May/June 2003 // Commentary
Overcoming Educators' Digital Immigrant Accents:
A Rebuttal
by Marc Prensky
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source ( as: Marc Prensky "Overcoming Educators' Digital Immigrant Accents:
A Rebuttal" The Technology Source, May/June 2003. Available online at The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

When I wrote the twin articles "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants" (2001b) and "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II: Do They Really Think Differently" (2001c) for On The Horizon, my goal was to highlight an enormous issue that most educators have chosen to minimize, to ignore, or to ascribe to causes other than technology change. In short, there are important, never-before-seen differences between the generation that grew up with digital technologies (the Digital Natives) and the generation that grew up before these technologies (the Digital Immigrants). The former group's interaction with new technologies can reach durations of 10,000-20,000 hours in the first 20 years of their lives; today's neuroscience tells us that this degree of input is almost certain to have caused measurable physical change to their brains. The new abilities, skills, and preferences of the Digital Natives are to a large extent misunderstood and ignored by the previous generation of educators, often causing huge communication (and other) problems.

In my articles, one of the humorous but useful constructs is the Digital Immigrant accent. This term refers to the collection of behaviors that represents the older generation's "foot in the past." It starts with such things as printing out e-mails and not going initially to the Web for information, but it goes much deeper, representing a lack of shared experience.

Since the publication of the two articles, I have been gratified to receive "thank you" e-mails from educators and parents all over the world and to find the native/immigrant metaphor immediately accepted and used by people I speak to. Others, such as former Xerox chief scientist John Seely Brown (2002, 2003) and author Howard Rheingold (2002), have spoken and written about the same concept. However, as often happens with new perspectives, it is difficult for many to accept the idea that today's students may be so different intellectually from their teachers that the gap poses problems. At my talks, there are always individuals who—often long before I finish my remarks—are determined to convince me and the world that I am mistaken.

Despite his admission that my metaphor "can help us understand the differences between those who are comfortable with technology and those who are not," Timothy VanSlyke (2003) is among these protesters. His main criticism of my conclusions is that they are overgeneralizations, and his evidence consists of a few counter-examples. But the object of my articles was never to suggest that everyone had changed or that things were completely black and white. It was rather to highlight a rapidly growing trend—a trend that is particularly important, though often threatening, to educators. It is a trend that, in my view, calls for tremendous changes in our teaching methods and requires our teachers to invent new approaches based on their understanding of how their students are changing.

Of course some people still learn in the old ways, teach brilliantly in the old paradigms, are not TV watchers, are totally bilingual, and the like. However, the student and educator cultures that I call Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants are not only different in their languages and approaches, but diverge farther every day. Few instructors today are comfortable with the languages and implications of blogs, multimedia, massive multiplayer online games, instant messaging, "modding," smart mobs, avatars, and alternate realities. These are just a few of the things that kids are interacting with online—perhaps not in Hungary, where VanSlyke lives (though I would expect the same there), but certainly in the US, Japan, Korea, and much of the rest of the world. Yet when people get together to discuss the future of education (I have attended several of these conferences recently), there are very few instances of Digital Immigrants listening to and learning from Digital Natives in the sort of "mutual discourse" that VanSlyke proposes. In fact, the Natives typically are not invited!

It is also a misinterpretation of my view to say that I believe that "legacy content" (reading, writing, arithmetic, and other traditional subjects) should be de-emphasized in our schools in favor of "future content" (digital and technological subjects and the linguistic, sociologic, and other structures associated with them). While legacy content is only a part of what today's students need to know, much of it is still critical. What I do say in my articles is that educators need to think about "how to teach both Legacy and Future content in the language of the Digital Natives" (2001b, ¶ 23). In point of fact, the critical thinking and research skills that our students need have changed considerably in the digital age—in substance, if not in name. Teaching today's kids to think critically and do research involves understanding and using all sorts of new tools, such as online reputation systems and various types of logical programming languages, many of which are totally unknown to today's teachers.

Many critics also miss my point regarding the use of video and computer games for teaching, mistakenly assuming that I believe they are the only way—rather than just one of the ways—to reach Digital Natives in their own language. Games are useful tools for teaching Natives for several reasons. First, they engage. As I argue in my book Digital Game-Based Learning (2001a), at their best games are the most engaging intellectual pastime we have ever invented. Second, they are a language that most Digital Natives speak fluently; Immigrants, of course, speak "game" only rudimentarily if at all, and so distrust the medium. Third, games can in many instances present traditional content in previously unavailable ways that facilitate understanding, such as simulation games about resource management and scientific principles. It would be silly to ignore as a potential teaching tool a phenomenon that attracts millions of paying customers and has up to 1 million players collaborating and competing online at once, which is what massive multiplayer online games do around the world. MIT, Carnegie Mellon, major corporations, the U.S. military, and other government institutions are all in the process of incorporating various types of learning games into their methodologies and curricula. But not for all purposes, of course, and not as the only pedagogical medium (I never suggested this, though I do maintain it is possible to invent an effective teaching game for any content). They are using the games not only for "training," but also to enhance deep understanding.

When critics claim that the discourse of Immigrants and Natives is not very different because both use discussion forums, they also miss the point. True, both groups employ some of the same tools. But the Natives expand upon these tools enormously through links to sharing, selling, downloading, blogging, and other communities, leaving the online academics far behind in this area. Yes, the "discourse" of the Digital Natives is there, but it includes many new forms, including multimedia and gaming. Forward-thinking schools are now encouraging and helping their students and teachers to converse and discourse in the new media, with impressive success. At a recent TechEd conference, Brown (2003) showed a 4-minute multimedia piece created by a 15-year-old high school student to explore her relationship with her mother. The entire audience found it enormously expressive and moving.

Of course, understanding all the ways in which computers can help students learn is a much longer discussion than any single citation or paragraph can deal with. Some of the basic components of this argument—that we still know very little about learning; that teaching and learning are very different; and that it is the tutor, not the classroom teacher, who is most effective (by two standard deviations) in getting students to learn—are treated at some length in my article "e-Nough!" (2003). But this is a question that all teachers need constantly to revisit, preferably in the company of their students.

I suspect that many critics react negatively to my true mission—to update instruction to fit our changing audience and times—because they fear that I am asking them to change everything they do, which to them means throwing the baby out with the bath water. What I am really pointing out is that most of the bath water has stagnated, and if we intend to keep the baby healthy, it is certainly time for the water to be changed. Much of the criticism I hear from educators feels to me as if it is from people who already sense things slipping, and are grasping to find things they know how to do that are still effective in a hyper-changing world. Of course they can still find some. But a great many of their criticisms are really just their Digital Immigrant accents coming out, often based on beliefs that do not mesh with current facts and research.

Despite the research that I cited in my article (Prensky, 2002c), VanSlyke finds it "hard to believe that neurological structures could change to such a dramatic extent from one generation to the next" (2003, ¶ 7). And while he writes, "I know a number of teachers today who have adopted new, engaging teaching methods that are student-centered and that promote active learning" (¶ 13), the BellSouth Foundation (2003) recently released a report citing the "vast differences between student and teacher perceptions of instructional technology practices." The report states that "while teachers feel they are making dramatic leaps in their ability to harness the power of technology to create stimulating, engaging and challenging learning experiences for students, the students themselves have seen few changes in classroom instruction" (p. 1). The truth is that not only are a great many of our educators ill-informed about the languages of today's students, but more than a few cannot break away from old language forms—such as lecturing—that even they realize are no longer effective.

So how can today's educators overcome their Digital Immigrant accents? I suggest, as a start, that we accept and reflect on our own Immigrant ways of doing things and how these behaviors might inhibit communication with our students. Second, I recommend that we carefully observe and study the emerging online behaviors of the Digital Natives as they engage with blogs, massive multiplayer online games, instant messages, mods, avatars, and the other items and activities cited above. We need to try them ourselves, discuss them with our students, and figure out how we can use them to enhance our teaching and increase cross-generational communication.

As an illustration that getting better often requires nothing more than listening, altering our point of view, and applying our creativity, I present an excerpt from an unsolicited e-mail that I received from a consulting engineer in India who somehow found my book:

You literally changed my whole outlook. I was asked to deliver a 3 hour lecture . . . to engineers . . . on Monday. I spent the whole night reading and reflecting on the various ideas about outdated learning. . . . Some of the ideas hit me so hard that the next day morning—although Saturday was a holiday—I called four of my staff members and started demolishing our [100-slide] PowerPoint presentation. . . . Instead we prepared "Game Materials" for 6 groups of 10 each. Simple games for teaching . . . [and] incorporating case studies.

[The students expected] to hear more boring stuff from industry experts. When I formed six groups and gave them the "Game Materials" with minimum instructions . . . and gave them 20 minutes time to win . . . they and their teachers . . . were dumbfounded. In India . . . learning is accepted as a truly serious business—it must be punishably boring—this is accepted as a rule.

[But] once the groups got involved there were shouts of joy—animated discussions—heated exchanges—problems—compromises—solutions emerged [as] each group presented their solution. Laughing, dancing, shouting and clapping were allowed by the rules. The teachers witnessed the whole scenario in complete disbelief. One of the professors told me that he finds it difficult to hold the attention of Engineering students even for a 40 minute class. [Yet] everybody found the three hours such a short period. Nobody wanted me to stop. Everybody warmly shook my hand and many came right up to my car to bid me leave. I was touched by their . . . genuine interest in an otherwise tough and unmanageable subject.

All this from a 64-year-old instructor who chose to speak the students' language (fun collaboration) rather than his own (one-way lecture). Imagine what the rest of us can do!

I second VanSlyke's conclusion that we should create better tools for teachers and help teachers become better users of those tools. Yet I do suspect that the best of these tools will look very little like (and perhaps work best outside of) the classroom of today. They are likely to resemble the very best tutors, combined with the creativity of inventors and the emerging Native-invented tools of the digital world. I strongly believe that today's educators and their students will benefit far more from applying their energy to creating such tools and adapting their teaching methods to the future than from expending their energy protecting those few enclaves where the past has not yet let go.


BellSouth Foundation. (2003). The growing technology gap between schools and students: Findings from the BellSouth Foundation Power to Teach program. Atlanta: Author. Retrieved April 30, 2003, from

Brown, J. S. (2002). The social life of information. Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press.

Brown, J. S. (2003, March 26). The social life of information: Learning in the digital age. Keynote presentation at the 2003 TechEd Ontario Conference, Ontario, CA.

Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital game-based learning. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Prensky, M. (2001b, September/October). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1-6. Retrieved April 30, 2003, from Prensky%20-%20Digital%20Natives,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

Prensky, M. (2001c, November/December). Digital natives, digital immigrants, part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6. Retrieved April 30, 2003, from Prensky - Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants - Part2.pdf

Prensky, M. (2003). "e-Nough!" On the Horizon. Retrieved April 30, 2003, from Prensky%20-%20e-Nough%20-%20OTH%2011-1%20March%202003.pdf

Rheingold, H. (2002). Smart mobs: The next social revolution. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

VanSlyke, T. (2003, May/June). Digital natives, digital immigrants: Some thoughts from the generation gap. The Technology Source. Retrieved April 30, 2003, from

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