The metaphor of digital natives and digital immigrants was originated by educator Marc Prensky (2001) to differentiate between students who were born into and grew up with the Internet and their teachers who encountered the Internet as adults. The metaphor reflects immigrants who move to a new country, try to assimilate, but still speak with an accent. Their children, born in the new country, are naturally assimilated and speak the language as their native tongue. Prensky provides a few examples of this pre-Internet accent, such as printing emails before reading them (p. 2). Most, if not all, of his accent examples seem more like getting familiar with new technology in 2001. I don’t know of any digital immigrants who print emails, at least not since 1995.
There are other objections to this metaphor. For one, it doesn’t address access to technology, which adds socio-economic status into the mix (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin, 2008, p. 778). You can’t be a digital native if your family can’t afford to buy the digits. David Weinberger (2007) offered another objection in a KMWorld column. He doesn’t consider himself a digital immigrant because of his lengthy computing history and superior computing skills. So he changed the metaphor from Ellis Island to post-Revolution America and defined himself as a digital settler – not born in the country, but an early and skilled resident.
I’d like to expand that metaphor a little further, with settlers preceded by explorers and pioneers. Like Lewis and Clark, digital explorers forged their way into new territory, blazing trails of hardware and software. Pioneers followed, finding new ways to use the technology. Settlers liked what they saw and joined in. They were followed this time by immigrants and their children, the digital natives.
This metaphor doesn’t take into account Native Americans who were already on the land when the European explorers arrived. But in the digital frontier, the land was not already in existence, waiting to be stolen. It was constructed by digital explorers and pioneers who sold their ideas to eager settlers, immigrants and eventual natives.
Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The ‘digital natives’ debate: A Critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39(5), 775-786. Retrieved January 15, 2009, from First Search WilsonSelectPlus database.