The concept of digital natives and immigrants was originally developed by Marc Prensky (2001), who argued that there were generational differences with regard to the use of and confidence with new technologies. The young, he suggests, are immersed in digital practices from a very young age and these ‘digital natives’ feel entirely at home in the digital terrain. On the other hand, older people who did not grow up with these technologies can be seen as ‘digital immigrants’ who speak an outdated language and are unsure about many aspects of the digital landscape they encounter as a foreign land. The concept has been subject to widespread critique (see Bennet & Maton, 2011; Thomas, 2011). There is, for example, evidence which demonstrates that not all children have access to or use technologies in the way that Prensky suggests (Marsh et al., 2005): furthermore there are many older people who are extensive users of technology (Zickkuhr & Madden, 2012).
A number of studies critique this proposition and suggest a more nuanced understanding of divisions between individuals’ experience of digital technologies, where levels of access and competence/confidence are determined by factors such as societal position, race, and gender, rather than age and educational status (Selwyn 2004; Hargittai, 2010). A further body of research, involving a large scale investigation in Australian Schools, calls the digital divide into question (Bennett et al., 2008). Nonetheless, testimonies from many teachers would suggest that many young children do have confidence and a range of competences with technologies that should be acknowledged by schools. For example Kate Cosgrove, a teacher involved in the Deft Project (see Case Study 8) commented on the skills of the children in her class:
My 6 and 7 yr olds were probably more confident than my [...]14 yr old secondary school student. I realised that all I had to do was present them with the technology and they could instinctively move between programmes, games and the Web to create a feedback laden world that was rich in communication and dialogue. The digital literacy here was about being digitally literate. Using the technology with confidence. Applying their skills to a new platform. Using their knowledge in a range of contexts.
Similarly, the 3 and 4-year-olds from the Nursery (see Case Study 5) demonstrated a range of competencies in using iPads and cameras.
Perhaps one way of noting this pattern without becoming embroiled in the difficulties embedded in the native/immigrant metaphor is to refer to the way in which many children and young people are digitally fluent. This does not preclude other generations from being similarly fluent, but the term points to the way in which many young children are immersed in the language of technology from birth and thus become confident in communicating through and with it before they begin formal schooling. Through their widespread engagement with new technologies and media outside of school, older children and young people may, in a similar way, develop fluency in digital literacies that can be drawn upon and extended further in classrooms. When teachers feel less fluent, learners often become the experts and lead the learning in classrooms, as we can see in many of the case studies in this project.
Despite our reservations about the native/immigrant metaphor, a theme that emerged from our conversations with teachers was the widespread use of the term digital native to describe their students – with a number of teachers expressing their concerns about being able to keep up with rapid changes in technology, in which they felt their students were likely to have better skills.
See also: Are we Digital Natives? in 6.1.3 A Reflective Analysis of Digital Practices in the Project