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Brad Cunningham, Kansas State University


There is no question that students have changed over the past decade. Every generation uses different slang and has new fashions, but the differences in today’s students go deeper. Today’s students use technologies to explore their world in entirely new ways. With these new technologies they speak an entirely different language, one they expect us to understand. In his article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Marc Prensky (2001) presents two new terms that can be used to describe both ourselves and the students we advise.

The first concept Prensky describes is the Digital Native. The current generation of college students is the first to grow up immersed in technology. They have always had the Internet, laptops, cell phones with text messaging, AIM, Facebook™ or MySpace™, PlayStations™, digital cameras, DVD players, blogs, and any other number of digital technologies that allow them to instantly capture or communicate with their world. They use these tools as extensions of their bodies and minds, fluidly incorporating them into their daily routines (Prensky, 2005). They have learned the language of technology as they communicate instantly with their peers. These students, like all natives, adapt quickly to changes in their environment and look for new ways to incorporate the latest technology into their fast-paced lives.

On the other hand is the Digital Immigrant. The Digital Immigrant is the latecomer in the technology revolution and as with any immigrant, there is a certain “accent” that is readily apparent to the native speakers. Examples of this “accent” are things like calling and asking if a recipient received the email that was just sent, typing out text messages with full words rather than the standard abbreviations (OMG ur my bff!), or going to the library before searching the Internet. Digital Immigrants still try to work around or second guess technology; Digital Natives know no other way. It is important that we understand the differences between ourselves as Immigrants and our students as Natives. When we teach and advise our students using a language different from their own, we shouldn’t wonder why they aren’t listening!

One major difference between Natives and Immigrants is the way we process information. Natives retrieve information and communicate with their peers very quickly (Prensky, 2001). Text messaging has become a primary form of communication because messages can be sent and received quickly in situations where a phone call can not be taken. Whether students are in lecture, at work, or out with friends, a text message can be sent with little disruption. Through texting, Facebook, and use of the Internet as a search tool, students access information right now, sift through what they need, and ignore the rest. Why should students go to the library when they can Google™ their topic and have hundreds of articles at their fingertips? Why call friends when their Facebook pages will tell them where they are and what they are planning to do tonight? Just a few seconds and they know everything they need to about their social networks.

Another major difference between Immigrants and Natives is a sense of identity (DigitalNative.org, 2007). To Digital Immigrants, a cell phone, email, or the Internet is just a tool that can be used to reach someone or set up a “real” face-to-face meeting. Digital Natives look at the same technologies and see an extension of who they are. Each method of communication allows the Native to harness a different set of capabilities and skills when communicating with others. Texting may be better for communicating one idea, while Facebook might be better for the next thing. Regardless of which medium is used, they are part of who the Native is, not just a separate tool that can be used to create a “real” meeting. Digital communication is just as real to a Native as the face-to-face meetings are to an Immigrant.

Our students look to us to incorporate these new technologies into our advising practice. Students increasingly want to contact us via email, text messaging, and instant messaging rather than meet with us in our offices. We may not think that the same level of interaction and connection can be achieved in digital advising, but that is our “accent” showing. We must remember that students feel that a digital meeting is just as real as an office meeting, and they take away the same meaning and feeling as from an office meeting. If we only offer services in ways in which we are comfortable, then students may never feel that we are meeting them at their level. How can we practice developmental advising if we will not expand our comfort zones? Are we helping students when we force them to meet us on our terms? Or are we holding them back?

How do we bridge the gap between Natives and Immigrants? There are some strategies that we can employ that will help us reach our Native students:

  • Expand our comfort zones to meet students where they are.
  • Listen to what students tell us about technology; work with them and value their knowledge.
  • Place importance on how we communicate over what we communicate. Students actively multi-task to hold their interest in the material we present. As one student said “there‘s so much difference between how teachers think and how students think” (Prensky, 2007).
  • Decide with students, not for them (Prensky, 2005). Students today have a whole new set of needs and require an entirely new approach in terms of advising. We learn their language so we can help them make sound decisions.
  • Allow Natives to teach and learn from each other. They often aren’t given the chance to do so because Immigrants view themselves as the experts.

Natives do not see memorizing information as an education. Instead they define an education as the ability to know where information can be found and how to retrieve it (Prensky, July 2007). With instant gratification avenues such as YouTube™, IM, chat rooms, and social networking sites and WiFi hand-held PDA’s with instant Internet access, why should students memorize when they can browse? Immigrants should be willing to teach natives how to find the important information and put less emphasis on forcing the students to learn exact information.

Finally, Natives know that we are not as comfortable or familiar with technology as they are and do not expect us to keep up with them. They do expect us to know what they are referring to and be willing to incorporate some of the new technologies in our advising. They want to share the volumes of information they have about technology if we will just listen. They know that they may need to speak slowly, but they are learning our “accent” as we are learning theirs.

Brad Cunningham
Academic Advisor
Kansas State University
College of Business Administration
[email protected]


Digital Natives. (November, 2006). In Digital Natives Wiki. Retrieved October 9, 2007 from www.digitalnative.org/Main_Page.

Prensky, Marc. (October, 2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. Retrieved fromwww.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky - Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants - Part1.pdf

Prensky, Marc. (December, 2005). Listen to the natives. Retrieved October 9, 2007 from www.ascd.org/cms/objectlib/ascdframeset/index.cfm?publication=http://www.ascd.org/authors/ed_lead/el200512_prensky.html

Prensky, Marc. (2007). To educate, we must listen. Retrieved October 9, 2007 fromwww.marcprensky.com/writing/Prensky-To_Educate,We_Must_Listen.pdf

Prensky, Marc. (July, 2007). Changing paradigms. Retrieved October 9, 2007 from

Cite this article using APA style as: Cunningham, B. (2007, December). Digital native or digital immigrant, which language do you speak? Academic Advising Today, 30(4). Retrieved from [insert url here]


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