Who in the teaching community has not heard of the theory of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants”, as proposed by Marc Prensky (2001)? Personally, I must admit that I had not read the original essay by Prensky. I had come into contact with Prensky’s concepts, however, especially that of digital natives, as his ideas had sparked a lively debate about digital skills and the shortcomings of traditional teaching methods in the digital age (White & Le Cornu, 2011) and in my experience these ideas kept fuelling the pedagogical debate well into the 2010s. Unless you know that Prensky presented his theory as early as 2001, you might be surprised to learn how “old” it is. As White and Le Cornu (2011) points out, the theory was presented before the birth of social media as we now know it. Yet in my impression of the debate about digital natives, it seemed as though the digital skills that digital natives were assumed to have, were largely correlated with their use of social media. My purpose here is not to offer any new insights on Prensky, but the idea of digital natives has sometimes haunted me as I am sure it has haunted others, too. While considering my own digital identity, I wish to reflect on my position towards Prensky’s theory and sort out what I have learnt from being introduced to White and Le Cornu’s (2011) countertheory about “visitors” and “residents”.

In terms of age, I am young enough to occupy an intermediate zone as far as digital natives and immigrants go. Personal computers were introduced to people’s homes as I was growing up and mobile phones became common enough for teenagers to have one. During my childhood and teen years, however, the world I grew up in was nowhere as digital and interconnected as it is now. The digital world was not yet a place which seamlessly interlocked with the physical, although it is now possible to see that we were heading there. During these years, I did not have a clear sense of having a digital identity and I did not worry too much about my digital footprints, although I had created my first online profiles around the time of the turn of the millennium. These online fora served as predecessors to Facebook, which meant that to me and my peers, Facebook was not something entirely new when it emerged on our horizon even though it would soon feel markedly different as its impact exploded. Was I a digital native? When this concept was introduced to me later on during my university studies, I remember thinking that it referred to generations younger than myself – to those who were growing up then with digital and social media permeating the physical reality. I had good command of a range of technological and digital skills, but I was not a tech savvy nor the first one in the gang to adopt new platforms and gadgets. Warranted or not, I identified myself as belonging to the immigrants. To me, the emerging digital world was interesting and I did not find it especially hard to learn new things, despite there being a learning curve at times, but I was not always eager to familiarise myself with yet another tool or platform in a long succession of such. I sometimes found the popular craze for everything digital exaggerated and uncritical.

As White and Le Cornu (2011) point out, categories like Prensky’s natives and immigrants are problematic because people or phenomena seldom fit into them neatly. I was never either a native or immigrant, but rather both, to varying degrees and depending on the situation. This complexity and mutability are captured by White and Le Cornu’s (2011) framework of visitors and residents. According to them, most of our digital activities can be mapped along a spectrum between engaging as a visitor and engaging as a resident. A typical visitor views the web as a toolbox while the typical resident views it as a place. To avoid thinking about these as fixed categories to which we can assign people, we could talk about visitor or resident modes, attitudes, or behaviours. I have attempted to map my online activities according to this theoretical framework, but even without doing so I know that I have increased my number of resident mode activities. However, I believe there will always be a limit to how much I want to adopt resident mode and there is nothing wrong with staying in visitor mode if you do not feel like hanging out in the digital space, leaving your mark on it.


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), pp. 1-6. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816

White, D., & Le Cornu, A. (2011). Visitors and residents: A new typology for online engagement. First Monday, 16(9). https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/download/3171/3049 (Accessed 2022-04-13)

Topic 1: Online participation and digital literacies