This week I returned from presenting at the Scottish Learning Festival. One of the keynoters was Marc Prensky, presenting a speech entitled, “Engage Me or Enrage Me.”

I heard Prensky deliver a similar speech at NECC last June here in Philadelphia. I’ve longed been fascinated with Prensky’s metaphor suggesting that students are digital natives while the rest of us are really immigrants. On his website Prensky describes himself as an “acclaimed speaker, writer, consultant, and designer in the critical areas of education and learning.”

I know students learn from sophisticated gaming and I love games myself. I know that simulations work beautifully as teaching tools. Nevertheless something continues to nag me about Prensky’s talks. A growing number of books and articles tell us that today’s students learn differently because they grew up surrounded by digital media. That they grew up clicking something all the time. That they work at a different speed. That they were weaned on the flashy images and bullet points of the Web. And so, trying to teach them traditionally just won’t work.

Prensky suggests that those of us who are immigrants should worry about our accents. But I am not just off the boat. Perhaps you hear my accent in this blog, but I think it is relatively slight.

The thing is, I am kinda proud of that accent and I am also proud of some of the baggage I carry from “the old country.”

While gaming might be a very effective learning tool, not everything is taught well through games. And, as hard as we try to design engaging instruction, sometimes learning takes a different kind of effort, an effort that isn’t invested by even the most serious of gamers.

Reaching level 100 in reading, and writing, and researching, and communicating, takes a different kind of tenacity. Learning these process skills is frustrating and challenging. It takes patience. It takes old fashioned red pen. It takes human interaction.

Though multi-player games are wonderful collaborative, problem solving experiences, I believe that learning is significantly enhanced by face-to-face human interaction. I studied literature in college because I was inspired by the truths my high school English teachers helped me discover in literature and through their dialogs. Through their prodding I chose to read ever more challenging and thoughtful texts.

Though students may prefer to learn by gaming, is it realistic that this strategy will allow them master all the skills they need?

  1. Doug Johnson

    Hi Joyce,

    I’ve long had a fear that we don’t respect the “wisdom” (for lack of a better word), that we old digital immigrants bring to the educational process. I devoted a column to it a few years ago (, but in essence this is what it says:

    “No matter how sophisticated the N-Geners are technologically, in matters of ethics, aesthetics, veracity, and other important judgments, they are, after all, still green. By virtue of our training and life experiences, we can apply the standards of older technologies (the pencil, the podium, the book) to those which are now technology enhanced. And we’d better. Given the choice of having Plato or Plato Learning Systems as a teacherr, I know whom I would choose.”

    I AM excited about an increasing use of games – IF thoughtfully designed and if there is a chance to reflect on the experiences learned through them. (I think of Ender’s experiences in Card’s book Enders Game.)

    See ya in Pittsburgh!


  2. Frances Jacobson Harris

    One reason we require our digital natives to take our computer literacy course sequence, even if they transfer in as upper level students with lots of computer background, is that we find their experience, while possibly deep, is also very narrow. They may know how to do a number of things quite well, even expertly, but there are also huge gaps in their knowledge. And wouldn’t you know it, those gaps tend to be in areas that are information literacy oriented. They won’t know about databases, the invisible web, information evaluation. And they certainly won’t have thought much about the ethical use of information and communication technologies, nor about the social impact of their use. I have to think hard about whether these concepts can be taught through gaming.

    Tally ho to Pittsburgh!

  3. lynsey

    Marc Prensky. Lordy, what a one-trick pony. I am jealous, I admit, I didn’t think of such a superb meal ticket. Pretty much anyone born in the ‘west’ after 1945 is a ‘digital native’ – most of what we take for granted in terms of everyday computer/communication technology was conceived and born prior to 1970. Might’ve grown up, become refined using new materials, and become a mass produced consumer item after that but it (the technology or the concept itself) has been around for years. I imagine Prensky’s computer still uses all the same digital immigrant technologies ours do.

    If Prensky’s illumination had some foundation we would see real evidence – but as you have pointed out, Joyce, and from further comments, this is not the case. A cellphone in every hand has more to do with marketing than with any sort of natural or native affinity with digital do-dads. I think Prensky has missed a prime opportunity to talk about the 50′s when everyone who was hip had a cigarette in their hands. They were, I guess, nicotine natives…that, of course, had nothing to do with marketing…before that they would’ve been nicotine immigrants. What are we then – the nicotine diaspora?

    Ooo, wait. Digital diaspora. Yes. Now there’s an idea. You read it here first on Joyce’s blog. My idea, see you at conferences around the world.

    I’m still waiting to see Prensky’s performance match the promise – other than building a career and lifestyle out of shrill sounding educators bizarrely trying to be hip by retaining him as a speaker at conferences. Where’s the meat? I’m utterly sick of ‘I’m a digital immigrant’ being trotted out as some sort of apology or excuse by some techno-inept. The same ‘research’, presented over and over again – no matter how much the greybeards stroke their chins sagely, I’m sorry, the emperor has got no clothes.


  4. Administrator

    Yes, Lynsey. Thank you for sharing so eloquently! I love your “nicotine natives”!

    Folks are made to feel so guilty at these events that I was beginning to feel I was the only one to see a slightly naked emperor. As I listened, I saw so many, “but what abouts . . ”

    But what about, how you yourself learned to read and write and make engaging (and enraging) speeches, Mr. Prensky? Could you have learned those skills through gaming alone?

    But what about research that tells us that kids need to occasionally unplug? That they may be OVERstimulated?

    And are we giving kids a “bye,” are we throwing up our hands and abandoning the kind of instruction that has served so many so well for centuries merely because kids yawn and because the media tells us they are differently wired?

    I absolutely will incorporate technologies that makes instructional sense. I have for MANY years. I would venture to guess that my colleagues at these ed tech conference are doing the same.

    But I don’t believe we can do it by gaming alone, or by any one strategy alone. And I am not going to give in to “engage me or enrage me.” Engagement can happen both plugged and unplugged.

    And learners have SOME responsibility for patience. The stuff that appears like work can actually prepare students for a world where not everything is going to happen at twitch speed and where points may be even more challenging to acquire.