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


5 thoughts on “Digital Natives and Immigrants: Learning in the Digital Age”

  1. The short responses to your questions are no and yes. Now let me expand those answers.

    1. No, digital natives are not the only ones whose learning been altered by technology. I agree with your statement that digital natives have more of an automatic connection to technology, therefore may be more open to it than digital immigrants. However, that does not mean that digital immigrants are forces only to learn in the old ways. There are no restrictions on who can benefit from the innovations that come to education. Campbell and Schwier (2014) state “Online learning has the capacity to span and challenge diverse online communities, organized communities, and exclusionary in-groups” (p. 345), they do not indicate these opportunities are only for those born in a specific time. The best part about education is that anyone can learn, the method of that learning can take many shapes, therefore digital natives and immigrants have both experienced changes in learning due to technology.
    2. Yes, digital immigrants may want to learn differently than the methods available to them prior to the digital age. Learning is about acquiring new knowledge. How that learning occurs depends on the preferred learning style of the individual, not when he/she was born.

    Campbell, K., & Schwier, R. A. (2014). Chapter 13: Major movements in instructional design. In Zawacki-Richter, O. & T. Anderson (Eds.), Online distance education: Towards a research agenda. AU Press.

    1. Hi, Kathy.

      Thank you for your response. I agree that how people can and want to learn is not solely dependent, if at all, on whether they were born before or after the advent of the internet.

      Mark Prensky, who coined the digital native/digital immigrant paradigm in 2001, admits that it is “becoming less relevant” (Prensky, 2009, para. 1) and a growing body of studies since that time has questioned its validity (Sorrentino, 2018). Although Prensky’s paradigm has had significant influence, it is not the only label used to define young people and their connection with technology. Others include: Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998, 2009) and Homo Zappiens (Veen & Vrakking, 2006), among others. Also, the native-immigrant paradigm is not the only attempt to define users of technology. Kennedy, Judd, Dalgarno, and Waycott (2010) introduce four user categories: power, ordinary, irregular, and basic. White and Le Cornu (2011) offer another alternative with a ‘visitors and residents’ typology which reflects that people engage with the Web depending on their motivation and context rather than age or background (as cited in Ruth, 2019).

      Clearly, there are multiple ways to look at who uses technology and how they use it. This is likely because there are no definitive ways to label these groups of individuals. Who uses technology, and how, is complex. Many researchers report that experience, breadth of use, self-efficacy, and education are often more important than age in determining people’s ICT skills. (Sorrentino, 2018). In education, instructional designers and instructors need to avoid making assumptions about learners based on age, and design courses and assignments which reflect the technology skills of the users.


      Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Dalgarno, B., & Waycott, J. (2010). Beyond natives and immigrants: Exploring types of net generation students. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 26(5), 332-343.

      Prensky, M. (2009). H. sapiens digital: From digital immigrants and digital natives to digital wisdom. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 5(3). Retrieved from

      Ruth, S. (2019). Unit 2, Activity 2: Resident-Visitor typology [Blog post]. Retrieved from

      Sorrentino, P. (2018). The mystery of the digital natives’ existence: Questioning the validity of the Prenskian metaphor. First Monday, 23(10).

      Tapscott, D. (1998). Growing up digital: The rise of the net generation. New York: McGraw-Hill.

      Tapscott, D. (2009). Grown up digital: How the net generation is changing your world. New York: McGraw-Hill.

      Veen, W., & Vrakking, B. (2006). Homo zappiens : Growing up in a digital age. London: Network Continuum Education.

      1. I appreciate your statement that designs need to work with the skills of the user. However, I also think that it is important to push the user into using new or new-to-them technology. I suppose that it all depends on the on the content.
        In all the readings I have done for this course (Innovation, Design and Learning Environments) MALAT I have learned that the job instructional designers is never done. Education is a field in its own right, but it also connects to numerous other fields. As changes come to any field, the impact on education is present.

  2. Hi Sherry,
    I loved reading your blog post!
    As someone who teaches a very diverse student population, I have encountered the difference between very techy students (“digital natives”) and the older student population (or “digital immigrants”), terminology proposed by Prensky in 2001. I have even presented in the conference on strategies of bridging this digital divide in the classroom.
    But as I look back at this concept, and learning more from the MALAT program, I realize that this definition is extremely stretched and does not reflect our interaction with technology in a meaningful way, excluding those who come to master technology later in life. In this sense, I completely agree with you and think that the point you brought up is very important!
    To answer your question of whether “digital natives’ ability to learn has been changed by their immersion in technology”, I would like to refer to my personal experience with my students. I have observed that students who are very comfortable with technology very often demonstrate an overconfidence bias when it comes to using this technology in the classroom (Samokishyn & Herveiux, 2017: As a result, their ability to critically analyze course content, recognize prejudice, and engage in the meaningful learning process can be diminished. It might not be an experience of everyone, but it was definitely an interesting insight for me!
    Thank you for bringing up this topic and for busting the myth of digital natives!

    1. Hi, Marta. Thank you for your response.

      I have also taught a very diverse student population and, like you, have experienced both support for, and contradiction of, the digital native/digital immigrant paradigm.

      Thank you for sharing your infographic of overconfidence bias! Your findings provide further evidence that younger students do not innately have technology and digital literacy. It also provides evidence that researchers using self-reporting to collect information from participants need to be aware of such bias for information literacy and, likely, other skills. For example, I find my students overconfident in their ability to multitask. Researchers have found that people who think they are good at multi-tasking engage in it more, but are actual the worst at it (Sanbonmatsu, Strayer, Medeiros-Ward, & Watson, 2013). We appear to be poor at judging our own abilities. This emphasizes the need to teach our students skills such as information literacy, regardless of their age. More importantly, we need to increase their awareness of the need to learn them. It is hard to teach someone skills they feel they already have!

      Sanbonmatsu, D., Strayer, D. L., Medeiros-Ward, N., & Watson, J. M. (2013). Who multi-tasks and why? Multi-tasking ability, perceived multi-tasking ability, impulsivity, and sensation seeking. PLoS ONE, 8(1), e54402.

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