Hello again, readers. I apologize for the delay in getting this second post out. Today I’ll be discussing a few articles on a topic that has been discussed as far back as 2001, when the terms digital native and digital immigrant were first coined by one Marc Prensky. Since that time, numerous debates, from whether such entities actually exist to whether Prensky’s own proposed implications for teaching hold any weight, have raged on (and continue to do so even within the confines of the very class for which I had to create this blog). In this post, I am going to attempt to summarize and reflect on three of Prensky’s articles on the topic, including his initial two-parter that introduced the concept, as well as an article from one of Prensky’s detractors. I will, as always, give my own views on the issues and, hopefully, prompt some of you readers to respond with your own. Once again, the references for the articles I talk about are located at the bottom of this post. Alright, let’s get started.
Nearly 13 years prior to this blog post being written, Prensky (2001a) claimed that the difference between students of the then current generation and those are past generations were not just marginally different, but that a change had occurred that was so monumental, going beyond mere fashion, slang, etc., that there was no turning back (¶2). This change was, of course, the digital revolution, and the current generation of that time was the first to have grown up surrounded by this abundance of technology and information on demand (¶3).
The basis for most of the forthcoming argument from Prensky comes in the form of a quote from a Dr. Bruce D. Berry. The idea is essentially that different experiences lead to different types of brain structures, which in turn lead to different ways of thinking and processing information (¶4). Up until this point, I can agree with the points that Prensky is making, but as we proceed through the rest of this article, the second part published two months later, and the follow-up from 8 years later in 2009, I cannot help but disagree with what Prensky is trying to imply.
Moving forward in the first article, Prensky (2001a), defines the terms digital immigrant and digital native for us. As you might have guessed, digital natives are those that were born surrounded by technology and an endless amount of information at their fingertips ready for consumption. Those that were born before the age of computers and the Internet and who adopted these technologies into their lives are the digital immigrants (¶5-6). The problem Prensky sees is that a bunch of these digital immigrants are now teaching digital natives and are struggling due to speaking a seemingly different language (¶9).
Prensky spends the rest of the article arguing this point. The problem I have with the argument is that while students may prefer to learn from certain types of media, it does not mean that they are incapable of learning from printed material and such. Of course I believe that if instructors want to increase student engagement in the classroom, they can make use of computers, videos, etc., but they can also just as easily have group discussions and student-to-student interactions to accomplish this. The word-for-word recitation of the textbook is a lecture style that has been boring to students long before the Internet came along. Lectures of this style are, more often than not, a result of poor instructor quality, not of a gap between two different generations of people.
Prensky brings up an example of a student who dropped out of university because of this style of lecture, but just as I mentioned in my post entitled “Is the Internet Making Us Smarter or More Stupid?,” this can be attributed to self-discipline issues. If a person frequently allows themselves to be distracted on the Internet, thus weakening their ability to focus, they certainly are not going to be able to focus during a typical lecture.
Prensky also does not seem to even think about those children that grow up in poorer families that could not afford things like computers. Would those students be true “digital natives?” Moreover, what of Japan? Here in Japan, printed materials are held in high regard, especially those used for education. We do not yet see many classrooms moving towards replacing textbooks with iPads and such as we do in the U.S. and elsewhere. Even students that own iPads, iPhones, 3DS’s, etc. still carry around books and manga in print form, despite the fact that both are available digitally. Clearly these digital natives do just fine with printed materials and older methods of teaching.
Let me be clear that my argument is that teaching digital natives differently than students in the past is not absolutely necessary, but I do think that instructors should think of ways to better engage their students whenever possible. Using technology that students are familiar with and enjoying using can liven up what would otherwise be a dull lesson, but it doesn’t have to be used as frequently as Prensky (2001a) seems to have been making a case for. I have to chuckle when I read things such as digital natives being unwilling to go backwards and adopt the old ways of learning, as if they somehow cannot use a book or obtain information from someone speaking to them (¶17). As a digital native, I certainly do not find myself incapable of learning from lectures or textbooks. I have preferences for digital media that I can take with me everywhere with ease, but I can learn from older methods as well.
In the follow-up article, Prensky (2001b) makes some good suggestions for engaging digital natives, such as using learning games, but I doubt that these suggestions apply only to those that grew up with technology (What Have We Lost section, ¶4). Just because a previous generation grew up during a time when boring teaching styles dominated does not mean that they actually preferred the way that they were taught, after all.
Unfortunately, while Prensky does cite certain studies on the effectiveness of these learning games, the vast majority of this second article is spent trying to convince us yet again that there are these two separate groups of learners (digital natives and digital immigrants) and that the former must be taught differently than all the rest. Again, there is much talk about brains being malleable not just in our formative years, but throughout our entire lives. Prensky continues to harp on this physiological difference in the digital natives’ brains and how neurobiologists and social psychologists are all in agreement that input changes with new input (But Does It Work? section, ¶10). I, personally, would like to hear more about the studies done on interactive games and learning activities. Moreover, if our brains our malleable throughout our entire lives and change with new input, could adopters of technology that technically fall under the digital immigrant category not be rewired the same way as digital natives through daily use of technology?
I am certainly not the first one to raise such questions. Bennett & Maton (2010) talked a great deal about these things and more. They noted that papers that followed Prensky’s moved away from ideas that excluded older people with sufficient exposure to technology. While this is certainly a good thing, the ideas that followed Prensky’s also all vary greatly in their ideas about how digital technology affects the younger generations (p. 322). The studies that Bennett & Maton go on to talk about are all quite interesting; however, and make many of the same points that I considered above even before reading the research.
One example is again about the level of access that children have to technology, noting that those children that come from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely to have the type of access to digital technology as those from high socioeconomic backgrounds (p. 323).
I found the research on technology-based activities to be the most fascinating, however. In this section, Bennett & Maton talk about the research that indicates even those that have access to digital technology are not necessarily engaging in the types of activities that others claim they are (pp. 323-324). This certainly falls in line with my experience with my peers, friends, and family members. While a majority of us use digital technology for research and communication, those that partake in activities such as blogging or digital media creation are certainly few and far between. Bennet & Maton’s paper also mentions research on gamers that suggests that while such activities may be common amongst children and teenagers, time and motivation for gaming may dwindle later in life (p. 324). I can attest to this as I have found that while I have and always will enjoy gaming, I do not have the time nor motivation to engage in it as I did when I was younger and didn’t have a job or the workload that I do now.
I could go on through the rest of the paper, but I believe that what Bennett & Maton ultimately tell us is that while a majority of those of us who have access to digital technology use it for communication and other now common tasks, things such as the amount of gaming, content creation, etc. that we partake in varies from user to user. We can certainly do more research, but varying demographics in schools and universities are certainly going to always produce mixed results. This is why Prensky’s original ideas about digital natives and digital immigrants was so off target, in my opinion. Prensky failed to realize that even younger generations of learners do not all have the same level of access to technology and, among those that do, do not engage in the same activities equally. You will have children that love to spend their free time playing games and surfing the Internet, but you will also have those that will go outside to play with their friends or practice sports more than they play video games.
In closing, I will still say that all types of learners (those who grew up with technology and those that did not) can still use textbooks to great effect, but they would certainly be more engaged by a game or other more social activity. Thus, it is up to us educators to learn to integrate these things into our lessons without panicking and thinking that we have to scrap all of the teaching methods from the past.
Bennett, S. & Maton. K. (2010). Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26, 321–331. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00360.x
Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. Retrieved from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf
Prensky, M. (2001b). Digital natives, digital immigrants, part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-9. Retrieved from http://www.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part2.pdf