Home » E-Learning » Digital Natives – claptrap, scaremongering and myth

Digital Natives – claptrap, scaremongering and myth

Marc Prensky

Marc Prensky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Use of computers in any form, from desktops to laptops, and now with smartphones and tablets, has never been generational. We’d might as well suggest that there were once bicycle riding natives or TV remote control natives. The term was coined by Marc Prensky (2001) – there was never any substance to it. Academics and journalists ought to be more wary when these ideas that appear to express an apparent reality and suggest revolution and disruption are given so much credence. Research now shows that there is no substance at all to the idea.

Despite recent empirical evidence undermining claims about profound age-related differences in technology use and practices and moves by the original authors to distance themselves from their original claims (e.g. Prensky 2009), the idea put forward, of a fundamental gap between the technologically skilled and unskilled, persists. (Bennet and Maton, 2010:322)

Prensky (2009) is no less re-assuring than in his previous books and article, his style light journalism, opinion and replete with soundbites – in this article ‘digital wisdom’ and ‘ future wisdom seekers’ are his catch phrase somehow permitted by a quote from Einstein. He also spouts pseudo-science about ‘those who interact with technology frequently will be restructured by that interaction’ – ‘The brains of wisdom seekers of the future will be fundamentally different, in organization and in structure, than our brains are today’. He also continues to tout the idea of the ‘digital immigrant’ referring to Barack Obama and Rupert Murdoch. (Perhaps he could add Philip Green and Martin Sorrell)

The research from Bennett says this about Prensky’s thesis:

– Little critical scrutiny
– Under theorised
– Lack of sound empirical basis

It would be worrying were educators to act on the kind of radical changes in curriculum, pedagogy, assessment and professional in education that Prensky feels is required.

‘Arguments are often couched in dramatic language, proclaim a profound change in the world, and pronounce stark generational differences’ (Bennett, 2008:03).

Claims are put forward with limited empirical evidence (Tapscott, 1998) or supported by anecdotes and appeals to common-sense beliefs. (Prensky, 2001. Prensky cites Captain James T Kirk from Star Trek … as if a fictional character, or the show (rather than its author) should be the one to cite at all.

‘The researchers found that only a minority of the students (around 21%) were engaged in creating their own content and multimedia for the Web, and that a significant proportion of students had lower level skills than might be expected of digital natives.’ (Bennett 2008:02)

Kennedy et al’s research (2009) in Australia shows that emerging technologies are NOT the lifeblood of a generation, far from it. Research amongst students in three Australian universities showed that only :

21% blog
24% used social networking
21.5% used podcasts

Hardly the universal use of technology by this generation that Prensky and his cronies suggest is the position.

‘There is no evidence that multi-tasking is a new phenomenon exclusive to digital natives’, (Bennett, 2008:02)

Best of all it turns out that all of us who use these tools frequently take on what Prensky might think of as uniquely teenage or generational traits – impatient for a start with software or bandwidth, online 20/7 if not 24/7 … but at least capable of seeing the often Wikipedia is not an adequate or accurate source (they’ve let me edit enough stuff) or that Google is does not offer the definitive answer ever, let alone on the first sweep.

Just because something resonates with our personal observations doesn’t make it so. Frankly, Prensky et al should be stand-up comics – you have to laugh, at their nonsense and how gullible we are to want to believe them.

‘Such claims with appeals to sense and recognisable anecdotes are used to declare an emergency situation, and call for urgent and fundamental change.’ (Bennett, 2008:04)

Research has shown that the concept of the ‘digital native’ is worse than a myth – it was and remains untrue. We should think instead of how innovations are adopted, using Roger’s diffusion of innovation of and in this case an expensive one – far from being generational computers were taken up right across age groups in equal measure. It is also very wrong to assume, as the article says, that all children have the ‘knowledge’ – they do not.

‘An evaluation of students’ perceptions and engagement with e-learning components in a campus based university’. (Ituma 2011)

Another false assumption recently researched relating to the use of computers by disabled students – it turns out that some are highly digitally literate, embracing the technology and finding their own ways to overcome some of the barriers we assume to be in their way because of the benefits that are afforded them – digitised text can be read and manipulated in many ways to suit those with sight, cognitive or mobility impairments.

‘Generalisations about the ways in which digital natives learn also fail to recognise cognitive differences in young people of different ages and variation within age groups.’ (Bennett, 2008:02)

And variations within those with disabilities – who of course are not a homogeneous group either.

As educators we ought to enquire first of every child or student’s exposure to and use of these devices, like swimming, playing the piano or speaking a foreign language we may be surprised at the outcome.

‘Our research suggests that we should be cautious about distinguishing a specific generation because although there are age differences there are additional factors differentiating students, specifically gender and disciplinary differences. We find significant age related differences but we are reluctant to conclude that there is a clear disconnection between a Net generation composed of Digital Natives and older students.’ (Jones and Ramanau, 2010)

Studies of school-aged children in particular have highlighted differences in the ways home access to technology is determined according to the location of the computer, rules about access and the value placed on technology as an educational or recreational device (Downes 1998; Kerawalla & Crook 2002).

What these studies suggest is that young people grow up with different histories of access to technology and therefore different opportunities. This leads to the conclusion that measures of access tell only part of the story, and that it may be more important to understand the nature of the technology-based activities in which young people engage. Bennet and Maton (2010:323)

Content creation activities (as measured by items such as creating text, graphics, audio or video) are consistently lower than might be anticipated given many claims about what young people are doing with technology. In fact, with the exception of social networking, most activities associated with Web 2.0 are engaged in by a minority of respondents on key large-scale surveys (e.g. Salaway & Caruso 2007; Kennedy et al. 2009; Jones et al. 2010. Bennet and Maton (2010:324)

Green and Hannon (2007) suggested different user types with their own particular expertise: ‘digital pioneers’, ‘creative producers’, ‘everyday communicators’ and ‘information gatherers’.

It is clear from this recent research that there is significant variation in the ways in which young people use technology, suggesting that rather than being a homogenous generation, there is a diversity of interests, motivations and needs. So while some young people might be regarded as ‘digital natives’, these are by no means characteristics shared by all young people simply because of their exposure to digital technologies. Bennet and Maton (2010:325)

The lack of evidence for the existence of an entire generation of digital natives seriously undermines arguments made for radical change to education because of a proclaimed disjuncture between the needs of young people and their educational institutions. This is not to say that education should not change at all, but merely, that the basis of the argument, as it is currently made, is fundamentally flawed. Bennet and Maton (2010:325)

Not only do they fail to acknowledge the ways in which formal education does change, but they devalue it to such an extent that it is difficult to comprehend what it could offer. It is to discount wholly the notion that formal education can and does provide an important complement to informal learning (Facer & Furlong 2001; Jenkins 2004).

In short, a defining characteristic of knowledge gained in a formal educational context is that it is pedagogized knowledge. That is, it is knowledge that has been selected, re-arranged into a particular sequence within a curriculum, and recontextualized within specific contexts of teaching and learning (Singh 2002 in Bennet and Maton 2010:327)

Elsewhere we have argued that much of the discussion about digital natives has taken the form of an ‘academic moral panic’, in which dramatic language proclaiming profound change and a series of strongly bounded divides close down genuine debate (Bennett et al. 2008).

They are the same as claims made, for example, in the late 1950s and early 1960s about a generation of students immersed in new forms of commercial culture, such as television and popular music. (Bennet and Maton 2010:328)

Erasing the past in this way renders social and intellectual change an ‘article of faith’ rather than an ‘object of inquiry’ (Moore & Maton 2001). The past becomes a ‘foreign country’ and the young and old are considered to inhabit different worlds. Given the research evidence to the contrary and the illogic of such a position, it is futile to continue with these kinds of arguments. (Bennet and Maton 2010:328)

Another feature of the debate is what can be termed a ‘certainty–complacency spiral’ that enables the uncritical reproduction of the terms ‘digital native’ or ‘Net Generation’ in ways that give both of them a credence they do not deserve and amplifies their significance. The more certain authors are that digital natives exist, the less likely they seem to be to question claims made about them by other authors. For example, publications comprising unevidenced claims have often been routinely cited as if they contained researched evidence. This complacent, uncritical acceptance of the veracity of such claims in turn encourages further certainty, as the number of publications adopting the term grows. (Bennet and Maton 2010:328)


Bennett, S., Maton, Karl., Kervin, L. (2008) The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology Volume 39, Issue 5,Article first published online: 5 FEB 2008 (viewed 13 Dec 2012).

Downes T. (1998) Using the computer at home. In IT for Learning Enhancement (ed. M. Monteith), pp. 61–78. Intellect Books, Oxford.

Facer K. & Furlong R. (2001) Beyond the myth of the ‘cyberkid’: young people at the margins of the information revolution. Journal of Youth Studies 4, 451–469.

Jenkins H. (2004) The myths of growing up online. Technology Review. Available at: http://www.technologyreview. com/Biotech/13773 (last accessed 19 October 2009).

Jones, Chris (2012). The new shape of the student. In: Huang, Ronghuai; Kinshuk, and Spector, J. Michael eds.Reshaping Learning – The Frontiers of Learning Technologies in Global Context. New Frontiers of Educational Research. New York: Springer, (In press).

Jones C., Ramanaua R., Cross S. & Healing G. (2010) Net generation or Digital Natives: is there a distinct new generation entering university? Computers and Education 54, 722–732.

Kennedy G., Dalgarno B., Bennett S., Gray K., Waycott J., Judd T., Bishop A., Maton K., Krause K. & Chang R. (2009) Educating the Net Generation – A Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy. Australian Learning and Teaching Council. Available at: http://www.altc.edu.au/ system/files/resources/CG6-25_Melbourne_Kennedy_ Handbook_July09.pdf (last accessed 19 October 2009).

Kerawalla L. & Crook C. (2002) Children’s computer use at home and at school: context and continuity. British Educational Research Journal 28, 751–771.

Ituma, A 2011, ‘An Evaluation of Students’ Perceptions and Engagement with E-Learning Components in a Campus Based University’,Active Learning In Higher Education, 12, 1, pp. 57-68, ERIC, EBSCOhost, viewed 13 December 2012.

Singh P. (2002) Pedagogising knowledge: Bernstein’s theory of the pedagogic device. British Journal of Sociology of Education 23, 571–582.

Trinder, K., Guiller, J., Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A. & Nicol, D. 2008. Learning from digital natives: bridging formal and informal learning. The Higher Education Academy
<http://www.academy.gcal.ac.uk/ldn/LDNFinalReport.pdf&gt; [Accessed 20 August 2012]

Moore R. & Maton K. (2001) Founding the sociology of knowledge: Basil Bernstein, intellectual fields and the epistemic device. In Towards a Sociology of Pedagogy: The Contribution of Basil Bernstein to Research (eds A. Morais, I. Neves, B. Davies&H.Daniels), pp. 153–182. Peter Lang, NewYork.

Prensky M. (2001) Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon 9, 1–6.

Prensky, M 2009, ‘H. Sapiens Digital: From Digital Immigrants and Digital Natives to Digital Wisdom’, Innovate: Journal Of Online Education, 5, 3, ERIC, EBSCOhost, (viewed 13 Dec 2012).

Rogers, E.M. (2003) Diffusion of Innovations (5th edn), New York, Simon and Schuster.

Salaway G. & Caruso J. (2007) The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Technology. EDUCAUSE, Boulder, CO.

Tapscott, D (1998) Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation McGraw-Hill Companies.



  1. anna says:

    Absolutely excellent post! Please say this repeatedly in prominent places.

  2. […] a generation that is more predisposed and able than any other when it comes to all things digital. Kids aren’t the only ones with times on their hands, or a passion for the new, or even the budget and will to be online. The empirical evidence shows […]

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