Fits & Fugues

Education can be so much more.

BLC08 Excerpts -Tainted by Digital Racism

Alan November‘s Building Learning Communities conference in Boston, MA started for me on Tuesday with a pre-conference session with him about leadership. As I look over my personal notes, I have almost nothing there. That’s because I happened to sit at a table that Alan assigned to manage/edit a Google Doc. If you (do or don’t) know anything about Alan’s Students as Contributors approach, he had some of us participate along those lines. It was great stuff and I actually have never been so worn out from a conference session. That’s great stuff, really. It was also an extremely effective way to model his aprroach. I think he has plans to publush the Google Doc, but If you’d like an invite, send me your email and I’ll get you one.

On Wednesday I got to hear (in person) Ewan McIntosh. He’s a challenging and thoughtful educator who actually wants us to focus on the teaching and learning -with web tools, if necessary, but not exclusively and certainly not at the exclusion of deliberate and purposeful thought. His thoughtfulness came through in his post-keynote session to his respose when asked what “effective technology use” looks like. His response was elegantly complicated: there’s no one way; it depends on what the teacher hopes to accomplish. These aren’t his exact words, but I believe the paraphrase encapsulates the thinking there.

Earlier today John Davitt delivered his keynote about everything and nothing in a sort of stream of consciousness approach. His British wit, subtle and engaging, left the gears turning. For a bit of “what if” be sure to check out his Learning Event Generator on his main page. If you have some of your own, find his contact information there and send him an email.

Later I attended a Marc Prensky session titled “The Death of the Classroom and the Rebirth of Learning in the 21st Century: How Technology Changes the Meaning of Teaching.” Especially in the past few years I’ve read Prensky, read what others have said about, but never heard him directly. Now I have. [Warning: Fit ahead in case you’ve missed the blog title above. I may have to apologize for being critical, but I can’t let some of these things go.] I’m not sure my personal opinion matters too much, but I was, on a fundamental level, offended.

I regularly use my laptop to gather some background information on a speaker and this time was no exception. I found Marc Prensky’s site and clicked on his blog link. At first I thought I was having connection troubles because no headings came up and no recent entries, but that’s how it shows up. I’m not sure if he’s changed his blog lately, but articles can only be accessed by the archive link. I couldn’t use the link at the bottom to subscribe either. Okay, we all have tech issues sometimes.

Prensky has lots of experience behind him and has received a certain amount of attention for the Digital Native/Immigrant ideas. Far too many people absolutely stuff themselves with this artificial, divisive, and damaging distinction. Several, including George Siemens, Jamie McKenzie, and Gary Stager, have been critical of the distinction and David Thornburg even apologized for using it. One of my issues here is that by setting groups against each other with this kind of language only serves to widen a divide between teachers and their kids, producing at best, adversarial relationships founded in insecurity and assumed expertise. Additionally it provides some with excuses not to change by allowing them to sit back and point at the “immigrants” and how there’s so much to know so why bother at all. Further, any kind of language which has such polarity becomes prejudicial, judgemental, and discriminatory. Immigrant/Native language smacks of racist talk and all we have to do is look to most any example from history to see categorizations have significant negative impacts for the categorized. By the way, teachers who struggle with new technologies are not new: did anyone else help out with the film projector, slide projector, opaque or ditto machines? I mean all the Web 2.0 items are projectors in themselves, right? I wonder if there are any documented cases of some student helping her teacher out with that new fangled fountain pen? Nothing new, Mr. Prensky.

He calls himself a visionary and futurist but used a PowerPoint with distracting animation, overused sounds, and far too much text which he often rushed through to plug his upcoming sessions. Has he read Garr Reynolds’ Presentation Zen? How many of us have worked with kids who discovered animation and sound effects but didn’t realize how distracting they were and counseled (taught) them they could do better? The horns and excessive buzzes were annoying and many times condescending because we ignoramuses obviously couldn’t get the point -maybe because we hadn’t finished reading the slides. I also found it ironic hypocritical that for all his proclamations of the death of the classroom and teaching -gravestone graphic included -he still found it necessary to address us, via direct lecture and 20th century PowerPoint. Revolutionary…

Despite all these things, he received quite an ovation from a very crowded room. And, as people dispersed I heard many accolades and I wondered if some had finally found the excuses they were looking for and were relieved an MBA from Harvard and MAT from Yale told them they didn’t belong in this digitally-racist world and that it was okay because the kids have all the knowledge they need.

As long as educators continue to thoughtlessly buy the immigrant/native schism, they will undermine their own credibility, impair their abilities, and destroy their capacity.


July 17, 2008 - Posted by | Education | , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


  1. Rick, I have to agree with you. These labels divide us and don’t help us. There was a similar discussion on Classroom20 earlier this school year – also I said the same things as you at the Laptop Institute earlier this week during one session. In addition to the label which is wrong and inaccurate for “adults” it’s wrong and inaccurate for students as well. It assumes every baby born from 1980 on gained a digital DNA strand. Those babies born in 1979 don’t have that DNA. We are immersed in a digital culture, granted. This does not imply knowledge or wisdom or understanding, it’s just the environment, that’s all.

    Comment by Pamela Livingston | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. I’m not sure I would go as far as to call Prensky’s approach “racist” but I certainly agree that he and and his supporters have stretched the digital native/immigrant concept way too far. Too many people use it as an excuse for themselves or others to not make the effort to learn new skills and ideas.

    You’re also right about his presentation. I’ve seen it several times now (last at our state tech conference) and am amazed that someone who keynotes at dozens of conferences a year could get away with the kind of annoying animation, random sounds and generally crappy layout we would tell any of our students to fix.

    Comment by Tim | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  3. I would have to agree with your comments on Prensky. The first time I heard him, I loved everything he had to say. So I did a lot of research and went and tried to implement his ideas in a few real classroom settings. And they all failed miserably. Horribly miserably. Classrooms full of so-called digital natives had no clue how to use a MySpace page. A MySpace page! When I told my 18-year-old sister-in-law that “email is for old people” she responded “what idiot said that?” This is a girl that spends hours a day texting and following the latest fashion trends.

    Of course, I’m sure it was my fault, because I am too old to be worth anything to these kids today. They can figure anything out on their own, right?

    The next couple of times I saw Prensky, I started listening with a critical ear, and started really disliking his conclusions. He actually said that mp3 format is dying, to be replaced by wma. WMA? Who ever used that unless they had to? Side tangent note there, but just an example of craziness. Anyway – I was also shocked at the standing ovations he got. I myself can’t even figure out why I was so fooled by what he had to say the first time.

    Comment by Matt Crosslin | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  4. The Prensky lie uncovered. Nice insights. And yes his presentation style, while attempting to be engaging, ends up violating the basic principles of white space and simplicity.

    Comment by Dean Shareski | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  5. Hi Rick. I found Prensky’s ideas to be engaging until I read Jamie McKenzie’s analysis…you can read my blog post about that here:

    So, while I don’t have the same visceral reaction–I’ve only heard him in podcasts, not seen him present–as others do, I’m not that enthused about listening to him much anymore.

    Warm regards,
    Miguel Guhlin
    Around the

    Comment by Miguel Guhlin | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  6. You make some very interesting points about Prensky. I believe that there are digital natives among us (those over 35 who have been using old and new technologies from the time they were invented) and them (“them” defined as the teens and twenty-somethings who supposedly come out of the womb understanding how to use technology). It is irresponsible to make generalizations, especially with regard to age. I know many teens who are not technologically articulate. We must be very careful not to assume that young people just “get it”. Many of them just don’t. I understand the desire to use the divisive terminology to alarm adult technophobes in the hope that fear will instill some kind of action. But, I think Prensky may be underestimating his audience (especially at a conference with tech educators, many of whom are already on board) and simplifying a complex generational divide.

    Comment by Wendy Drexler | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  7. Don’t feel alone in this reaction. People can be swayed by a good speaker, even though they don’t really buy the underlying argument. Besides those you mention, here are a few more links supporting your view:

    A post I wrote about a year ago Digital natives/immigrants – how much do we love this slogan?. There are more links to other critiques in my post.

    Henry Jenkins Reconsidering Digital Immigrants

    An early piece from 2004 by Steve Ransom The myth of the digital native

    Comment by Sylvia Martinez | July 17, 2008 | Reply

  8. I wrote more about this digital native crapola a few years ago (2005) Gary Stager on tech insurgents: do your teachers need a computing IEP? – The permalink is, but the site is experiencing some hiccups.

    I also highly recommend Mark Cuban’s blog on a similar topic in which he takes issue with the baseless intergenerational warfare – Never Friend Anyone Over 29 –

    Besides cheap populism, Prensky’s prism reeks of an unhealthy and unwarranted worship of teen culture on the part of gullible adults.

    Want a real laugh, look at the 2nd-rate MathBlaster that are Prensky’s attempts at educational “game” design.

    Comment by Gary S. Stager | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  9. Maybe more hearing than listening going on here from the participants that lapped it up – not sure if my point about the immigrants/natives being a lie got through in the keynote if, 24 hours later, they’re giving an ovation to Prensky.

    I, too, am offended by his arguments, lack of recent research (that he shares, anyway) and simplistic (non-existent?) views of pedagogy. Above all, though, I find it curious that I’ve not seen him around, at other sessions or the keynotes. More of a digital holidaymaker than anything else, maybe?

    Comment by Ewan McIntosh | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  10. Thanks to those of you who have taken the time to leave comments and additional links. I am encouraged and humbled by your responses. This exchange and extension of learning and thinking is why I blog. Thank you again.

    I seriously debated about even publishing this post (I have several I’ve written but not published -mostly for my own thinking). Even more, I seriously considered whether or not to use the word “racism” at all. I finally decided to after much consideration.

    Tim (and others who may have a similar thought), the definition of racism, provides several connections for my use of the term especially in the context Prensky presents his classifications. Notice, especially, the first part of definition 1.

    1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to rule others.
    2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
    3. hatred or intolerance of another race or other races.

    Prensky’s immigrant/native writings and presentations step up to and sometimes over many of the lines above. His explicit use of these politically and emotionally charged terms and his assertion about the near-superiority of the connected-kid culture could fuel some latent hostility that has its foundations in our concerns about the nature of technology and those who use it. Simply, those who have a fear, aversion, or uninformed perspective of technology and its users may begin to resent (hate?) those who do. In fact, I would say we see those attitudes manifest in the school and district policies that ban electronic devices in schools, that block educationally useful sites, that insist technology be locked up and available only for special projects and times. Classifications like his give fuel to the justifications of the narrow-minded hand wringers that influence our restrictive tech policies.

    I believe now that we must actively campaign to eliminate these divisive and discriminatory terms as well as the policies they inform.

    Comment by Rick Tanski | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  11. Great post, Rick! That session was the first time I experienced the power of Twitter. During most of Prensky’s talk on the so-called “Death of the Classroom” I sort of sat there wondering why I wasn’t blown away by his clever use of PowerPoint sound effects. So instead of sitting there stewing in my anger when Prensky said that teachers shouldn’t bother creating content because the kids will do it better — I decided to post a burst of anger to Twitter. And within a minute you responded by saying “I’m right there with you.” Suddenly I was no longer a passive participant without a voice. Instead, I was actively engaged in critiquing the conversation. Your blog entry, especially the link to Prensky’s blog, took that critique to another level, further emphasizing the importance of networked learning communities.

    Comment by Dan | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  12. I have similar feelings, but gosh darn it newbies absolutely eat it up. I rank him right up here with another keynoter who is and has been conspicuously absent from BLC–and shall remain nameless (i don’t want to inflate his over-sized ego here either.) But I have to admit recently I was very excited that Prensky was coming to a school conference in my area recently b/c I knew he would meet them right where they were–on the verge of authentic integration of 21st century tools. Can’t beat getting them hot and bothered the way he does, and you yourself have witnessed first hand that he can do it. I too say it is not fair to label users as immigrants/natives, as we are ALL learners no matter where we are on the learning spectrum. I think even the term “teacher” gives our instructors the right to say “I’m done learning–now its your turn.” I am trying so hard to call us all learners now, with the only differentiation being the degrees held. Thanks for the insight. Even if I’m not at BLC, I do have a group of six there–a combination of district leaders and educators–who came at my recommendation. When I found out yesterday that Presnsky was there, I hoped they would NOT go to this session, or any that he gives. I haven’t heard from them today so I’ll have to find out later. Thanks for a thoughtful post.

    Comment by Cathy Nelson | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  13. I first heard of Prensky at the City University of New York IT Conference last year where he was the only keynote speaker, and while I do not agree with all that Prensky professes, I do believe it is important to listen to what he has to say…….

    Now before, everyone blasts me for my opinion please know that I came to BLC08 to listen to a wide variety of practitioners in this field such as Ewan McIngtosh, Pedro Noguero, and yes even Prensky because knowing the full spectrum of theories and beliefs on this very important topic is, in my opinion, important to developing meaningful solutions and goals. Therefore, whether or not I personally prescribe to what Prensky, or any of the speakers have to say, it is still important to know what they are saying. Isn’t the fact that the dialog present here about his offensiveness is enacting change in people’s viewpoints and opinions (even though there mostly about him) worth it. And doesn’t this mere fact alone make what he has to say important on at least some level?

    Change can happen in many different forms, perhaps he is meant to be a warning to what not to be and do? Aren’t such cautionary lessons important too?

    Comment by TakLin | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  14. I read your post the first day you wrote it- and started to agree whole heartedly with your opinion- but I got sidetracked and didn’t get me thoughts posted. Although I still agree with what you said, I started to think about the audience that was eating up every word. Here we were at a ” technology” conference and most of the audience was still writing their notes on a piece of paper. In a way it was like telling the cavemen- it’s ok to only draw pictures the next generation will invent the alphabet-just pretend you understand. Then I went home and asked my friends if they’d ever heard of twitter, ning, or any other collaborative device and they hadn’t. The only conclusion I can make is- that until we start requiring our educational conference participants to start participating like the students they teach there will always be the gap in generations and the “smoked visonary glasses.”

    Comment by MB | July 18, 2008 | Reply

  15. I may or may not agree with your opinion of Marc’s presentation. I wasn’t there to see or hear it. However, I do think your use of the word “racism” in this context and in the title is wrong. Racism involves race. It is more than discrimination. As a person has worked against racism since the mid 1960’s, I take offense at using the word to attract attention and to attack a person’s opinion that has nothing to do with racism.

    My humble opinion.

    Comment by Jim Wenzloff | July 22, 2008 | Reply

  16. Hi,
    Thanks to all the contributors here for your insights. I initially identified with Prensky’s ideas as another reason to abandon the traditional transmission model of education in favour of a more constructivist approach ( see Alfie Kohn etc), as one no longer needs a teacher to give facts. I think the following puts my view well – from
    This does not deny the idea that there is a profound change in the ways that we as humans mediate ourselves in the world. There is a lot of serious thinking going on about this that does not rely on sloganising. Ultimately hanging on to slogans like ‘digital native’ can lead to bad decision making. It is worth looking at serious literature on socio-cultural uses of information technology, e.g. JS Brown and Paul Duguid’s Social Life of Information (Harvard Business School Press, February 2000). In this study Brown and Duguid’s central theme is that access to information does not equate to knowledge. Brown and Duguid note, much of what we recognise as learning comes from informal social interactions between learners and mentors. These social interactions are difficult to achieve in mediated instruction. They recognise that technology can enhance instruction in remarkable ways; however, it cannot replace the insights that students receive by struggling to make sense of information with both peers and mentors. They contend that the gung-ho tunnel vision of commentators like Prensky – seeing only one way ahead (if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail!), has led to erroneously simplified and unrealistic expectations of what our future in the information age will be like.

    Prensky does admit that his approach has a flaw –
    One key area that appears to have been affected is reflection. Reflection is what enables us, according to many theorists, to generalize, as we create ―mental models‖ from our experience. It is, in many ways, the process of ―learning from experience.‖ In our twitch-speed world, there is less and less time and opportunity for reflection, and this development concerns many people. One of the most interesting challenges and opportunities in teaching Digital Natives is to figure out and invent ways to include reflection and critical thinking in the learning (either built into the instruction or through a process of instructor-led debriefing) but still do it in the Digital Native language. We can and must do more in this area.

    And as constructivists say , asking questions, reflection, dialog and discussion , exploring and reaching deaper levels of understanding is what education is about.

    In one of his articles Prensky says
    In geography – which is all but ignored these days – there is no reason that a generation that can memorize over 100 Pokémon characters with all their characteristics, history and evolution can‟t learn the names, populations, capitals and relationships of all the 101 nations in the world. It just depends on how it is presented – this piece shows a rather different understanding of what education is all about .

    ‘They thrive on instant gratification and frequent rewards ‘ – if this is the effect of technology , the games , TV, instant messaging , it explains why kids are using the technology in a rather superficial way.

    Prensky says,
    Children raised with the computer ―think differently from the rest of us. They develop hypertext minds. They leap around. It’s as though their cognitive structures were parallel, not sequential.‖ ―Linear thought processes that dominate educational systems now can actually retard learning for brains developed through game and Web-surfing processes on the computer.‖

    Prensky in a sense is moving towards a constructivist approach by talking about Parallel learning. , but until he finds an answer to the flaw in the system , the lack of reflecetion and deaper thinking , his computer games are not the answer.

    Comment by Allan | July 23, 2008 | Reply

  17. Jim (and perhaps others),
    As I mentioned in a comment response above, my use of the word racism was not without serious thought and consideration and is not meant to diminish the racial struggles that have been and continue today. Its use here was indeed intended to attract attention to an opinion that does set up essentially a new race as defined by “an arbitrary classifications of modern humans…a group of persons related by common decent…and any people united by common history, language, cultural traits, etc” ( Define Race). Because this is what Prensky does with his Native/Immigrant language.

    Prensky, in “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” and “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II:Do They Really Think Differently? ” from On the Horizon (NCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, October 2001), uses words such as “Today’s students…represent the first generations to grow up with this new technology;” and “[for Natives] school often feels pretty much as if we’ve brought in a population of heavily accented, unintelligible foreigners to lecture them;” and the very terms “Native” and “Immigrant” elicit the sickening racist connotations influenced by the conversations in our culture today.

    I agree with you that racism is more than discrimination and its use here may not exactly fit the current historical definition. But, Prensky’s (and those who have summarily adopted this) language that sorts and classifies human beings has already begun to build educational, cultural, and social structures that divide and exclude (or include depending on the perspective). Look especially at his emphasis on “accent.” Does the Immigrant/Native distinction approach the racial atrocities of recent and ancient history? No, but when societies adopt ideas that discriminate, segregate, and obviate we must take serious note to avoid the mistakes of our past however they may evolve.

    Comment by Rick Tanski | July 23, 2008 | Reply

  18. […] forum post in one of my Ning networks highlighted this blog post by Rick Tanski, “BLC08 – Tainted by Digital Racism” which questions Marc Prensky’s choice of rhetoric when describing “Digital […]

    Pingback by Discourse: "Digital Natives vs. Digital Immigrants" « | March 23, 2010 | Reply

  19. […] Sessions influence us, and sometimes anger us, but it is our opinions and attempts to make sense of things that […]

    Pingback by David Truss :: Pair-a-dimes for Your Thoughts » defragging my brain after BLC08 | November 10, 2010 | Reply

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