Digital, Social

Digital natives vs immigrants

The idea of digital natives vs immigrants was first discussed by Marc Prensky in a work which has subsequently been criticised, not least by Prensky himself who has since abandoned the original papers.

 Prensky refers to people who were born before [the] new digital era, which began around 1980, as Digital Immigrants. According to him digital immigrants may learn to use new technologies but will still be in some way located within the past, unable to fully understand the natives. Prensky likens this to the difference between learning a new language and being a native speaker (Helsper and Enyon, 2009).

Nevertheless, Prensky’s metaphor is still very much alive, so it’s worth briefly discussing here. At worst, the metaphor is dangerous since it potentially represents a generational divide between teachers and students, which is disempowering. At best, it should be considered as a constraining and not very useful binary which serves only to help teachers in addressing critical questions about the metaphor.

  • What do teachers understand the metaphor to mean?
  • How helpful is it for teachers to understand it?
  • How are teachers challenging the theory?

Possibly the only value in the theory is that it may help teachers think more broadly about how students’ prior experience (in all areas) have impacted who they are and what they know. Beyond this simple idea, the metaphor simply doesn’t work.


Helsper, Ellen and Eynon, Rebecca. 2009. Digital natives: where is the evidence? British educational research journal. pp. 1-18. Accessed via:


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