ELTpics @grahamstanley-1

Digital Familiarity: The myth of the Digital Native

The terms Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants were coined back in 2001 by Marc Prensky. This idea has been around for 14 years and the term still appears in blogs, websites, books and presentations.  Are digital natives real, or are they are myth?

Let’s look at three different articles that explore how people relate to technology.

Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants

Marc Prensky wrote ‘Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants‘ in 2001 in which he argues that technology has changed how students think and teachers need to adapt their methodology to teach them.

Digital Natives are described as being…

“…“native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet”

Whereas Digital Immigrants are described as an older generation who find technology more difficult to adjust to. They rely more on the way they were taught.

Some people agree and others disagree.  I agree that technology has had a big impact on the world, and agree with adapting methodologies to incorporate all available resources, but I disagree with the terminology. Prensky says:

“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.”

I felt that this was quite demotivating. I felt as if I was being told what I could never be. I had to remind myself though that this was written 14 years, back when people were using LiveJournal. Social media didn’t really exist and it was two years before MySpace, three years before the launch of Facebook and five years before Twitter.

It was also six years before the first iPhone, which really began the mass adoption of the smartphone. Now, more are more people live a life that is integrated with technology. Regardless of their age.

Digital Residents – Digital Visitors

David S. White and Alison Le Cornu (2011) commented in ‘Visitors and Residents: A new typology for online engagement‘ that this idea of Digital Natives and Digital immigrants has…

“…provoked a sense of panic among ‘Immigrant educators’ who now perceive themselves wrong–footed and unable to step up to the plate.”

Creating a sense of self-doubt that you are unable to relate to your students because you are not a digital native.

In their article they choose the terms Digital Resident and Digital Visitor and they argue that “tools, places and spaces” are more important. When they discuss digital residents, they state:

“A proportion of their lives is actually lived out online where the distinction between online and off–line is increasingly blurred.”

Age has become less of a factor than how integrated their lives have become with technology. Also, there is no stark contrast between digital visitor and digital resident. It’s more of a line where you could place yourself anywhere along it.

The biggest thing that I took away from this article is that the internet can be regarded as a space, a place to interact, and place to gather and organize information and a place to be part of learning communities. It is a melting pot of different interactions.

The Digital Melting Pot

Sharon Stroeger wrote an article in 2009 called ‘The digital melting pot: Bridging the digital native-immigrant divide.‘ This is possibly my favorite description about how people relate to technology.

“The metaphor of a “melting pot” brings to mind a less divided and disconnected vision. Here, the term digital melting pot refers to the blending of individuals who speak with different technology tongues”

People aren’t one thing or another, but they can be a community of people who can come together and learn from each other’s strengths. I can show you how to do X if you show me how to do Y.

Stroeger also says:

“Just because students can open up Google in their Web browser does not mean that they know how to find quality information resources.”

In any single class, you will have students with a range of capabilities with technology and differences in how they interact with it. We shouldn’t assume that because of their age they will all be aware of the potential of technology. 

I think each of these articles have their merits. Marc Prensky’s article talks about finding ways to relate to students and to make the learning experience more fun and less linear. White and Le Cornu talk about how we interact with technology and the world, while Stroeger reminds us that people have different abilities and can learn from each other.

What each of these articles are really discussing is Digital Familiarity. How well students and teachers make use of the digital resources that surround them.

Digital Familiarity

I couldn’t think of another phrase that expressed my opinion, so for better or worse, I have chosen digital familiarity.

Technology is such a broad area that people naturally have different strengths and weaknesses. It is a melting pot. Not everyone has access to the same technologies and if you are surrounded by an abundance of technology it is difficult to be familiar with them all. You might not have used them because you didn’t need to use them.

Digital Familiarity Word Cloud
Created with Tagul.com

However, just because you haven’t used a tool, doesn’t mean you can’t learn to use it, learn to use it well, or learn to use to a level where you can teach it as a skill to others.  

This is why I think the digital native is a myth, because anyone can develop and explore new skills if they have the motivation to do so. Younger people may at times seem to be more familiar with technology, but that is because they are at an age when they are asking questions, exploring the world and interacting with it using the resources available to them. That’s how we gain experience.

As we get older there is a danger that we stop finding new ways to explore and interact with the world. We get to an age when the catalyst for change is need rather than curiosity or play, but age is not an excuse for letting go of our curiosity.

Which is why you find that younger people who aren’t interested in technology are less tech savvy than someone from the generation before them who are still helping to develop new technologies. Curiosity.

Am I familiar with…?

We shouldn’t feel demotivated because we are not ‘digital natives,’ and we shouldn’t think that we have less to offer (about technology) to our students because they are the digital residents. All we have to do is identify want we want to learn and motivate ourselves to find a little time to learn it.

I’m familiar with PowerPoint but I’m less familiar with the finer points of Prezi. So, I will try to find a bit of time to learn more about Prezi and develop some more skills without a ‘digital immigrant’s accent.’

What do you think about Digital Natives? What are you familiar with? What are you interested in learning about?

Leave a comment and let me know. What do you want to become more familiar with?

I will try to feature some of the responses on this site.

Alternatively you can send me a message on my Facebook page or Twitter.

Take Care!

If you are not sure what you want to learn about, try these websites or Facebook pages to look for ideas.

Leave a comment if you have any links you would like to share:


How to Geek

EdTech Magazine

EdTech Times

There are a lot of websites that deal with technology and EdTech on the internet. Here are three large ones, but there are also hundreds of smaller blogs (like mine).


A random selection of Facebook pages that discuss EdTech. There is a large community and some software packages will have a Facebook page as well.

Teacher Training Videos

Technology in English Language Teaching

Free Technology for Teachers

Education Technology

Featured Image made using a photo taken from http://flickr.com/eltpics by @grahamstanley, used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license,http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/3.0/

‘Teacher Training Videos’ was introduced to me by Elena Matveeva from Language Flame.

9 thoughts on “Digital Familiarity: The myth of the Digital Native

  1. Excellent points. I really like your focus on digital familiarity. It’s not about the technology itself, it’s how well teachers and learners make use of the digital resources and tools. Just because students are avid users of gadgets doesn’t mean they will be engaged at the sight of a smartphone in the classroom. Learning outcomes will not automatically improve if we incorporate technology in the teaching/learning – no magic here (and no evidence in studies as far as I know). We’ll tame the shrew and put it to good use for the sake of learning only if we gain confidence and competence to select the tools we really need and make good use of them – that inlcudes both teachers and learners…Speaking about that, it could be a good idea to develop some practical how-to lessons/activities for learners of English. Killing two birds with one stone, so to speak:)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Svetlana, I agree. I think part of my motivation for writing this article was to encourage people to explore technology rather than feel that it belongs to a different generation. I couldn’t agree more though that it should be applied practically and with purpose. There are a few how-to lessons being developed, and I think this is a great use for Office Mix. If you had something in mind, let me know and I will see what I can produce😀

      Liked by 2 people

      1. There are very few general English coursebooks that include activities built around technology-related texts. Somehow the layer of general technology vocabulary seems to be completely disregarded. Yet, it forms an essential part of our life. I often get my students to change language seetings in their cell phones or computers to English. This usually leads to many “discoveries” of new words. Our students may be digital natives in technology, yet the question is whether they remain as such once they have to express themselves in the target language. I was thinking it could be pretty useful to design some activities to narrow the gap…Have you got anything on Easter eggs by any chance? Could be fun on All Fools’ day:)

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Svetlana. I don’t think anyone is necessarily a digital native. Using technology is just a set of skills learnt through interaction, which anyone could acquire at any stage during their life.

        I have seen a few coursebooks using language related to computing and technology, but they usually only focus on core terminology that hasn’t changed much. Rarely have I seen anything that involved touch screen technology. I have a few ideas for the future, but at the moment they are just ideas.

        I don’t have anything on Easter Eggs at the moment, but your comment did remind me of something. So, I’ll be working on that shortly.

        Thanks for the comment, and if you have any holidays coming up, enjoy them!

        Take care!

        Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s