Digital Literacy: Going Native in ELT?

“Digital native” and “digital immigrant” are labels that have graced training seminar powerpoint presentations the world over for more than a decade, but what are the implications of these terms for publishers (and all other participants in the learning biz)? Are there any implications at all, even, or are these simply sassy strap lines that ricochet between blogs (like ours) but are inherently void of substance?

According to Marc Prensky, the originator of the terms, a digital immigrant is an individual that adopts technology later in their life, as opposed to a digital native who is born into a culture of digital conversance. These monikers refer more to the context in which teaching/learning digital literacies occurs rather than a genetic disposition to being digitally literate; being raised in a school/family/social group that has integrated digital tools does not automatically make you a tech whizz, nor does picking up the same tech after your 18th birthday make you digitally-deficient.

Prensky’s perspective (back in 2001 when these terms were coined, as well as in his more current contributions) is undoubtedly that of an horizon-scanner, pointing out the necessary adaptations that will need to take place in order to accommodate a future that is still unfolding for all involved in education. In his 2o12 essay ‘Teaching the Right Stuff’ Prensky observes that there is a considerable drag effect in assimilating digital tools and skills into education. He observes that the delay in embracing these new approaches is due to a combination of teacher reluctance and a lack of clear application for the tools that are available. Even where all efforts are being made to promote digital integration, Prensky states, the learners are still considerably “behind the technological curve” as educators are not “teaching our students the tools of tomorrow”. Claiming you can’t teach anything other than what is known today because you don’t know what will be required in the future is a cop out, according to Prensky.

In their book ‘Digital Literacies‘, Gavin Dudeney and Nicky Hockley observe that at the heart of the drive for “21st Century Skills” (including critical thinking, autonomy, flexibility and lifelong learning) lies the ability to engage with digital tools in order to locate, share and communicate on resources. They define digital literacy as:

The individual and social skills needed to effectively interpret, manage, share and create meaning in the growing range of digital communication channels.

Prensky, in his 2012 paper, goes on to identify three skills that any alert educator should be pre-emptively integrating into their practice as they represent the skills that will form the basis of all learners’ real-world experiences in the future. These are:

  1. Working in virtual communities – collaborating with a globally dispersed team in online workspaces, for example. 
  2. Making videos – both in front and behind the camera. Video is increasingly becoming the preferred medium for communication.
  3. Programming – being able to write code is the fundamental literacy for the learners of the future. Those who can’t program, even on a very basic level, are in danger of being left behind.

Bold statements, but worth a moment of consideration. These three skills certainly reflect the shift from content consumer to content creator that is outlined in Renee Hobbs’ 2010 white paper ‘Digital and Media Literacy: A Plan of Action’. Hobbs describes this shift in terms of an interrelated set of skills that include the following range of competencies:

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The vision here is that learners become active participants/curators/contributors in their own learning experience and social communities.

A question that emerges for me at this point is ‘How much creation, reflection and action are English language learners currently doing with the range of published materials that their institutions choose to use?’ In a way it comes back to same, unerring question: Are ELT publishers really in the business of working on learning, or are they simply looking at the P&L sheet and hoping such futuristic ideas sort themselves out of their own accord? I mean, commissioning products that are intended to encourage digital literacy is somewhat costly at the end of the day.




Featured Photo Credit: derekGavey via Compfight cc

2 thoughts on “Digital Literacy: Going Native in ELT?”

  1. Interesting post, Tim. Just this week I read an article by Kirschner & van Merriënboer (2013) in which they sought (like others) to dispel the myths of the digital native and multitasking, among other things. They rightly state that Prensky and Veen & Vrakking really only coined the terms “digital native” and “Homo Zappiens” through observing youngsters surrounded by the latest devices linked to the internet, and reporting that they spent considerable time each day engaged with them. Yet what has also been found is that these groups used a very limited range of technologies for learning. The technologies they did use were for fairly insubstantial, short tasks. They claim:

    “What we may actually be seeing is a generation where learners at the computer behave as butterflies fluttering across the information on the screen, touching or not touching pieces of information (i.e., hyperlinks), quickly fluttering to a next piece of information, unconscious to its value and without a plan. This butterfly defect was first signaled by Salomon and Almog (1998). Learners are seduced (Harp & Mayer, 1997; Mayer, 2005) into clicking the links, often forgetting what they are looking for. This “fluttering” leads—at best—to a very fragile network of knowledge. Many a quest ends in a quagmire of possibly interesting but irrelevant pieces of information.”

    They also debunk multitasking through arguing that:

    ” switching requires a person to juggle her or his limited cogni-tive resources to accomplish the different tasks successfully. This juggling leads to greater inefficiency in performing each individual task, namely, that more mistakes are made and it takes significantly longer as compared to sequential work.”

    Interesting arguments t consider in light of your closing question!



    Kirschner, Paul A, and Jeroen JG van Merriënboer. “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education.” Educational Psychologist 48, no. 3 (2013): doi:10.1080/00461520.2013.804395.


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