Reconsidering Digital Immigrants…

Editor’s note: The blog will run at a reduced schedule this week and next. I plan one more post this week and three posts at the start of next week. Then, the blog is going to be shut down for a while as we move to a different server and deal with some of the aftermath of the cyber-attack we received earlier this term. This may mean that I don’t get back into the full swing of things before the start of the new year. Sorry for the inconvience. Hopefully this will allow us to resolve some of the issues we’ve been having with the comments section of this blog.

I have written here in the past about my growing discomfort with the phrase, “digital natives” — which like all metaphors helps us to see some aspects of the world clearly while masking others.

Like many of you, I first encountered these metaphors in the work of Marc Prensky and saw them as a powerful new way of thinking about generational differences that were creating an impass in debates about media literacy education. Prensky laid out these metaphors in a 2001 essay for On the Horizon which has been widely read and cited.

Here’s some of what he claimed:

Today’s students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century….

It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors. These differences go far further and deeper than most educators suspect or realize….

What should we call these “new” students of today? Some refer to them as the N-[for Net]-gen or D-[for digital]-gen. But the most useful designation I have found for them is Digital Natives. Our students today are all “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.

So what does that make the rest of us? Those of us who were not born into the digital world but have, at some later point in our lives, become fascinated by and adopted many or most aspects of the new technology are, and always will be compared to them, Digital Immigrants.

Prensky’s deployment of the concept, as he himself has acknowledged, tapped a much larger history of use of these metaphors in talking about cyberculture. danah boyd and I have been corresponding lately, trying to track down some of the roots of this phrase. She finds, for example, that the same metaphor surfaces in John Perry Barlow’s “Decleration of Independence for Cyberspace,” one of the landmark documents of the first phase of the so-called “digital revolution”:

You are terrified of your own children, since they are natives in a world where you will always be immigrants. Because you fear them, you entrust your bureaucracies with the parental responsibilities you are too cowardly to confront yourselves. In our world, all the sentiments and expressions of humanity, from the debasing to the angelic, are parts of a seamless whole, the global conversation of bits. We cannot separate the air that chokes from the air upon which wings beat.

Prinsky has also pointed towards a passage in Nicola Griffith’s science fiction novel, Slow River (1995):

Those born before 1960 had the hardest time adjusting to change. They were the ones who would suddenly stop in the middle of the street as if they had vertigo when som shop window flared or called out, or get that haunted, bewildered look when the PIDA readers changed again, or the newstanks swapped to a different format.

It was a very specific expression: hollow-cheeked, eyes darting, looking for somewhere to hide. I had seen that same look on the faces of war refugees, or the foreign-speaking parents of native-speaking children. Older people were immigrants in their own country. They had not been born to the idea of rapid change – not like us.

And Prensky’s use of the term in Digital Games-Based Learning references Douglas Rushkoff’s Playing the Future: How Kids’ Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos who wrote, “kids are natives in a place that most adults are immigrants”

Talk of “digital natives” helps us to recognize and respect the new kinds of learning and cultural expression which have emerged from a generation that has come of age alongside the personal and networked computer. Yet, talk of “digital natives” may also mask the different degrees access to and comfort with emerging technologies experienced by different youth. Talk of digital natives may make it harder for us to pay attention to the digital divide in terms of who has access to different technical platforms and the participation gap in terms of who has access to certain skills and competencies or for that matter, certain cultural experiences and social identities. Talking about youth as digital natives implies that there is a world which these young people all share and a body of knowledge they have all mastered, rather than seeing the online world as unfamiliar and uncertain for all of us.

The best writing about digital natives acknowledges these issues, though it has not yet abandoned the word, in part because none of us have come up with anything better to capture the truths that struck many of us when we first heard this metaphor. Here, for example, is how Harvard’s Digital Natives Project justifies its continued use of the term:

Are all youth digital natives? Simply put, no. Though we frame digital natives as a generation “born digital,” not all youth are digital natives. Digital natives share a common global culture that is defined not by age, strictly, but by certain attributes and experiences related to how they interact with information technologies, information itself, one another, and other people and institutions. Those who were not “born digital” can be just as connected, if not more so, than their younger counterparts. And not everyone born since, say, 1982, happens to be a digital native. Part of the challenge of this research is to understand the dynamics of who exactly is, and who is not, a digital native, and what that means.

Talking about digital natives also tends to make these changes all about digital media rather than encouraging us to think about the full range of media platforms which shape the world around us or for that matter, the complex set of relationships between old and new media that characterize convergence culture. The digital may be what feels new to us who are of older generations but it isn’t as if these young people were exclusively interacting through digital platforms.

Talking about digital natives and digital immigrants tends to exagerate the gaps between adults, seen as fumbling and hopelessly out of touch, and youth, seen as masterful. It invites us to see contemporary youth as feral, cut off from all adult influences, inhabiting a world where adults sound like the parents in the old Peanuts cartoons — whah, whah, whah, whah — rather than having anything meaningful to say to their offspring. In the process, it disempowers adults, encouraging them to feel helpless, and thus justifying their decision not to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world.

In reality, whether we are talking about games or fan culture or any of the other forms of expression which most often get associated with digital natives, we are talking about forms of cultural expression that involve at least as many adults as youth. Fan culture can trace its history back to the early part of the 20th century; the average gamer is in their twenties and thirties. These are spaces where adults and young people interact with each other in ways that are radically different from the fixed generational hierarchies affiliated with school, church, or the family. They are spaces where adults and young people can at least sometimes approach each other as equals, can learn from each other, can interact together in new terms, even if there’s a growing tendency to pathologize any contact on line between adults and youth outside of those familiar structures.

As long as we divide the world into digital natives and immigrants, we won’t be able to talk meaningfully about the kinds of sharing that occurs between adults and children and we won’t be able to imagine other ways that adults can interact with youth outside of these cultural divides. What once seemed to be a powerful tool for rethinking old assumptions about what kinds of educational experiences or skills were valuable, which was what excited me about Prensky’s original formulation, now becomes a rhetorical device that short circuits thinking about meaningful collaboration across the generations.

More and more, I am also concerned about some of the implications of the “immigrant” metaphor. Let’s go back and reread what Prensky said about “immigrants”:

The importance of the distinction is this: As Digital Immigrants learn – like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, they always retain, to some degree, their “accent,” that is, their foot in the past. The “digital immigrant accent” can be seen in such things as turning to the Internet for information second rather than first, or in reading the manual for a program rather than assuming that the program itself will teach us to use it. Today’s older folk were “socialized” differently from their kids, and are now in the process of learning a new language. And a language learned later in life, scientists tell us, goes into a different part of the brain.

There are hundreds of examples of the digital immigrant accent. They include printing out your email (or having your secretary print it out for you – an even “thicker” accent); needing to print out a document written on the computer in order to edit it (rather than just editing on the screen); and bringing people physically into your office to see an interesting web site (rather than just sending them the URL). I’m sure you can think of one or two examples of your own without much effort. My own favorite example is the “Did you get my email?” phone call. Those of us who are Digital Immigrants can, and should, laugh at ourselves and our “accent.”

But this is not just a joke. It’s very serious, because the single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling.

Digital immigrants compute with an accent: they talk funny.

Digital immigrants are being defined by what they lack with cultural difference seen as an obstacle they must overcome if they are going to fully assimilate into the modern age.

Digital immigrants are seen as imposing old world standards on the inhabitants of a new world and of getting in the way of their sons and daughter’s opportunities to achieve.

These are some pretty out of date assumptions about immigrants — ideas as old as Ellis Island — and there are certain dangers in re-enforcing these stereotypes in the midst of a national debate about immigration. Surely, we should recognize what digital immigrants bring with them from the old world which is still valuable in the new, rather than simply focus on their lacks and inadequacies.

Keep in mind what a high portion of the folks working in Silicon Valley today are immigrants — information workers from around the world whose expertise and mastery over these new technologies are allowing American companies to succeed. So, real digital immigrants can probably outcompute most of the so-called digital natives.

Sure, some of the problems of current education are caused by teachers and parents refusing to take seriously new kinds of identities, new forms of knowledge being produced through young people’s informal learning in the online world. That’s at the heart of what we have been trying to achieve through our New Media Literacies Project — offering new ways for educators to think about what it means to learn within a participatory culture. But reading adults as fundamentally incapable of making that adjustment or as unable to offer meaningful advice to their offspring will not improve things.

Many young people are trying to confront unfamiliar problems on their own, without anyone around them who fully understands what they are dealing with or who can give them meaningful advice about the problems they are encountering. Young people don’t need grown-ups snooping over their shoulders but they do need adults to help watch their backs as they venture into realms which are often as unfamiliar to them as they are to their parents.

At one time, the digital immigrant metaphor might have been helpful if it forced at least some adults to acknowledge their uncertainties, step out of their comfort zone, and adjust their thinking to respond to a generation growing up in a very different context than the realm of their own childhood. As Prensky concludes, “if Digital Immigrant educators really want to reach Digital Natives – i.e. all their students – they will have to change.” Yet, I worry that the metaphor may be having the opposite effect now — implying that young people are better off without us and thus justifying decisions not to adjust educational practices to create a space where young and old might be able to learn from each other.

So, what would digital multi-culturalism look like? Can we come up with a different set of metaphors to talk about these issues?

Want to know about the debates surrounding youth and digital learning. If you live in the Boston area, you might want to check out a forum being held at the Brattle Theater at Harvard Square on Dec. 12, 5:30 pm:

MIT Press And The MacArthur Foundation Present

Totally Wired: How Technology Is Changing Kids And Learning

Are digital media changing how young people learn and play? A public forum featuring Howard Gardner (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Henry Jenkins (MIT), and Katie Salen (Parsons School of Design), hosted by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, as part of its $50 million digital media and learning initiative. The panel will be introduced by Jonathan Fanton, MacArthur President, and moderated by Connie Yowell, MacArthur’s Director of Education. Free and open to the public.

Free and open to the public

The event is designed to celebrate the launch of a new series of books being released by MacArthur and the MIT Press which share state of the art research on how kids learn and what they encounter in the new media landscape. The first six books in the series are being released this month and will be available online as of December 12. I will be talking more about the series in future posts.


  1. The concepts of “native” and “immigrant” might not be accurate but they sure did give us a place to start the conversation. Thanks for another insightful view on these concepts. I’ve put my hat in the ring about them at

    I think rather than thinking about generational differences we should think about levels of technology adoption based on exigencies and medial hauntings. Do you have a reason to adopt/learn a new technology? Are you hindered in your use by the use of a previous similar technology?

    Great post as always.


  2. As an immigrant parent (who may or may not talk funny : ) of native children, this really resonated with me, because I think you hit the dangers of simple binaries. My children’s ease with the computer at even prelinguistic levels is intimidating to someone who got her first computer as a teen; likewise, it is they who teach me typical children’s songs and have a hard time grasping that there are words I don’t know or pronounce funny.

    What this achieves, though, is an interesting challenge to the uneven dynamic parenting is, by default. Every child at some point realizes the limitations of their parents, and I’m not sure to see hints of that fallibility earlier on is necessarily a bad thing.

    One of the most rewarding things for me about fandom is the fact that age (usually a huge divisor) has all but become negligible. If I even know the ages of my interlocutors, it usually makes no difference. Skills and abilities and common interests dictate friendships far more than birth dates, and expertise in different areas allows for useful “trading.” It didn’t even occur to me how odd those friendships might be until I tried to explain to my family why I was visiting someone nearly half my age in another country…

    Moreover, these changes have also affected the way I engage IRL with students–it’s not that I didn’t respect them before, but these days I’m very aware that I am their teacher in one small area and I think I’ve learned to appreciate and respect their ideas more as a result.

    In the end, immigrant nations are vibrant and creative and alive as different points of views, experiences, and abilities meet–and I like that model quite a bit better than the pitiable and ridiculous boss who has his secretary print out his emails…

  3. Analog sure sounds better than digital immigrants. Yes, it does make it sound more literary, but basically, most adults are analog and kids are digital. This is easier to relate to. Adults with training and education in digital technologies may become a 10th degree analog person before they graduate to digital, but it happens.

  4. Scott Ellington says:

    If the rate of technological change/development is accelerating, it probably picks up as many natives as a rolling stone or a snowball gathers moss.

    It’s an odd binary that places the powerless, adaptable, inquisitive young on one side of an arbitrary line of demarcation and the rest of us on the other.

    I think we’re all just immigrants on this bus. Some pay more attention than others, but chronological age seems more a confounding than the key variable.

    Change is not well-made at fast food restaurants, even with the aid of digital technology.

  5. Michelle Marquard says:

    “…rather than having anything meaningful to say to their offspring. In the process, it disempowers adults, encouraging them to feel helpless, and thus justifying their decision not to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world.” Jenkins

    I’d like to branch off of a specific aspect of your blog I see as a fundamental challenge for parents in digital environment. In expanding on this I?ll incorporate something from a conversation my doctoral cadre had with you and your staff a few weeks ago, the gist of which was grounded “in an underlying cycle of fear and reassurance” and the ubiquitous nature of this cycle instantiated in the day-to-day experience between parent/adult and child. All of which is in-service of protecting youth.

    For parents to connect effectively with children in this new environment the way in which a parent engages a child in conversation and the conversation itself, as it would seem, must fundamentally change. “Just say no” is not a solution that engages a child in productive dialog that allows them to make effective decisions consistent with ones family values. Assuming family values are made explicit and implicitly practiced in the household children don’t have to think about “rules” but about underlying values that guide their decision making in the day-to-day independent of technology.

  6. Interesting. I’m always startled to be referenced this way because, to me, the digital immigrant/native concept is so obvious–though simplistic (a starting point at best)–that it’s odd for people to track who supposedly articulated it.

    For a fuller response, please see my own blog here.

  7. Annie Regrets says:

    Wonderful post, Henry. Here’s the thing: all early learners stumble and look goofy before they ‘get’ it. The accent metaphor is quite interesting in that online, accents don’t exist as communication is reduced to its symbolic representations — in short, there is no accent. Am I twenty? sixty? forty? ten? You may make a good estimation of my age, but it’s not because of how I express myself, but what I say and where I choose to say it. I suspect my vocabulary and my viewpoints give me away more than my fluidity with the tools at my disposal.

    There are also different levels of mastery, and the face of online engagement is increasingly consumer friendly and WYSIWYG. Frankly, it’s not that tough to master submitting a comment to a blog, or sending an email, or uploading a file. But you have to practice doing it, and have a context for doing that behavior that makes sense (like all good learning). My mom is now a pro at forwarding emails; I am getting reacquainted with lots of corny jokes.

    Also, please bear in mind that adolescence is a time of hypersociality, and every teen generation manifests it in different ways. One suspects that as these ‘digital natives’ mature, marry, have kids and hold down jobs, how they engage online, too, will change.

  8. A bit strange to draw such a strong line. As a college student now myself, I see differences on several different axes – social networking being one of the most obvious ones, where some of my friends check facebook as often as e-mail and some only use it to look up a phone number now and again. There are teens and young adults who “live online”, and there are adults who do so as well.

    I’d say the difference can be largely attributed to social networks – my friends are all online, my parents’ friends are in the neighborhood, my grandparents’ friends are at their church. So is it any wonder that’s where our lives center.

  9. Cathleen Deckers says:

    It seems reasonable that digital native/immigrant was a good place to begin the conversation to describe the use of technology. However, as the observation and research into this field has identified the emergence of a phenomenon that is more about participation than the individual it seems that our language to describe it has to evolve in the same way. What strikes me is that we are now trying to describe the kinds of activities that take place in a community versus that of an individual. The discussion about participation with technology (or lack thereof) is reminiscent of Lave and Wenger’s theory regarding legitimate peripheral practice and the evolution of expertise through the mentoring process and practice. The necessity for the practice to have technical and cultural expertise creates the value for both Old and New, whether we are discussing age or skill set.

    If we are going to continue the exploration within a framework that looks at the individual, I would agree with Nicola Griffith that the individual’s level of comfort regarding change seems to play a large role in the individual’s ability to explore, adapt, and embrace technology use within this culture. Perhaps Digital Innovator/Pioneer more aptly describes the individual who immerses themselves within the design of the technology only to appear on the other side repurposing it for other creative and useful adventures. Contrast that with the Digital Pedestrian that uses technology for specific tasks and only as an end to a means. This individual is all about the structure and rules needed to guide the practice. Again, both types are important in the larger activity framework. What might be more interesting for us to be exploring is why some people are more comfortable with constant change, can we learn this trait, and how best can this be accomplished. Just some thoughts from the newbie…….

  10. While the native/immigrant metaphor certainly isn’t perfect, the language part of the metaphor appeals to me. A “native speaker” has no age associated; you could be 5 or 100. Someone who is not a native speaker can nonetheless learn the language well enough to pass as a native speaker. Do you speak digital? I like to think of myself as bi-lingual, personally. There is also the idea that an immigrant may be able to see potentials and appreciate the wonders of the culture to which the native born are blinded by familiarity.