Academic Advising Resources


Digital Native or Digital Immigrant, Which Language Do You Speak?

Brad Cunningham

There is no question that the 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 explore their world in an entirely new way as they interact with new technologies. 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 that of 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,DVDplayers, 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 someone if a recipient received the email that was just sent, typing out text messages with full words rather than the standard abbreviations (OMGur my bff!), or going to the library before searching the Internet. Digital Immigrants still try and work around or second guess technology, while the Digital Natives know no other way. It is important to understand the differences between ourselves as the Immigrants and our students as the Natives. When we teach and advise our students using a language different than our own, we should not wonder that 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 cannot be taken. Whether the student is in lecture, at work, or out with friends, a text message can be sent with little disruption. A professor would certainly get upset with a student who took a phone call in the middle of lecture, but probably doesn’t even notice the student sending a text message. 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 a thousand different articles at their fingertips? Why call friends when their Facebook pages will tell me where they are and what they are planning to do tonight? Just a few seconds and I know everything I need to about my social network.


Our students have honed their skills in retrieving and analyzing information rapidly, so why don’t we advise and teach in the same way? Should we wonder why students are bored during lectures that supply information one topic at a time and move at a snail’s pace? While Immigrants grew up learning one topic at a time, everything in order, following a linear and logical progression, but Natives do not think that way. They are adept at jumping from idea to idea as they think of things; they explore their world as burst thinkers. Natives can study with the TV on and their iPod blasting in one ear; they have been practicing these multitasking skills their entire lives. Immigrants often believe that students can not learn in that sort of environment. It’s another example of the “accent” that Immigrants carry with them.


Another major difference between Immigrants and Natives is a sense of identity (, 2007).  To Digital Immigrants, cell phones, emails, and the Internet are just tools that can be used to reach someone or set up a “real” face-to-face meeting. Natives look at the same technologies and see an extension of who they are. Each method of communication allows Natives 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 Natives as face-to-face meetings are to Immigrants.


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 in the same manner? Or, are we holding them back?


How do we bridge the gap between Natives and Immigrants? There are strategies we can employ that will help us reach our Native students. First, we should step out of our comfort zones and meet our students where they are. We should realize that Natives are many steps ahead of us when it comes to technology and they know it. We should be willing to laugh at our “accents” and move on. Listen to what students tell us about how technology can be beneficial to how we conduct our lives, work with them, and value their knowledge.


Place more importance onhowwe communicate overwhatwe communicate. Immigrants think in a straight line, presenting information one topic at a time. Today’s students engage in multiple thoughts, ideas, and programs at the same time. In addition to following a Power Point lecture, they search for a topic online while actively discussing the topic with their peers, all with music playing in the background. Students need to actively multi-task to hold their interest in the material that we present. As one student said “there‘s so much difference between how teachers think and how students think” (Prensky, 2007).


Along with that idea is the fact that this generation is far more comfortable sharing and teaching each other than any previous generation (Prensky, 2007). These students often post intimate details and pictures online for anyone to peruse. A quick look through Facebook will find any number of drunken party pictures, images of sadness and loneliness, and thoughts that we would be mortified to release to even our closest friends. Most Immigrants cannot handle that level of openness and lack of privacy. We need to be aware that students are certainly willing to talk and share what they know with us. They know we are often unwilling to share, but they do ask that we listen. They want to teach and learn from each other, but often aren’t given the chance to do so because Immigrants view themselves as the “expert.” We can no longer decideforour students, but instead we must decidewiththem (Prensky, 2005). Students today have a whole new set of needs, and require an entirely new approach in terms of advising. We need to work with them so we can learn their language and help them make sound decisions.


Many Immigrants consider education as the process that forces as much information into students’ heads as possible so they can regurgitate a laundry list of facts at a moment’s notice. Natives donotconsider this an education. To Natives, education involves anything that prepares them for their future (Prensky, July 2007). Natives do not see the need to memorize information as much as the need to know where information can be found and how to retrieve it. This definition is supported by the many instant gratification avenues such as YouTube™, IM, chat rooms, social networking sites, and WiFi hand-held PDA’s with instant Internet access. Why should students memorize when they can browse? Why learn math tables when everyone has access to a calculator? Immigrants should be willing to teach Natives how to find 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. They may spend time researching the next big Facebook program, the next iPod revolution, and the next big step in cell phones, but they don’t expect this of us. They do expect us to at least 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 that they have about technology and programming with us, if we will just listen to them. They know they may have to speak slowly, but they are learning our “accent” as we are learning theirs.


Brad Cunningham

Academic Advisor


CollegeofBusiness Administration




Digital Natives (November, 2006) In Digital Natives Wiki. Retrievedfrom


This Wiki web page is hosted by Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland and is the beginning of a large scale research collaboration about Digital Natives.


Prensky, Marc. (October, 2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. Retrievedfrom,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.htm


  This article is where Marc Prensky first set out to really define the terms Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants.
  This article explores in greater depth the strategies that can be used to bridge the gap between Natives and Immigrants. It speaks in a more K-12 setting, but the ideas can be applied to higher education.


Prensky, Marc. (2007) To Educate, We Must Listen. Retrievedfrom,We_Must_Listen.pdf


  This recently written article stresses how Immigrants need to listen to what the new generation of students are telling us.


Prensky, Marc. (July, 2007) Changing Paradigms. Retrievedfrom


  This article discusses the shift from deciding for our students to deciding with them.

Cite this resource using APA style as:

Cunningham, B. (2007). Digital Native or Digital Immigrant, Which Language Do You Speak? Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources Web site


Actions: E-mail | Permalink |
The contents of all material on this Internet site are copyrighted by the National Academic Advising Association, unless otherwise indicated. Copyright is not claimed as to any part of an original work prepared by a U.S. or state government officer or employee as part of that person's official duties. All rights are reserved by NACADA, and content may not be reproduced, downloaded, disseminated, published, or transferred in any form or by any means, except with the prior written permission of NACADA, or as indicated or as indicated in the 'Copyright Information for NACADA Materials' statement. Copyright infringement is a violation of federal law and is subject to criminal and civil penalties. NACADA and National Academic Advising Association are service marks of the National Academic Advising Association.

Index of Topics
Advising Resources

Do you have questions?  Do you need help with an advising topic? 
Email us.