Forum questions:

To what extent has the idea that there are learners who are  “Digital Natives” or “Digital Immigrants” manifested itself in your educational context? Is this assumption obvious in any of your organisational policies or programs? Is it a useful or an assumption that hinders the use of ICT by teachers and/or students?
 What do you think is a “21st Century Learner”? Given a century is a long time, and given they will still be “21st Century Learners” in 88 years time, why do you think we like to label our students in this manner? How might these labels impact on the way we lead the implementation of ICT in our organisations?

I find Prensky’s 2001 Digital Natives/Digital Immigrant terminology and the inherent generalised assessment of teachers vs students unhelpful. Stereotypes are a dangerous position as they shut out a well-considered analysis of any situation.

Whilst I would agree that growing up using technology is a divergence from previous generations, it does not equate to adept or consistent skills or creative use. If we invest too trustingly in Prensky’s terms, we risk overlooking those students who feel overwhelmed by technology. Supporting new Year 7s as they have started their high school journey just recently reinforced this thinking for me. To assume they get it, shuts out an awareness that:

1. many have not had the exposure we may anticipate;

2. some find the context of networks and digital connections at school completely overwhelming and

3. some kids really dislike that much of their world has moved online; just because they have grown up with tech does not mean it provides their preferred learning tools.

Whilst I would agree that education is a shifting paradigm and that ongoing change and evaluation are needed, I think a more successful approach is to consider the use of technology in education in more authentic ways. Tech may allow a differentiated classroom approach where it is normal for students to work in independent and different ways to support their own learning; rather than a wholesale and complete adoption of technology in the classroom.

As for digital immigrants, the 3 schools I have worked in over the last 5 years have all been very interested in developing a “growth mindset” in students. To take on a perspective of individuals born prior to 1980 as digital immigrants could prohibit teachers’ own growth as learners with an assumption that they can’t compete or keep up and that their own evolution as a learner is defined by their generation. The language of Prensky’s article sets two generations at odds with one another and whilst urging for change, it does not promote common ground. I enjoyed the Bennett, Maton and Kervin proposition that Prensky’s position reflected a level of moral panic and sensationalist language.

However, Prensky’s position has been a catalyst for debate and conjecture and whilst his notions may be flawed – they have given rise to necessary discussion and consideration for a valid position. Discussion, evaluation and evolution of teaching and learning are critical elements for ongoing success.

I think we need to drop the term, 21st Century learners. Our digital context really requires that we are all learners, so I think more useful thinking is the (perhaps also overused) concept of life-long learning. It’s time we used language that embraces learning for all, where all participants seek to connect with diverse networks to extend ourselves and embrace the diversity of literacies that technology allows.


Bennett, S. Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008). The “digital natives” debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the horizon, vol.9(5).

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 2: Do they really think differently? On the horizon, 2001, vol.9(6), p.1-6