The myth of the digital immigrant

grandadThe trouble with popular wisdom is that it is more popular than it is wise. One of the recent truisms is that young people are much better with technology than their parents and teachers are: this has been hackneyed into the collective term, “Digital Natives”, meaning those people too young to remember a time before the popular use of computer devices. Those who are too old to be included in this group are branded, “Digital Immigrants”. The caricature of the latter group is of the hapless user struggling to make sense of new devices and technologies, not able to communicate their difficulties because they lack the “entirely new” language of the natives.

EDCMOOC Readings, week 1 (part 2) – on education

One of the most pleasurable things about being an educator who came late to education after decades in rather more robust environments, is that every day there is the comedy of somebody discovering some new truth or embarking on some new initiative to improve this or that. Attainment, usually, whatever that is. I recognise many of the things we threw out as useless wastes of time in industry in the ’80s as being the bee’s knees of 21st century education. Much of the Newspeak comes from a whole industry of social researchers screaming the relevance and imperatives of their findings in the familiar tones of the operational researchers of industry thirty years ago who gave us AQAP, PRINCE, Agile and IIP. The characteristic of company evolution in those days was: (i) IIP, (ii), Knighthood for the chairman, (iii) fountain in the lobby, (iv) redundancy notices. Smart stock traders knew these signs.

Having set out my prejudices (or perspective, you choose), I’ll start my thoughts on the EDCMOOC readings with the fact that I was irritated by the Dahlberg reading as having the characteristics of arbitrary and pointless analysis. Social artifacts, behaviours and vocabularies populate the pages in an analysis well suited to the Golgafrincham B Ark.

The Social Darwinists

Prensky’s paper, in which the Digital Native/Immigrant terms were first coined, is according to Wikipedia, “seminal”. I think the terms have become influential in educational circles as teachers crave gadgets, gadget makers sell into ignorant educator buyers and careers are made in the squabble that is the justification for advancement in schools. The winners haven’t been the children. Interactive Whiteboards at a couple of grand each are scattered across the educational landscape with little or no pedagogical justification. iPads are being thrown at children. Prensky is for me anything but seminal (except perhaps connected with the second dictionary sense), rather he writes using emotive terms such as “singularity”, an abuse of physics if ever there was one, to make unjustified and unchallenged claims like

today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors

which is patently untrue, and yet swallowed by a global deputy-head’s mindset looking for some new initiative with which to make their mark. The brains we have, have taken billions of years to evolve the way they work. Except perhaps through the use of very slightly different language, they work the same way now as they did a hundred years ago. What hasn’t changed, perhaps, is the way we view our children:

When I was young, we were taught to be discreet and respectful of elders, but the present youth are exceedingly disrespectful and impatient of restraint (Hesiod, 8th century BC)

So, to suggest that one has to have been born before after such-and-such a date to be down with the tech is to create an artificial barrier between educator and learner, and a whole bundle of excuses to go along with it.

The Machine is us

Wesch’s video from 2007 describes a view of the evolution of hyperlinked technologies until the start of popular use of social media. Again, it is a semantic description of a part of the whole and takes the perspective of the user of the machine, ignoring infrastructures that are fundamental to the operation of the machine. It’s like discussing the development of driving without considering roads or the internal combustion engine.

So, what of education in the new world?

To quote Ewan MacIntosh, “it’s about the teach, not the tech”. Noble hints at the commercial imperatives driving education and this is  a consequence of the society we built. From the clamour for interactive whiteboards without ever considering why such interactivity was justified where the blackboard used to be, to the monetisation of education media channels, there is a pressure from commercial interests on educators, driven by the demand perceived when, for example, 40,000 people sign up to A New Thing.


I am generally between thirty and forty years older than my students. I know a great deal more about the technology than all of them. I make it my business to. Whilst I might make the occasional naive reference to emptying clips in World of Warcraft, I have the better knowledge, not only of the technology but also the pedagogy, than my students. I will not be intimidated by the social Darwinism of “Digital Natives and Immigrants” because it’s false. There is knowledge and competence in technology, as in other things, and these aren’t the domain of a particular age group except to say that if you’re older, you’ve had longer to learn.


The future. Where do we go from here?

8 thoughts on “The myth of the digital immigrant

  1. Nice, Nick. I do agree with you in many ways. The fact that I’m not a Tweeter wizard or don’t immediately think about searching somebody’s address on Google doesn’t mean that my students are necessarily better than me.
    I can see that using FaceBook groups as an aggregating place for my courses is good because THEY are more used to it than to moodle. Actually, very often they are only quicker in typing on smartphones than I am…
    Our birthday has not so much to do with our capabilities!

  2. I read Prensky for my MSc.

    Fuzzy generalisations. Rambling and unsupported premises on which shaky and bizarre prescriptions are based. Weird, and plainly wrong scientific assertions (the brain structure of today’s youth is different to today’s non youth) and demonstrably false assertions about age based divides. Arbitrary categories (future and legacy learning, everyone below a certain age prefers images to text, no one above a certain age except Prensky seems to understand that graphics might be useful in a classroom…)

    I had to comment on it during an interview – indirectly. I suspect it was on the list to test for student gullibility.
    Talked about my 67 year old father in law who no longer answers his house phone. Or smartphone. Which he has synced to his car stereo. No. He answers to emails sent to his account that he accesses via his ipad, synced to his tv so he can check plot, writer and cultural references, and cross post on popular cultural and film forums while watching. And my nephew who couldn’t send email.

    Takes about 30 seconds, a pair of eyes that are open, and a smidgen of curiousity to dismiss Prensky.
    Thanks for posting about him.

  3. Nice to see you share my dislike for Prensky. I guess you’re right, educational technologies are an attractive feel for pseudo techno gurus to write and sell books and give conferences without a real pedagogical or sociological base, affirming they’ve just discovered the philosopher’s stone that will make children magically learn more and better. It seems that, when it comes to communications, everyone is entitled to and capable of theorising…

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