Digital Immigrants and Professional Development


I’ve made it through the readings, videos and (a small percentage of) the on-line discussion surrounding week 1 on the E-Learning and Digital Cultures MOOC. The central question to the week’s course materials was of technology as either utopia or dystopia, or, as it is put in the course materials: “…how digital culture and digital education are often described as either utopian (creating highly desirable social, educational, or cultural effects) or dystopian (creating extremely negative effects for society, education or culture). ”

One of the readings was Prensky’s 2001 essay, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”, which is summarized in the course materials as  “offering a narrative of ‘native’ young people’s seamless integration with technology, and the revolutionary changes that information technology has brought, Prensky warns ‘immigrant’ teachers that they face irrelevance unless they figure out how to adapt their methods and approaches to new generations of learners.”

From theory to practice

I am a practicing teacher and therefore throughout any and all academic pursuits in the area of education, I can’t help but draw a line back to my professional practice, (whether or not the course has a practical focus or is strictly theoretical.) Talking technology with teachers figures quite frequently in what I do, whether it’s informally anwering a co-worker’s questions about an app, presenting about educational technology at conferences, or formally organizing PD session for staff on our university’s learning management system.  For the record, most (but not all) of the teachers I encounter are digital immigrants by Prensky’s definition, while most of my students are aged 18-30, and therefore digital natives.

Attitude, not age

My first observation is that the digital native/immigrant distinction for my seems to be more about an attitude that strictly a matter of one’s birthdate.  There are many educators out there whose birthdates would qualify them as digital immigrants, but who embrace educational technology and a critical examination of their teaching methodology in just the way Prensky urges. Similarly, there are many digital natives out there who, although they are comfortable with technology, are not proficient in it. They may know how to surf the web and use Facebook while simultaneously sending text messages. But many don’t know how to use the basic (let alone advanced) functions of everyday software like Microsoft Word, their web researching skills are lacking, and their media and internet literacy is non-existent. I teach English for Academic Purposes to in-coming university students, and as such the digital natives I teach are definitely not familiar with the specific tools they need to help them do the range of academic skills that they are being introduced to , such as Refworks or Zotero for research.

Above and beyond attitude and birthdate, I think another distinction between digital immigrants an natives is that digital immigrants are very conscious of a large between them and digital natives; they see themselves digital immigrants who are very different from digital natives, and they see this difference in negative terms. So they think of themselves as immigrants whose, to put it in terms of language learning, “language” has fossilized, and who will never catch up to the digital natives who have an innate advantage when it comes to all things technology-related.

They also slip into the habit of reification of technology. It’s not uncommon to hear certain teachers describe themselves as techno-phobes, luddites, etc. or describe their aversion to technology.  As described by Chandler (2002),

“The problem is that it is easy to slip into generalizations about ‘Technology’. …”Referring loosely to such abstract categories is hazardous. Some technologies may also be less determining than others; the flexibility or ‘openness’ of tools varies. And of course a technology cannot be cut off as a separate thing from specific contexts of use: technology has many manifestations in different social contexts. A single technology can serve many quite different purposes.”


So from the point of view of wanting to lead more effective training sessions and workshops in educational technology, what can this week’s readings offer? Trying to view the subject matter and the learning objectives from the learner’s point of view is essential. So how can we help digital immigrants come to embrace the technology needed for their jobs?

First, perhaps I’ll hand out Prensky’s article at the next PD session I run! We can both embrace and criticize Prensky’s ideas. Hear Prensky’s general call to action that educators must blend “legacy” and “future” content in order to best reach students of today, while questioning the idea that being a digital native/immigrant is  a strict binary determined solely by when you were born. That digital immigrant attitudes can be acquired, and that technology use is determined by nurture, not nature.

(And if we’re compiling a reading list, in order to encourage a more open attitude toward e-learning, I would pass along  inspiring the Daniels (2002) article, “Technology is the Answer: What was the Question?”)


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