Digital Generation Gap

I like the analogy of Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants. In his 2001 article, Marc Prensky labels those of us born before the start of the digital revolution as Digital Immigrants and everyone else a Digital Natives. The analogy expresses the notion that the native knows no other way than what they have been born into and the immigrant brings predetermined experiences and ideas to new territory. Pensky’s article has been criticized for its lack of academic foundation, unsubstantiated claims, and even fictitious sources. The article is overstated and shifts focus into a justification for game-based learning, but to me it is successful in broadly addressing an important generational issue in education.

How does the Digital Immigrant educator design and deliver meaningful content to the Digital Native student, when they essentially speak another language?

The digital immigrant educator, according to Prensky, may strive to adapt to their new surroundings, but will always retain “…an accent that is, their foot in the past.” This “accent” may cause a language barrier between teacher and student. The language analogy is reinforced when one considers that, “Kids born into any new culture learn that language easily, and forcefully resist using the old.” This divide goes beyond communication and language, however to include methodology. Digital Immigrant educators must include careful consideration of what is relevant and meaningful to the Digital Native when constructing learning strategies that engage the learner.

Whether or not students have been physiologically changed due to digital experiences remains unproven, but I have always told my students that they are who they are right now because of genetics and the accumulation of experience, digital experiences included.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants – Part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6). Retrieved from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism: Digital delusions and digital deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). Retrieved from


5 thoughts on “Digital Generation Gap

  1. But the question remains do those digital experience affect how they learn? If the answer to that question is no, then it shouldn’t have any effect on your pedagogy. The evidence to date indicates that all of that digital exposure has meant little to how these students learn.

    • Digital exposure may not effect how students learn but if using a digital approach, such as game based learning, in the classroom increases relevance and engagement for students shouldn’t we examine it’s potential?

      • Barry, I think the key word there is “examine.” If you read Prensky’s books, game-based learning IS the answer BECAUSE our students are digital natives (at least that is his opinion). But examine does mean something more than trying it out and using our guts to tell us whether it worked. We owe it to students to be systematic in our data collection process. To date, there have been no methodologically reliable and valid studies that can point to a definitive link between the introduction of technology and improvement in student performance.

        I’m part of the late Generation X period (almost a cusper for Today’s Student in fact). My generation was the television generation, and there was an assumption 20-30 years ago (even 40 years ago) that my generation would learn better from the television because that was our thing. Study after study after study found that television had no impact on our learning. The one project that did yield results was the Jasper Woodbury project completed by the Cognition and Technology Group at Vanderbilt. Their project was able to yield results because their focus wasn’t on the television, it was just the medium (videodisc to be exact). What they were examining was a constructivist pedagogical method for teaching mathematics. And it was the change in pedagogy that caused the performance that students experienced, not the television.

        I’m sure at this stage in your educational journey, someone has recommended Clark’s infamous 1983 Review of Educational Research article (and if not, read it right away, lessons that still apply today). I’d also encourage anything by John Hattie. Hattie’s work deals with meta-analysis and examining what we have learned from decades worth of research on what actually impacts student learning. He has two recent books, both of which I believe should be on the desks of every educator!

  2. Hi Barry,

    I like when you wrote, “Digital Immigrant educators must include careful consideration of what is relevant and meaningful to the Digital Native when constructing learning strategies that engage the learner.” I think that the ubiquity of technology in our lives today needs to find meaning in the classroom; if students have access to these tools in their day-to-day lives, they should have access to them within the classroom, too. This would help teachers construct strategies that engage the learner. However, I think we as teachers need to be wary of a blanket “fix-all” for today’s learners. There is no substitute for a dynamic teacher and quality, research-based instructional methods. Technology can be a great addition, but it should not be the end-all, be-all of learning in schools today.

  3. Barry–
    To echo Lauren, you said it well by asking educators to include meaningful, engaging activities for the learners, who are constantly surrounded by technology. Its another tool in our tool box, right there next to partner work, KWL charts, and Kagan Strategies. More ways of presenting the information, the more students we reach!

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