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.