Sunday, December 1, 2013

Digital Natives, Immigrants, and Wisdom

Last time we talked about Microlectures and why they work so well for so many students. Microlectures are one of the practices we need to do if we want to be giving learners their best opportunities online.  In today's post were going in a little bit of a different direction. Today we're talking about Prensky and his theories on digital immigrants, digital natives, digital wisdom, and how that effects online learning.

I like watching Prensky's thinking evolve in the series of articles I read. The articles linked in this post progress from 2001 to 2012 and I have to say that I was impressed by Prensky's thought process even back in 2001. He had the right idea then. And I tend to agree with about 98% of what he says.

The basic idea behind it all is that "Today's students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors." They just do. And for him to say that back in 2001, imagine how more true (if something can be more true) it is today. We keep thinking that we can teach kids in the same manner that we taught them back in the golden years before computers invaded every aspect of our lives. Teachers bang their heads against their white boards (haven't seen a chalk board in years!) wondering why they can't get their students to sit still and pay attention for longer than ten minutes. Have kids devolved? Are we getting dumber as a species? Does everyone just have ADD?

I think Prensky hit the nail on the head. No, to all those previous questions. We keep teaching the same way because that worked for us. And for a few things here and there that might be the way to go. But overall, big picture, the assumption that same ol' teaching methods are the best is no longer a valid assumption. "Today's learners are different."

I found myself discussing this very topic at Thanksgiving this year with my 27 year old sister and my 22 year old brother. Digital Immigrants vs. Digital Natives. I used Prensky's analogy about it being a different language. Their generations (especially my brother's) grew up with this technological influence pervading their lives. They know how to speak it. They know how to use everything after a few clicks. They are digital natives. My brother can name almost every Pokemon created but I doubt he can name more than 25 states. He and my sister can quote movie lines verbatim but have a difficult time naming human body systems or even answering basic times table facts.

Why is that?

They aren't dumb (though we do heckle my brother from time to time about this being the possibility). They perceive the world differently than I do; school for them was a lot different than it was for me. They are just different than us older folk. Us digital immigrants. We are trying to learn their language while at the same time forcing them to speak ours. It's a battle. It's a battle we as teachers don't even realize we're fighting most of the time.

This is where online learning comes into play. We, as teachers, need to think differently than we have in the past. How can we reach these students on their level, with their language. Use technology to our advantage. Don't see the digital age as the enemy, see it as an ally, something we can use to get through to the kids, making learning more engaging, more of what they've come to expect in their lives.

This does not mean everything becomes a "game." I think, as digital immigrant teachers, we tend to equate computers with games. Goofing off. Non-educational. Yet so much has changed over the years that computers are much more than that. Digital doesn't just mean PC anymore, it can mean cameras, notebooks, eReaders, etc. And if teachers just take that extra step to learn a bit more about the digital tools at their fingertips, they'll come up with even more creative ways of including them in online or hybrid type classes. Prensky even says "What our teachers need is the freedom to implement what they know to be right." If they know that using technology will help cement a concept in a student's mind, why fight it? Why not use technology to your advantage?

And here is where digital wisdom comes into play. "Just knowing how to use particular technologies makes one no wiser than just knowing how to read words does." Immigrants and natives alike need to be able to make decisions on when using technology enhances what they are doing. While in this article I think Prensky relies a bit too much on technology aiding human thinking, I do believe his overall concept is sound. If we use technology wisely we can make most things better. Education is one of those things.

No, I am not saying put "smart chips" into kids heads. But, as suggested by Heidi Hayes Jacobs in this video, use the tech savvy kid's world to your advantage. She suggests having the students make a Facebook page for a famous historical figure- what would go on his or her calendar? Who would be on his or her friend's list? What would some of his or her posts look like? Another suggestion was coming up with Tweets; what would be the important information to Tweet to his or her friends and who would they go to? Stuff like that is easy, simple, very similar to writing a paper or answering questions in a book. It's just putting it in the context of today's world. Meeting the kids at their level and using it to your advantage as a teacher.

This is not to say every digital immigrant/native is at the same level. Research shows that there are levels within each of these categories that people fall into. As teachers, regardless of our personal feelings toward the integration of technology into our lives, we should strive to be the 'enthusiastic participants/adopters.' We need to speak in the language of the students as best we can and most all students are speaking in the language of technology.

So let's tie it all in. This mission statement blog is all about promoting online/hybrid classes for older students. These students are of the age that their life revolves around the digital world. They're on Facebook, they're on their phones, they're on Twitter. We, as digital immigrants, might not like it. You can not like it all you want. Doesn't change the fact that it's happening. So then we, as teachers, have a choice. Fight it, deny it, keep teaching the old way and hope that something sinks in, seeps through, ferments long enough that it sticks.

Or take advantage of it. Learn what you can from those natives and implement what you deem best. Use some digital wisdom and figure out how to best reach your students. Use this knowledge when designing online courses. You can't teach an online course in the same manner of brick and mortar schools and expect stellar results. 'Read this and answer these questions' online is still the same thing as going to class and listening to a lecture for forty minutes and answering questions on paper. If you are teaching an online class you have an advantage. You have the students attention using a medium that they love. They are using one tool to receive a message, the same tool that you can have them use to show you what they've learned. Have them show you how being a digital native can be to their advantage.

Like Heidi says a good question to keep in mind when teaching any class: "What year are you preparing your students for?"

Next up, social important is it when teaching/taking online courses?


Jacobs, Heidi Hayes. (2011). TEDxNYED-Heidi Hayes Jacobs-03/05/2011. Retrieved from:

Prensky, Marc. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. Retrieved from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prensky, Marc. (2010). From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom. Innovate Online. Retrieved from:

Zur, O. & Zur, A. (2011): On Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives: How the Digital Divide Affects Families, Educational Institutions, and the Workplace. Zur Institute - Online Publication. Retrieved from

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