Critique Of Prenskys Characterisation Education Essay

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A quick Google search for the term Digital Natives returns over 5 million results. This is an indication of how widespread Marc Prenskys term has become since he coined it in his 2001 article "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1" (Prensky, 2001a). It is a term that has become "a commonly accepted trope" (Bayne and Ross, 2011) among educators and policy makers.

Since the publication of Prensky's articles in 2001, there has been much discussion and debate around these notions. This essay aims to review the body of literature, focusing mainly on the conclusions drawn from empirical evidence, in order to highlight the main areas of research findings which contradict Prensky's categorisation of young people as digital natives and show how this notion is unhelpful to educational progress.

As Selwyn (2009) says, the discourse of the digital native "tends towards exaggeration and inconsistency". It is the aim of this essay to give a more consistent and balanced view of the younger generation that is "based on empirical evidence and not rhetoric." (Helsper and Eynon, 2010)

Prensky's Digital Natives

Prensky claims the current generation of young people has been brought up playing video games. Immersed in the digital environment, they have grown up on "twitch speed", and have little patience with traditional teaching methods. According to the discourse, their brains have changed and they think and function differently because of this. (Prensky 2001a) He claims that the digital native prefers multi-tasking to linear processing and argues that step-by step learning does not work for them.

Prensky builds his argument to try to persuade the reader of the validity of his categorisation. However, Prensky provides no empirical evidence for his theorising, relying instead on "informal observation and anecdote" (Selwyn, 2009). For example, Prensky claims that digital natives "have spent fewer than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games (not to mention 20,000 hours watching TV.)" (Prensky, 2001a) There are no citations for these figures; the reader is expected to take them at face value.

Selwyn (2009) describes the digital native discourse as promoting a "technological determinist view of societal change", where digital technologies are seen to be imbued with a range of inherent qualities which then 'impact' (for better or worse) on young users in ways which are consistent regardless of circumstance or context.


Central to the validity of the digital native discourse is the concept of generational differences. Prensky's characterisation splits people into two camps, "digital natives", for those born after 1980, or "digital immigrants" for those born before. There are arguments for a further categorization, for example Helsper and Eynon (2010) suggest that people aged18 or younger should be considered as 2nd generation digital natives due to their "immersion in this new, Web 2.0, digital world."

One conclusion reached throughout the research from many different contexts is that there is a distinct lack of homogeneity within the groups of young people studied. It is impossible to class any particular group of students as belonging to a homogenous group of digital natives due to the presence of variables other than age.

Jones et al (2009) found that, in a study of participants from 5 British universities, across multiple disciplines, there is again a lack of homogeneity amongst students in similar age groups and "a complex picture of minorities". This view is echoed by Calvani et al (2011) whose study also found a lack of homogeneity within the younger age group studied.

Refell and Whitworth (2002) mention this lack of homogeneity between groups of young people when discussing IT education. As they state, "a standardized approach to IT education neglects the different significance computers will have for different people." Age; affluence; gender; nationality; geographical location - these will all influence a student's response to information, and therefore to IT." These variables will then also impact on the use of ITCs for formal and informal learning.

There was some evidence in the study carried out by Helsper and Eynon (2010) that "younger age groups can indeed be qualified as digital natives in terms of the prominence that ICTs and the Internet have in their lives." This age group multi-task more and refer to the Internet more, a notion which supports Prensky's theory. (Helsper and Eynon, 2010)

However, Salajan, Schonwetter and Cleghorn (2010) concluded that there were "age-related differences" but that they were minimal. Thus, without clear evidence, this distinction could very well be "more damaging than helpful in fostering a constructive learning environment conducive to mutually beneficial student-teacher rapport."

Selwyn (2009) refers to the construction of children as a concept that has been long established as "discursive sites through which adults can conceptualise and (re)construct past, present and future aspects of societal change." In fact, the notion of the adolescent is "a construction in itself", informed not by digital proficiency, but by "legal geography and history." (Stokes, 2010) It is this sense of "them and us" that provides fuel for a "contemporary moral panic" and oft quoted generational divides. Although this generational divide can have a "strong intuitive appeal" (Selwyn, 2009), it is not empirically evidenced.

Extent of technology use

Helsper and Eynon (2010) define the extent of use of technology as the number of different activities a person undertakes online. Accordingly, this variable can be said to indicate the extent to which technology is integrated in their lives. A narrow range of use leads to less digital nativeness. The increase in number of activities undertaken is exponentially linked to the number of years of use of the Internet rather than age. (Helsper and Eynon, 2010) Thus, there is the suggestion that digital immigrants, who have spent more time online, will undertake more activities online and thus, will be more digitally native than younger people who have spent less time online. Selwyn (2009) backs up this notion with the suggestion that, in reality, young people's uses of digital technology are "rather more limited in scope than the digital native rhetoric would suggest."

The conclusion that "immersion in the digital environment tends to be the most important variable" (Helsper and Eynon, 2010) would suggest that it is not age or generation that matters most here, but access to technology. Future research needs to take into account "a broader range of variables" For example: "socio-economic background of students" amongst others, (Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt, 2010) as it is this which will have the greatest impact on access to technology.

Multi tasking and nature of technology use

According to Prensky, digital natives like to "parallel process and multi-task. They prefer their graphics before their text." They like to receive information quickly and "prefer random access" "They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards. They prefer games to 'serious' work". (Prensky, 2001a) Again, the evidence for these assumptions is anecdotal, stemming from what seems to be informal observation rather than empirical study.

Prensky considers this adeptness at multi-tasking to be of great benefit to younger people and a key area in which traditional education fails them. He claims that digital immigrant teachers teach "slowly, step-by-step, one thing at a time, individually, and above all seriously" (Prensky, 2001a)

However, there is evidence to suggest that "multi tasking may have a negative impact on learning due to cognitive overload" (Hembrooke and Gay, 2003 in Helsper and Eynon, 2010)

Roodenrys (2012) claims that "when a learner is required to divide their attention between multiple sources of information, cognitive load is increased by the need to integrate the sources of information to extract meaning, resulting in poorer learning." This indicates that, while younger people may multi-task very well, negotiating tasks in a procedural way, the learning taking place is unlikely to be effective.

There is evidence to suggest that younger people use technology in many ways, but it is likely that they are using it in superficial ways, without understanding the full potentialities or risks involved. (Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt, 2010)

In their study on digital competence amongst Italian teenagers, Calvani et al (2011) found that "if we consider digital competence as a simple set of procedural abilities (a 'copy and paste' literacy), we can conclude that our sample of students is digitally competent. On the contrary, if we identify it with a set of higher order cognitive skills we get a totally different picture."

The nature of the use of technology for learning suggests that digital natives need to learn digital literacy skills, which are not just acquired naturally through immersion. It is these skills which have important effects, such as the management of online risk and the digital footprint, things that, if mismanaged, can lead to serious repercussions in later life.

Implications for education

As Selwyn (2009) notes "these depictions of the digital native imply a profound disempowerment of older generations." By characterising the older generation as digital immigrants who speak a foreign language and who will never reach the levels of the native, no matter how hard they try, but will always retain a "foreign accent", Prensky (2001a) effectively throws educators and all previous educational research and pedagogies onto the scrapheap. This is a huge step to take, especially when what is proposed to take its place is based around anecdotal evidence. If educators are "both unable to change, and as being required to change in order to remain a competent, employable professional." (Bayne and Ross, 2011) they are placed in an impossible position.

Prensky offers no empirical evidence for his claims that teachers need to change their methodology by "going faster, less step-by-step, more in parallel, with more random access" (Prensky, 2001a) Research on student expectations has shown that "regardless of age and subject discipline, students' attitudes to learning appear to be influenced by the teaching approaches used by lecturers." (Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt, 2010)

Selwyn (2009) states that, far from "digital technologies may be contributing to an increased disengagement, disenchantment and alienation of young people from formal institutions and activities." This poses a challenge for educators when coupled with student expectations of formal learning environments. There is a need, therefore, for educators to design learning environments and activities that do not alienate, but do create engagement. By using a scientific approach and framework, such as the conversational framework developed by Laurillard (2012), this can be carried out.

Students' expectations and perceptions are of utmost importance to the learning environment. If students do not experience what they perceive to be good pedagogy, they may feel cheated. Prensky provides no evidence for his reasoning that digital immigrants' teaching styles need to change. However, there is evidence that the perceived student / teacher relationship could be adversely affected by doing so.

Jones and Shao (2011) conclude that there is no "demand from students for changes to pedagogy at university", the student attitudes and expectations proposed by Prensky do not exist, but rather "students expected lecturers to use largely conventional approaches to teaching." (Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt, 2010)

Selwyn (2009) suggests "that there is a pressing need to develop and promote realistic understandings of young people and digital technology if information professionals (especially librarians, teachers and other information specialists) are to play useful and meaningful roles in supporting current generations of young people." This is a role that is dismissed by Prensky as he dismisses educators as outdated and unable to teach digital natives.

As previously mentioned, there is a distinct lack of homogeneity within this generation. There are many variables at work here; differences in extent and nature of technology use cannot be solely attributed to age alone. As Selwyn (2009) notes "research studies suggest that young people's abilities to access digital technologies remain patterned strongly along lines of socio-economic status and social class, as well as gender, geography and many other entrenched 'social fault lines'."

Digital literacy

Ng (2012) defines digital literacy as having three main elements: the cognitive dimension, which means the ability to think critically and evaluate information and be knowledgeable about the ethical, moral and legal issues. The socio-emotional dimension, which involves responsible behavior on the Internet, being aware of the need for privacy of information, netiquette and how to recognize and deal with online risk. Ng considers these to be the basic skills needed by the digital literate person. (Ng, 2012) The third element is the technical dimension, which consists of the "operational skills needed to use ITC for learning and in everyday activities."(Ng, 2012) Where the younger generation are perhaps more adept at this third dimension, they are less skilled in the first two dimensions.

Further to this, Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt (2010) say that their findings "suggest a deficit of learning literacies and a dependency on guidance from lecturers." Thus, labeling the younger generation as digital natives over emphasizes the skills of a whole generation despite evidence showing that the whole of this generation are not the same; do not possess the same skills or the same access to digital technology. Despite being born and bred in a digital world, young people still require being taught how to be literate in this world.

Helsper (2008) argues that we must evaluate realistically the risks and negative experiences and equip young people with the "tools to deal with these types of situations…by allowing them incremental further steps." This is a much more considered view than that which is taken by Prensky.


From the empirical evidence proposed by research studies carried out since Prensky's article appeared, there has been very little to suggest that his categorisation of young people as digital natives and older people as digital immigrants has any validity. Helsper and Eynon (2010) say that "age, experience and breadth all seem important", Margaryan, Littlejohn and Vojt (2010) contend that "technology adoption is not a simple binary relationship, but is a complex phenomenon."

The digital native discourse "pervades our discussions of the challenges of teaching current generations of students despite its over- simplistic reduction of our understanding to a raw binary opposition."(Bayne and Ross, 2011) It is a characterization of younger people that does nothing to help our understanding or improve our teaching of technology. Bennet, Maton and Kervin (2008) liken it to a contemporary "moral panic."

The future of this discourse needs to take into account the socio-cultural differences within different age groups and the fact that technology is socially shaped, and that "the technologies that mediate online learning and teaching do not spring from nowhere." (Bayne and Ross, 2011)

Helsper (2008) suggests that a plausible scenario for the future would mean "a shift to an education in digital literacy that focuses on critical literacy instead of technical literacy." Selwyn (2009) also promotes the need for an emphasis on developing critical digital literacies amongst younger people along with stressing the need for a number of considerations, which involve avoiding the excesses of the digital native discourse and remaining "mindful of the wider political and ideological agendas" that underlie this discourse.

Refell and Whitworth (2002) propose the teaching of critical and evaluative skills; academic, social and historical contexts; cultural and behavioural norms and autonomous, participatory use of IT. This would enable and empower both students and educators. Whereas digital natives may multi-task more efficiently and use a wider range of ICTs for social purposes, educators can plan and design pedagogically sound tasks and activities to enable the learning of digital literacy. It is in this way that education can develop and move forward into the future.

In his second article, Prensky (2001b) admits that "reflection" has been lost in this process: "Reflection is what enables us, according to many theorists, to generalize, as we create 'mental models' from our experience. It is, in many ways, the process of 'learning from experience.'" These last words contradict much of the previous discourse, showing that, in order to learn how to critically use technology, digital natives need more than just being born into a digital environment; they need guidance, experience, and reflection, which can only come from digital immigrants.

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