samedi 19 juillet 2014

Digital natives – being or doing?

One of the main reasons for introduction of technologies in education cited in the last eight or more years is a “digital nation” argument (Buckingham, 2007). Many proponents of the ICT integration in the classroom argue that the current generation is born with new technologies and thus can easily use them (Prensky, 2001; Prensky & Berry, 2001). Consequently, teachers usually assume that students are “better” and “know how things work.”  However, Holley and Oliver (2010, p. 694) cite multiple researchers and state that “students are not, in fact, digital natives; indeed, they are not particularly prolific users of technology.”  They also conclude that we should be “exploring, rather than taking for granted, the practices and preferences of students.”

As a result, we may ask ourselves what it means to be a digital native and what it implies in a school setting. One of the most commonly cited definitions has been proposed in Prensky (2001) and Prensky and Berry (2001). Prensky suggests that digital natives are like native speakers. Compared to immigrants, they are born into a world with high ICT use, and are surrounded by its variant and multiple forms. As a result, a “digital native’s” brain and behavior may be altered. Prensky suggests that digital natives may be characterised by their habits and behaviour:
Digital Natives are used to receiving information really fast. They like to parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite. They prefer random access (like hypertext). They function best when networked. They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to "serious" work. (Prensky, 2001, p. 2)

In the paragraph above, Prensky describes a Digital Native as a person with certain behaviour. This person is “used to” certain forms of informational load, “prefers” a certain format of information, “functions” best in a particular context, “thrives” on a certain reward system and “prefers” certain work format. However, the same author suggests that this divide is generational. That is, all students born at a certain period of time belong to this category and behave in a similar manner. In comparison, Digital Immigrants – those who have learned the new way and born before the period of initial technology adoption – always retain their “accent” and remain attached to old ways. Prensky suggests that this gap is major and not incremental as many may think. “Today’s students have not just changed incrementally… A really big discontinuity has taken place”(Prensky, 2001, p. 1).

Many opponents, however, argue that there is no clear generational divide, and that this cannot be used as the only principle to define digital natives (Helsper & Eynon, 2009). Most of the arguments are concentrated on the assumption made by Prensky and his followers that Digital Natives are surrounded by new technologies that are an essential parts of their lives. (Helsper and Eynon (2009); Holley and Oliver (2010)) and many others argue that so called Digital Natives are not actually that different from so called Digital Immigrants: some are using ICTs, some aren’t.

In the scope of this debate, it is interesting to analyse the proposal made by Helsper and Eynon (2009). The authors suggest that we should “separate the ‘doing’ from the ‘being’. That is, we should concentrate on behavior, as Prensky often does, while still identifying the most likely categories of people that are bound to demonstrate such behavior. Following this proposal, it is possible to adjust Digital Natives definition by Prensky to encompass Digital Immigrants embracing technology to the point that they act like Digital Natives.

This divide in conception of digital natives, either as a generation or as those with certain experience and expertise with new technologies, may have a direct impact on the effects of ICT use in education. If we assume that the status of digital native is acquired, there is a possibility that some students, if not most of them, are not digital natives and may not be familiar with ICTs. For example, Cole (2009) has found out that her students do not use ICTs as expected and some do not know how to use them at all. Although most students used SMS or chat (92.2%) and many have browsed Wikipedia (86.3%), 37% have reported that they had difficulties with the technology while trying to post on their course’s wiki page. The experiment with wiki may have failed for many reasons, but one thing is certain: a large set of students was not familiar with wiki editing or how to find suitable help on the Internet.

In short, I argue that we should stop thinking that our students are better at IT: they do need training to use technologies appropriately, especially if it is not the most popular tool among this age group. 


  • Buckingham, D. (2007). Beyond Technology: Children's Learning in the Age of Digital Culture: Wiley.
  • Cole, M. (2009). Using Wiki technology to support student engagement: Lessons from the trenches. Computers & Education, 52(1), 141-146. doi:
  • Helsper, E. J., & Eynon, R. (2009). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503-520. doi: 10.1080/01411920902989227
  • Holley, D., & Oliver, M. (2010). Student engagement and blended learning: Portraits of risk. Computers & Education, 54(3), 693.
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the horizon, 9(5), 1-6. 
  • Prensky, M., & Berry, B. D. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants, part II: Do they really think differently. On the horizon, 9(6), 1-9.