Digital Immigrant Instructors: Not Obsolete Just Yet


As early as 1962, Englebart (1963) pondered how learning (and by implication, education) might change if knowledge could be easily accessed and associative learning made possible. Though these concepts are now ubiquitous we continue to consider the same issue today. In their article, “Why Professor Johnny Can’t Read: Understanding the Net Generation’s Texts,” Mabrito and Medley (2008) seek to explore this question and provide some suggestions for the way forward.

Wired Differently?

Foundational to Mabrito & Medley’s (2008) observations and solutions is the premise that the Net-Generation’s (N-Gen) brains are “wired differently” (p. 2) to the previous generation. This change, they believe, includes ways of thinking and information processing. They base their thesis on the theory of “adaptational neuroplasticity” (p.2). According to this theory, “our brains are plastic, flexible and subject to change throughout life in response to changes in the environment” (Helsper & Enyon, 2011, p. 3). Accordingly then, given a “lifelong immersion” (Mabrito & Medley, 2008, p. 2) in digital media (since 1982), the N-Gen student now thinks, learns, and perceives the world differently. Conversely, the previous generation of educators, although they may be “technologically literate” (p. 1), are not skilled in 21st century digital media, nor do they understand how their students learn.

Mabrito & Medley (2008) are not the first to consider the thinking divide between generations. According to Tapscott (2009), the term “Net Generation” (2009) was his invention back in 1997. He defines them as the first generation “to be growing up digital” (p. 2). In 2001, Prensky labeled this divide with the terms “Digital Natives” and “Digital Immigrants” describing it as a “really big discontinuity” (pp. 1-2). While each of these authors have valid observations, this kind of divide thinking is problematic, and there is a growing body of oppositional literature (Hargittai, 2010; Helsper & Enyon, 2009; Kennedy et al., 2007).


On reading the works of Prensky (2001), Tapscott (2009), and Mabrito & Medley (2008), one would surmise that all Net Geners are technologically savvy and effective learners quite apart from their educators. Human development however is rarely dichotomous in nature and the assigning of the date 1982, as the beginning of the Net Generation is problematic. Hargittai (2010) found that the Net Gen is not “universally knowledgeable” when it comes to the digital realm (p. 109). Even among “wired” first year university students, she found that gender, ethnicity, and socio-economic factors predicated a wide-range of understanding of the Internet. Similarly, a study on first-year Australian university students in three different schools found that there was significant diversity in technology usage among this group (Kennedy et al., 2007). The proponents of a divide theory do not take into consideration that because our educational system is largely unchanged, students in the N-Gen have and are being schooled in the predominately text-mode of learning thereby allowing them to move freely between the two modes. While they may be “bathed in bits” (Tapscott, 2012) they are still equally exposed to traditional forms of learning, precipitating a more gradual and subtle change than previously declared.

Mabrito & Medley (2008) (as well as others) seem eager to establish a brain rewiring theory for the N-Gen, however they do not account for the educators who have also been steeped in digital technology at least as long as the N-Geners. If the brain study is true, then it is true for anyone, including the previous generation. Is it conceivable then that instructors of the previous generation, given time, can become comfortable after continual exposure to digital media? Prensky (2001) declares outdated “Digital Immigrant instructors” (p.2) to be the main problem in education today. Once again we are fed a “Great Divide” theory. Kennedy et al., (2007) call for moderation in raising the possibility “that current students and teachers might have a more complex mix of skills and experiences with new technologies” (p. 518).

A New Pedagogy?

Based on their theory of rewired brains, Mabrito & Medley (2008) deduce that new pedagogical thinking is required, They believe that the N-Gen, characterized as digital, connected, experiential, immediate, and social (Barnes, Marateo, & Ferris, 2007; Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Prensky, 2001), have a different learning style to the previous generation. But is a shift in pedagogy necessary? Best practice in education dictates that we get to know our students, understand how they learn, and help them learn accordingly. Mabrito & Medley (2008) offer Wenger’s community of practice, and Vygotsky’s social construction of knowledge as part of this new pedagogy. These theories of learning are not new, but the tools are what have changed. Sound pedagogical practice helps us decide, “which modes, methods, activities, and actors are most cost and learning-effective” (Anderson, 2008, p. 68). Determining “aptness of mode” and “aptness of fit between mode and audience” (Kress, 2005, p. 19) is best practice regardless of learning styles.


With the amount of information available, today’s students have the possibility of knowing far more than students from previous generations. However, they do not universally inhabit the digital educational spaces touted by many authors. Barnes, Marateo, & Ferris (2007) urge educators to learn from the Net Generation, but continue to teach them in engaging ways. The Net Generation needs to be taught how to discern good information, and how to pool that information for their own interest and problem solving needs (Englebart, 1963). Students must be guided in the creation of useful “paths of meaning” (Bolter, 2001, p. 35) that the digital age affords. For this to happen, teachers must first be cognizant of the new possibilities of thinking and learning that our electronic structures provide. This is sound pedagogical practice no matter which generation one inhabits.

Anderson, T. (2008). Towards a theory of online learning. In: Anderson, T. & Elloumi, F. Theory and practice of online learning. Athabasca University.
Barnes, K., Marateo, R., & Ferris, S. P. (2007). Teaching and learning with the Net Generation. Innovate Journal of Online Education, 3(4), 771-772.

Bolter, J.D. (2001). Writing space: Computers, hypertext, and the remediation of print. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Englebart, Douglas. (1963). “A conceptual framework for the augmentation of man’s intellect.” In Hawerton, P.W. and Weeks, D.C. (Eds), Vistas in information handling, Volume I: The augmentation of man’s intellect by machine. Washington, DC: Spartan Books. Available (as “Augmentation of human intellect: A conceptual framework”):

Hargittai, E. (2010), Digital Na(t)ives?: Variation in Internet skills and uses among members of the “Net Generation”. Sociological Inquiry, 80: 92–113. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2009.00317.

Helsper, E. & Eynon, R. (2011). Digital Natives: Where is the evidence? LSE Research Online. Available at

Kennedy, G., Dalgarno, B., Gray, K., Judd, T., Waycott, J., Bennett, S., … & Churchward, A. (2007). The Net Generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies: Preliminary findings. In ICT: Providing choices for learners and learning. Proceedings ascilite Singapore 2007 (pp. 517-525).

Kress, Gunter. (2005). Gains and losses: New forms of texts, knowledge and learning. Computers and Composition. 22(1), 5-22. Retrieved, October 27, 2012 from

Mabrito, M., & Medley, R. (2008). Why Professor Johnny can’t read: Understanding the Net Generation’s texts. Innovate: Journal of Online Education, 4(6). Retrieved November 15, 2012,

Oblinger, D., & Oblinger, J. L. (2005). Educating the Net Generation (Vol. 264). Washington, DC: Educause.

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants part 2: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6), 1-6.

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

Tapscott, D. (2012). Four principles for the open world. TEDGlobal 2012.

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1 Response to Digital Immigrant Instructors: Not Obsolete Just Yet

  1. joypenner says:

    Arlene Whetter writes about the disparity of digital literacy based on socio-economic standing. This is something Hargittai also found to be true among the “so-called” Digital Natives.

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