital language unique to them.
Neil Selwyn’s (2009) literature review of studies examining online and digital technology use by younger students also presents a far more complex and variable reality than Prensky’s. Aside from other predictive factors that affected levels of Internet and computer use (e.g., rural location, females, and youth from families with a low level of parental education), studies in Selwyn’s review all showed wide variations between 7, 11, and 15-year-old children and their use of technology. For example, adolescents primarily played games, sent messages, and retrieved information online whereas pre-adolescent use centered on word processing, picture making and playing simple games. Selwyn also noted that various researchers observed passive activities online rather than active Web 2.0 digital content creation and collaboration activities that Prensky (2010) describes as distinctively digitally native. Another issue that surfaced in Selwyn’s literature review was the disquieting notion that pre-adolescents had difficulty finding and critically evaluating information found on the Internet. Prensky (2001a) asserted that digital natives are sophisticated users of information technology but Selwyn research review indicate that actual use and competence does not support this assertion.
Helsper and Eynon (2010) analysed data collected from the 2007 Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS) to ascertain specifically what variables best define a digital native. The OxIS is conducted face-to-face with individuals aged 14 or older. In 2007, there were 2,350 respondent s. Helsper and Eynon excluded data from non-Internet users or ex-users thus reducing the sample to 1578. They closely examined factors such as age (i.e., generation), gender, education, experience and breadth of use of technology. Their analysis of the OxIS survey data revealed that while generation was a significant variable in determining digital nativism, it was not the strongest:
Indeed, in all cases, immersion in a digital environment (i.e. the breadth of activities that people carry out online) tends to be the most important variable in predicting if someone is a digital native in the way they interact with the technology. (Helsper and Eynon, 2010, p. 515)
In fact, if age were held as the main factor in determining who is, and who is not, a digital native, the OxIS survey indicated that online digital activities significantly decrease after age 55 which would redefine the birth age of the digital native to 1952, not 1980.
In 2011, an interesting qualitative study of authentic adolescent use of technology and the Web was conducted by Thornham and McFarlane. These researchers saw an opportunity with BBC Blast to actually observe UK’s digital natives in action. BBC Blast was established in 2002 as both a nationwide touring media-workshop and Web 2.0 site that sought to be the ultimate destination for British teens wanting to learn how to create media, share media, and discuss each other’s media productions. The BBC Blast web site provided statistical access data as well as actual media productions and online discussion threads created by the age 13-19 users. A survey was posted on the web site to which 189 users responded. They also conducted 400 group and individual interviews regarding use of the site. Results of their inquiry revealed that teens rarely interacted with each other online in a meaningful or productive way. For example, many online discussions were sharing sessions of likes and dislikes (e.g., computer games they liked to play). Web site access data showed that the users spent an average of only three minutes on the site. Almost no evidence of collaboration or interaction was seen in the discussions. Additionally, questionnaire data suggested that teens would only consider uploading their productions if there was an incentive, such as a competition or feedback from an expert. The prediction that digital native UK teens would be self-motivated to use an online space to work collaboratively was not supported when this online space was made available to them. Essentially, cases in which teens were actually operating as digitally natives were the exception not the rule.
David Buckingham (2006) provided historical, sociological and philosophical background to the practice of generational definitions and their origin. His inquiry was based on a single question: Is there a digital generation? In his chapter, he chronicles the development of various generation gap assertions over the last century and connects them to well-known (yet hyperbolic) familial, educational, and societal moral crises or imperatives. He also asserts that generational definitions grounded in technological determinism (such as those from Prensky, 2001a, and Tapscott, 1998) often ignore the complex interplay of other factors such as government, business, and marketing influences. He also presents a brief literature review of studies that examine actual computer and Internet use by children. Again, the studies he cites concur with those reviewed because they “suggest that most children’s everyday uses of the internet are characterised not by spectacular forms of innovation and creativity, but by relatively mundane forms of information retrieval” (Buckingham, 2006, p. 10).
In the case of Prensky’s digital natives classification, tests and examinations of the current generation of students have been completed over the previous decade by a large number of researchers and it has been found to be an inaccurate characterization of what Prensky called “today’s students – K-12 through college” (Prensky, 2001a, p. 1). This subset of the population does not speak a language all their own which is distinct from that of their teachers.
It turns out that there are several factors at work that affect the extent to which today’s students develop the knowledge and skills that determine their level of competence with digital technology and Internet use. Prensky is correct that the current generation of children are the first to grow up in an environment saturated with nearly ubiquitous Internet access, the Internet, Web 2.0, and a myriad of digital devices. However, this does not automatically create a generation of digital specialists who can multitask and who are naturally collaborative, creative, and interactive.
Today’s students tend to use these tools in a variety of ways, and at a wide level of competencies, for reasons that serve their own individual wants and needs. Thus, students tend become very adept in select areas such as online gaming, texting, or retrieving information. Recall that Helsper and Eynon (2010) stated that it was the breadth of online activities that was most associated with the characteristics of Prensky’s digital native user, not age. Actual studies have revealed that a breadth of use is lacking; students who are using technology, usually do so well but in very narrow uses and in ways that match their interests and inclinations.
Conclusion and Further Study
It would seem that a wide variety of skills, knowledge and learning styles exist in the population Prensky calls today’s students. It is crucial that educators and policy makers have a solid foundation upon which to make decisions about pedagogy and funding. The portrayal of today’s students as digital natives does a disservice to both students and teachers because educators and politicians who accept the definition will make assumptions about today’s students that are not accurate.
Building on Helsper and Eynon’s (2010) analysis of the OxIS, and reviews of studies by Selwyn (2009), it seems reasonable that the collection of data regarding the levels and types of Internet access, and the types and extent of Internet and computer use, that today’s student engage in is essential information for educators and policy makers.
Finally, since it is clear that the digital native concept is not supported by empirical research, a problem now exists in the form of an inaccurate depiction of students that has been adopted by educators. How deeply is the digital native characterization entrenched in the minds of current teachers, school administrators, and school board administrators?
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