Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, and Digital Exiles.

A modern Pied Piper of Hamelin?
(J. McKenzie)
[Editor’s Note: The original Pied Piper led the rats out of town, but when the Mayor of Hamelin failed to pay him the reward, he stole the town’s children away as punishment.]

Marc Prensky is the CEO of Games2train, a software development house specialising in games-based e-learning. Prensky’s latest book is now out, entitled “Teaching Digital Natives – Partnering for Real Learning”  (Corwin 2010) and Prensky is now emphasising the easiest way for failing schools to improve education outcomes is to adopt “real learning”.

Marc Prensky (2001) started a furore with his 2001 essay, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.

Prensky alienated a good many teachers and teacher educators at the time with his hectoring tone, and dogmatic imperatives. His ideas consequently polarized the education community. McKenzie (2007) even compared him to a modern Pied Piper of Hamelin who would steal the children away. To be fair, I think that comment is rather like shooting the messenger rather than deal with the message.

Briefly, Prensky stated that our 20th C and 21st C teaching methods were alien to the mind-set of the digital natives, defined broadly as those born since approximately 1980. He characterised the legacy methods of today’s school teachers as like an “immigrant accent”. In other words, no matter how hard they try to change and adopt the learning style of their students, their accent will be distinctly evident to digital native speakers.

Tapscott (1999) called this same generation of children the Net generation. Don Tapscott was the President of New Paradigm Learning Corporation. He has fourteen books to his name, mostly on marketing to the Net Generation. His business interests are focused on tracking the Net Generation in order to target them for marketing purposes.

Prensky believes in the computer game paradigm – engage with students by turning every learning moment into a game scenario. Of course he would think that – he is, or was, the president of a corporation that sold game-based software for e-Learning.

In Prensky’s constructivist approach to learning through game play, he says it means teachers have to go faster, using shorter bites of information, utilise more parallel processing. Less step-by-step, and more in parallel. Allow students to range widely across the digital landscape as they learn about a topic. Books are too linear, so books are out. Syllabus is out, because Syllabus is too linear and prescriptive.
Digital immigrants (teachers) still believe that their methods of learning are superior, and are unwilling to consider the methods used by the digital natives. For their part, the Digital natives (students) will never go backwards.
So, Marc Prensky asked, “who is going to make the first move?” Should the digital natives learn to tolerate the old ways of pedagogy, or should the digital immigrants learn and adapt to new ways of pedagogy, which are compatible with the learning styles of the digital natives?
Presnsky (2003) issued a clarification in which he stated,
“It is also a misinterpretation of my view to say that I believe that “legacy content” (reading, writing, arithmetic, and other traditional subjects) should be de-emphasized in our schools in favor of “future content” (digital and technological subjects and the linguistic, sociologic, and other structures associated with them). While legacy content is only a part of what today’s students need to know, much of it is still critical.”
Prensky (2005) despairs of ever changing the education hierarchy from above; he believes change has to come from below, from the students themselves. If not, then our education institutions risk falling into irrelevancy.
In a recent post on Education, Technology and Change Journal ( ) Marc Prensky appears to have softened his opposition to traditional classrooms and pedagogy somewhat. His prescriptions are less dogmatic and the language is more collaborative and accepting of the need to work within the system, rather than blowing them away. Gone are the apocalyptic ultimatums that characterised his essays from 2001 and 2005.

Prensky has also acknowledged that high-tech immersion is not for everyone, and developing alternative pedagogy is problematic. Speaking about the “disruptive” approach of teaching through technology, championed recently by Clayton Cristensen and others, Prensky had this to say:
“Certainly this will eventually help, but creating technology that teaches, and teaches well, except for the most highly self-motivated students, is extremely difficult and has yet to be done broadly. For our mostly unmotivated “middle students,” who are the source of most of our failures and dropouts, online learning has yet to emerge as a viable approach.”


Prensky’s essay drew fire from many directions. Some among the professional teacher educators saw his theories as a direct challenge to their hegemony over the direction of classroom pedagogy. Bennett et al (2008) went through his assertions, one by one, showing why they were either simplistic or incorrect generalizations. They summed up the fans of Prensky as panic merchants, trying to create an atmosphere of moral panic about the inertia in the education system. They concluded that there should be a disinterested study into his assertions, and their implications for education.
Bear in mind, their paper was published seven years after Prensky’s.
I think Prensky could quite rightly cite this time gap as strong evidence of inertia.


I hope you noticed something along the way– all the prophets seem to have something to sell. Call me a cynic if you like, but I think anyone who has a vested interest should be disqualified in this debate. That goes for the academics as well. Anyone who tries to turn children’s education into an application for a research grant should have to declare their vested interest as well.

There are too many entrenched vested interests in the education industry for my liking. Let’s face it, that’s what it is, a multi-billion dollar industry with hundreds of thousands of people employed, and hundreds  of thousands of suppliers who are trying to get their particular product adopted.

However, I think Bennet et al. were missing the point. Sometimes it is necessary to go “a bit over the top”, to over-sell or exaggerate a difference in order to draw attention to it. Of course it is an over-simplification to say that people can be divided up into two camps of digital natives and digital immigrants, but Prensky was right to identify digital natives as a new personality type.

Of course in the real population there are people whose digital preferences stretch across a broad spectrum, but within that spectrum, there definitely exists an extreme pole that can be characterized as digital natives, and there is another extreme pole that can be characterized as digital exiles. I suppose this places the digital immigrants somewhere in the middle, with the freedom to choose what is right and appropriate for them.

Bennett, S, Maton, K and Kervin, L, The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence, British Journal of Educational Technology Vol 39 No 5 (2008) 775–786

Culligan, M. (2003). Digital natives in the classroom. In  B. Hoffman (Ed.), Encyclopedia of  Educational Technology. San Diego State University,  Retrieved January 7, 2011.

Prensky, M. “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants.” On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, (October 2001)

Prensky, M, (2005) Listen to the Natives. Learning in the Digital Age. Educational Leadership (Dec. 2005- Jan. 2006). 63  (4). 8-13. Retrieved January 7, 2010

Tapscott, D. (1999). Educating the Net generation. Educational Leadership, 56, 5, 6–11

Fool’s Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood. The Alliance for Childhood.  October, 2000.

McKenzie, J, From Now On, Vol 17, No 2, November 2007,
Retrieved January 7, 2010.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *