Digital Natives and Immigrants: Learning in the Digital Age

Minasi, E. (n.d.). Democratizing Info [Image]. Retrieved from

Digital natives refer to people who grew up in the post-internet era and, therefore, have been familiar with the internet and digital technology from an early age.  Ertmer and Newby (2013) argue that, as a result of this tech-from-birth experience, digital natives’ brains have been rewired to learn differently than digital immigrants (those born before the internet).  I argue that this difference in thinking is not unique to digital natives, but can occur in anyone who has sufficiently engaged with technology since the internet emerged over 20 years ago.  Siemens (2004) states that “technology is altering (rewiring) our brains.  The tools we use define and shape our thinking” (para. 4).  I believe this is true, whether we are digital natives or immigrants.

I believe this clarification is important.  If we believe that only young learners possess the ability and preference to use the “participatory web” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 66) to learn collaboratively, informally, and authentically, we deny digital immigrants (as adult learners) the affordances of these new technologies and teaching methods.  Adult learners may learn differently from younger learners, but many have heartedly embraced technology tools and personal and social life-long learning.  As constructivist teaching methodologies continue to gain popularity, instructional designers and instructors must recognize than many adult learners (digital immigrants) want and prefer the opportunities created by these innovations.

Do you think only digital natives’ ability to learn has been changed by their immersion in technology?  Do digital immigrants, given sufficient experience with technology tools in the last decades, also “want and prefer to learn differently [and] seem exceptionally capable of doing so” (Ertmer & Newby, 2013, p. 66)? 


Ertmer, P. A., & Newby, T. J. (2013). Behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism: Comparing critical features from an instructional design perspective. Performance Improvement Quarterly, 26(2), 43-71. doi: 10.1002/piq.21143

Siemens, G. (2004). Connectivisim: A learning theory for the digital age.  Retrieved from


Design in Learning and Technology: Innovation Versus Change

Change can simply be replacing one thing or idea for another, such as switching to a different learning management system.  Innovation, although it involves change, is much more.  It involves a transformation that advances an idea or changes the way people think by providing a novel and useful idea or product.  It often provides a solution, creating something new or radically improving something that pre-exists.

Linking innovation with design and technology depends on one’s definition of technology.  Dron (2014) uses Arthur’s (2009, as cited in Dron, 2014) definition that technologies are the “orchestration of phenomena to some purpose” (p. 240).  Using this definition, an educational design may be innovative when it introduces a radically new or improved software program, hardware, pedagogy, tool, or other “phenomena” for the betterment of education.

Dron (2014) argues that soft technologies are more adaptable and, therefore, incorporate new innovations easier than hard technologies.  Currently, a combination of hard and soft is often used to balance teacher and learner needs with cost and time limitations.  Dron argues that we need systems with “capabilities for assembly and integration at a depth of sophistication that we have never seen before” (p. 260) to prepare for future innovations.  However, since change is inevitable, would new innovations be adopted regardless of the technologies in use?  Would harder technologies prevent their adoption or simply make the adoption slower or more difficult?  Perhaps we can, and must, develop models and conceptual tools to prepare for future innovations, but the answer for how to do that is not an easy one. 

Dron, J. (2014). Chapter 9: Innovation and change: Changing how we change. In Zawacki-Richter, O. & T. Anderson (Eds.), Online distance education: Towards a research agenda. Athabasca, AB: AU Press.

Empathic Design: Understanding the User/Learner

Figure 1. Designers’ perspectives likely differ from users’ perspectives.

An empathic design approach is utilized to gain insight from users of a product, organization, service, or system to better understand users’ wants, needs, and feelings.  It allows designers to identify or prevent design problems and determine solutions which best accommodate users’ constraints and draw on their capabilities.

As a teacher, I have used empathic design without realizing it.  I often ask or observe my students in order to gain empathy and insight into their feelings about my classroom, lessons and courses, and adjust the design as a result.  For example, upon observing my students, I have made changes in the classroom, including desk arrangement and lighting.  I have also used the empathic process to adjust how I design group work.

Despite using the empathic process as a teacher, I question its effectiveness for designers.  Teachers typically spend several hours a week for several months with their students.  Can designers connect with a sample of users long enough and deeply enough to sufficiently understand their wants, needs and emotions?

Mattelmäki, Vaajakallio, and Koskinen (2014) state that empathic design is growing as it explores new design challenges and research questions (p. 77).  It appears to be beneficial in a variety of disciplines (Giang, 2016; Weed, 2019).  However, user empathy must be balanced with a designer’s skills and knowledge to observe the whole picture and provide the best solution.  As a learner, teacher or designer in education, do you feel empathic design is an effective process?


Giang, V. (2016, August 10). How Ford uses an ‘empathy belly’ to improve its employees’ soft skills. Retrieved from

Mattelmäki, T., Vaajakallio, K., & Koskinen, I. (2014). What happened to empathic design? Design Issues, 30(1), 67-77.

Weed, J. (2019, April 22). More benches, special goggles: Taking steps to assist older travelers. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Motivation and Learning

Image source, with permission: Bucella, 2008, Cartoon Stock 

Merrill’s (2002) ‘first principles of instruction’ include four phases (activation, demonstration, application, and integration) occurring in the context of real-world tasks or problems.  As both a teacher and learner myself, I found it interesting that Merrill does not include learner motivation as a first principle and, in fact, argues that “the real motivation for learners is learning” (p. 50).  Is motivation really an outcome of learning, as Merrill posits, or is motivation needed for learning to occur?

Motivation might be a learning outcome if Merrill’s principles could be customized for each and every student, for example, if instruction could start from exactly the point of what each student already knows, and if the task or problem could be customized to the student’s particular learning needs.  This is rarely feasible in today’s learning environments, however.  A teacher often has many students and a finite amount of time to cover pre-determined learning objectives.  Also, I believe the subject matter itself must initially be motivating to the learner.  If one does not have an interest in playing the piano, becoming a medical doctor, or quantum mechanics, I am unsure that any attempt to follow Merrill’s principles of instruction would motivate the student to invest the time and energy to learn.  Learning appears to require learner motivation, either from internal factors such as curiosity of the subject, or external factors such as desiring a passing grade or promotion (Halamish, Madmon, & Moed, 2019).  Considering your own experiences as an educator or learner, is motivation an outcome or a cause of learning?


Halamish V, Madmon I, & Moed A. (2019). Motivation to learn: The long-term mnemonic benefit of curiosity in intentional learning. Experimental Psychology, 66(5), 319-330. doi:10.1027/1618-3169/a000455

Merrill, M D. (2002). First principles of instruction. Educational Technology Research and Development, 50(3), 42-59.