A Jabber

On Tuesday evening, I participated in our group Skype chat which was focused on the notion of digital natives and digital immigrants.

It was a big conversation in many ways, not least because there were nine participants*, including Sian. Towards the start of the conversation, Karen, commentating on just how many of us were involved, asked if there was a collective noun for such a large Skype chat and Sian suggested a very apt epithet.


What followed was indeed a jabber. The conversation was multi-threaded and pacey. Some contributions were picked up and responded to, others were not: ideas disappeared into the stream of interaction, unacknowledged and lost. Dialogues weaved through broader conversations and some voices were lost in the babble.

One of the features of Skype is the alert which tells you who is typing. I found that this discouraged me from offering my views at times as I could see that there were already a number of people preparing their contributions for the thread. It was useful that Sian had laid out some ground rules in advance, thereby helping us to set our expectations about the frenetic and frantic nature of the conversation. This ensured that I didn’t feel anxious about the disjointed and hectic threads:


A number of key issues around the digital native/immigrant dichotomy were discussed. Firstly, Sian asked us to consider why the terminology persisted. Paul and Sai offered a concise rationale for the terminology’s refusal to die:


We went on to explore the problematic nature of using colonial metaphors and the fact that, if we are to engage with and critique the simplistic binary we have no choice but to use the terms.


The conversation moved on to exploring what other factors, other than Prensky’s reductive argument about age, might impact on whether we could be termed ‘native’ and some interesting points were made. Stig posited the notion that our ability to manage technological breakdowns defines the divide:


We explored who benefits from the embedding of the native/immigrant distinction. Both Joy and I have experienced teachers using the supposed divide as a way of abdicating responsibility, a way of avoiding trying to use technologies in teaching and learning:


The discussion broadened to consider the benefits and disadvantages of using technologies. As a technophile, I was surprised by some of the stances which my peers have adopted to technology. Stig, for example, is considering banning laptops from his lectures. Currently – and I’m sure that this will change as the course progresses and my understanding deepens – my stance is that we should, as educators, be inculcating good practice in using the medium rather than not allowing it to be used. Personally, I would be at a loss in Stig’s lectures as I don’t use paper and pens any longer: I rely on my iPad for note-taking. Sian pointed us towards a thought-provoking article about a ‘no-tech’ school and Joy mentioned a book ‘Toxic Childhood’ which also, in part, criticises the pervasive nature of technology within children’s lives. The notion of ‘solutionism’ was posited by Sian as a useful concept to explore when considering these arguments. Morozov claims that many of the problems for which we strive to find technological solutions might not require solutions as they might not, really, be problems. If we apply this line of thought to our examination of the introduction of technologies into schools, we might be advised to consider whether we are engaged in the folly of solutioneering where no solution is really required.

Some of the papers were discussed in a little more detail too, particularly Helsper and Eynon’s distinction between ‘being’ and ‘doing’; there was general consensus that this particular binary was helpful as it acknowledged the possibility of  acquiring what Paul termed ‘digital citizenship’ rather than excluding on the basis of age alone.

The last part of our discussion explored how to define what ‘nativeness’ is. Many of the definitions were considered reductive and Sian suggested that we shouldn’t perhaps, be trying to nuance – and thereby give life to – such a problematic term.

With regards to the dynamics of the conversation, Stig made some challenging and at times provocative points and it was interesting to see how the group managed this. Some of us quietened and some of us aimed to diffuse using humour. We also allowed Sian to step in as tutor to manage this:


Looking over the transcripts from others conversations, it’s interesting to see other dynamics at play. The Monday afternoon conversation, which had just four participants, was a more sociable conversation where the participants reflected on their technology use in less theoretical and more personal terms. The Tuesday afternoon conversation was focused on the readings but, with fewer (six) participants, the threads seem more coherent. What was also interesting was how the participants in this group supported one another in developing their knowledge and understanding of the tool (Skype) that they were using. Rory pointed out this ‘incidental learning’ as worthy of note. The Wednesday afternoon chat was another one which was characterised by personal reflections on technology use. One concept which I hadn’t come across before but which is of interest is that of the ‘digital tattoo‘, a far more effective metaphor than digital footprint.

Skype as a tool for discussion this week has allowed us to engage in wide-ranging discussions. However, by necessity, this synchronous medium doesn’t facilitate the detailed, rich, exploratory conversations which the asynchronous forums. There were practical difficulties too. Some participants were unable to join the discussions and others felt that they were not able to fully participate:


With regard to ‘presence’ I do feel that this week’s conversation enabled a greater sense of connection with the other students on the course. It will be interesting to see how our digitally connected community develops as we hear one another’s voices on Skype in a few weeks’ time.

*Sian, Stig, Sai, Karen, Sarah, Lorenzo, Joy, Paul and me.

Structured blog task

In his 2001 paper,  ‘Digital natives, digital immigrants’, and ‘Part 2: do they really think differently?’, Prensky posits that a significant discontinuity has occurred; this ‘singularity’ (p.1) is, he proposes, the emergence of a generation of students who have grown up with new technologies and, therefore, ‘think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors’ (p.1). Prensky terms this generation ‘Digital Natives’. To extend his metaphor further, he proposes that those born prior to 1980 should be considered ‘Digital Immigrants’ who can never lose their digital ‘accent’ and can never truly ‘go native’. If students are the ‘Natives’, teachers are the ‘Immigrants’ and this is therefore problematic for education as, ‘our Digital Immigrant instructors…are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.’ (p.3).  Prensky goes on to outline some of the ‘Digital Native’ preferences for learning which don’t align with the pedagogical practice of their ‘Immigrant’ teachers. He claims that educators therefore need to adapt their methodologies and the nature of the content they deliver to attempt to bridge the gulf between the digital student and their analogue teacher. The former group, he claims, have ‘little patience’ (p.4) for current educational norms.  In the second part of his paper, Prensky expands on his proposition the ‘Natives’ think differently.  Basing his argument on concepts of brain plasticity, he claims that the ‘twitch-speed’ digital space which the ‘Natives’ inhabit results in their having ‘hypertext minds’.

Prensky’s paper is based on postulations and hypotheses but he offers little evidence other than suppositions and anecdotes to support his claims for a dichotomous division between the ‘Native’ and the ‘Immigrant’. His argument is formed around presumptions, assertions and declarations, ‘Digital Immigrants think that learning can’t (or shouldn’t) be fun’ (p.4.) rather than around research and facts. He refers to experiments which offer supportive evidence for neuroplasticity along with concepts from social psychology which indicate that ‘people who grow up in different cultures do not just think about different things, they actually think differently.’ However, it is more than a conceptual leap to propose, as he does, that this evidence can be applied to the impact that technology has had on the thought processes of the so-called ‘Natives’; no causal evidence is offered. Many of his assertions about the ‘Immigrants’ are, at best, questionable. Any student of modernist literature and the ‘stream of consciousness’ via which authors tried to represent the chaotic and disassociated nature of thought would have cause to question Prensky’s description of linear thought which supposedly characterises the immigrant. Additionally, defining ‘reading, writing, arithmetic, logical thinking’ as ‘Legacy’ content (p.4) is an almost paradoxical proposition. Yes, multi-modal communication is a language which is offered by the Internet but how will the ‘Natives’ engage with or even create their digital world without these ‘legacy skills’?

Bayne and Ross, in their critique of a ‘poorly supported position paper’ (p.161) identify a number of other paradoxes upon which Prensky’s paper is founded. In ”Digital Native’ and ‘Digital Immigrant Discourses, A Critique’, they question the ‘over-simplistic binary’ of ‘Native’ and ‘Immigrant’ and highlight how this dichotomy disempowers the teacher, serving to commodify the transaction between student and instructor. Additionally, they tackle the problematic nature of Prensky’s colonial metaphor which has become a ‘conceptual given’ (p.161)

The binary and simplistic definitions of Native and Immigrant serve, they argue, to ‘homogenise diverse and varied groups of individuals’ (p.160). This over-deterministic stance can be dangerous; it ignores the differences and nuances in, for example, students’ use of technologies and ‘over-states the rift between generations’. They also criticize Prensky’s definitions as they create what Derrida would term a ‘violent hierarchy’, in this instance valuing the ‘Native’s’ position above that of the ‘Immigrant’. The ‘Native’, they state is associated with the future, the ‘Immigrant’ with the past; thus, the educator is not only disempowered but, they argue, ‘placed in a position which is both subordinate and impossible, within a discourse which situates her as both unable to change, and as being required to change in order to remain a competent, employable professional.’ (p.162′). This is the paradox which is at the heart of Prensky’s paper. If ‘Immigrants’ cannot lose their accent, can never become native, then how can they change to accommodate the requirements of the digital worlds dominated by the ‘Natives’? Teachers are, they claim, further disempowered by the discourse: they cannot criticize the ‘ruling’ digital power as ‘any critique of technology…as long as it comes from an ‘immigrant’…(belongs) to a marginalised, illegitimate voice’ (p.162). The violent hierarchy which creates the perception of the Native’s needs as being dominant also places the teacher in the position of service provider to the student; the past must capitulate to the needs of the future (even though, as they note, ‘there is little evidence…that students do desire more technologically-driven approaches to teaching and learning’ (p.163)).

Bayne and Ross also tackle the presumptions and prejudices which inform Prensky’s ‘unfailingly negative descriptions of immigrants’ (p.164). They argue that it is necessary to explore the metaphor’s wider meanings and connotations; in doing so, they expose more paradoxical presumptions, such as the powerful ‘Native’s’ reliance on the powerless ‘Immigrant’ for their education. They further argue that both groups are subjugated by a notion of a digital terrain which must be conquered. Quoting Sandford, they posit that teachers and students are creators of the space in which they are defined as ‘Natives’ and ‘Immigrants’: ‘whatever we have, we built ourselves and we can continue to shape ourselves (2006, online)’.

Bayne and Ross offer a compelling deconstruction of Prensky’s argument. They expose its paradoxes and outline the dangers inherent in a stance which subordinates the teacher and posits the impossibility of an ‘Immigrant’ ever being able to achieve the position of ‘Native’.  Prensky fails to separate the ‘doing’ from the ‘being’ (Helsper and Eynon, 2010) and this determinism is damaging to both teachers and students.

Prensky, M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants, from On the Horizon, 9(5): 1-6, and Part 2: do they really think differently?, On the Horizon, 9(6): 1-6.
Bayne, S. and Ross, J. (2011) ‘Digital native’ and ‘digital immigrant’ discourses: a critique, in Ray Land and Sian Bayne (eds) Digital difference: perspectives on online learning, Rotterdam: Sense.