How do digital natives and digital immigrants think differently?

Tech blog topic

Digital natives and digital immigrants are widely different in the way that they consume information, think, reflect, and learn.

The American writer and speaker, Mark Prensky, proclaims that the digital divide is wreaking havoc on education institutions. What is the digital divide? It’s the gap between those who learned how to access and manipulate information and communication technologies (ICTs) at a young age and those who learned to use ICTs as adults. Prensky (2001a, 2001b, 2003, 2009) coined and popularized the terms digital natives and digital immigrants to describe the divided groups. Digital natives are born after 1980 and grew up immersed in digital technology. They crave interactivity or a real-time response to their actions. Digital immigrants were taught in analog environments before the Internet revolution and only adopted social media, online games, and mobile phone apps after the digital era. Given that these two groups perceive and use technology differently, they acquire and retain information in different ways. Accordingly, their information consumption and learning habits are dissimilar.

How do digital natives and digital immigrants process information? Digital natives – also known as homo sapiens digital – are intuitive learners. They accept digital improvements as a natural human life process and digest information quickly because of their fondness for gaming. However, given that the Internet-based education system is unorganized, the thoughts of digital natives are fragmented. Conversely, since digital immigrants had to adapt to a fast-paced shift to the current technology-based everyday life, their approach to acquiring information is linear; therefore, they process information much more slowly.

The brain of the literate man or woman evolved to deal with written language and reading. Over time, the brain of the baby boomer was reprogrammed to accommodate television. The brain of a child born today is wired to multi-task and web surf. “They develop hypertext minds. It’s as though their cognitive structures were parallel, not sequential (Winn, 1997).” Moreover, how digital natives think changes constantly. Their repeated exposure to computer games and other digital media, including visual images as representations of 3D space, has heightened their representational competencies and multidimensional visual-spatial skills. They can make mental maps, make observations, formulate hypotheses, and figure out the rules governing the behavior of a dynamic representation by the process of inductive discovery, monitor multiple locations simultaneously via attentional deployment, and respond faster to expected and unexpected stimuli.

While their cognitive skills are not new, the combination and intensity are new (Prensky, 2009). Therefore, digital natives are not only smarter than digital immigrants, but they are also wiser in the sense that they can use digital tools without difficulties. Technology gives them an edge – they can access more information, make faster decisions, and at the same time improve their analytical skills. Prensky argues that in a digital-complex future, non-digital natives, albeit wise, may not have enough tools of wisdom to compete with their digital native counterparts. Digital immigrants, however, can compete if they eagerly adopt and exploit digital technologies. The human brain is neuroplastic in that it constantly reorganizes itself regardless of a person’s age. The physiological shape of a brain changes as soon as it a person undergoes different developmental experiences. Such a change can affect a person’s pattern of thinking. Likewise, when a digital immigrant is fed other inputs, he or she learns to think differently.

Digital natives have their limitations (Prensky, 2001b). They struggle with linear thinking and have trouble focusing or concentrating on any one thing at a time. “The attention span of a gnat” is the cliché widespread among teachers. Edward Westhead, Professor Emeritus of the University of Massachusetts, begs to differ. Digital natives do not lack, on the whole, attention; they choose not to pay attention to things that do not interest them. Digital natives also spend less time reflecting than non-digital natives. They create fewer mental models from their experiences. It may be that it’s easier to stay connected but harder to disconnect from a high-speed, multi-tasking, easy-access, graphic-first, active, and quick-payoff world.

Recall Prensky’s declaration that the digital divide is wreaking havoc on education institutions? What is he implying? Digital native learners will demand fun learning “to the point that management, teachers, and administrators can no longer resist. The workers of the games generations will no longer accept, attend, or do training that is boring (Prensky, 2003, p. 4).” Since the learning revolution is here to stay, how are educators closing the digital divide? Many educators are weaving in more practical exercises to their didactic courses to pique the interests of digital-native learners and keep them engaged during their allotted teaching hours.

Whether you are a digital native or immigrant studying at an institution of higher education or a working professional, supplement your learning experience with the GILO App. Our fun and interactive tool is bound to help you write your research papers faster, better, and easier.


Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon, 9 (5), 1-6.

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

Prensky, M. (2003). Digital game-based learning. Computers in Entertainment, 1(1), 21-21.

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

Winn, W. D. (1997). Director of the Learning Center, Human Interface Technology Laboratory, University of Washington, quoted in Moore, P. Inferential Focus Briefing.

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