Ironic Influences: On the Proliferation of Personalized Learning Initiatives

Discussing with a learner today the impact of Prensky’s concepts about “Digital Natives & Digital Immigrants” and where the generational assumptions about preferences and needs in learning design are today. The response I gave was along the following lines. And, though I realize this is a bit superficial itself as a discussion of the topic, I am curious to know whether you, dear reader, also see the irony.

The 2001 Prensky article is often cited and is where his hypothesis about digital technology’s influence on generational preferences and needs in learning were disseminated most widely. It is useful to recognize that Presnky’s ideas were formulated and shared widely at a time when the Internet and World Wide Web were relatively new and internet enabled devices were proliferating as was their use in homes and schools. His ideas are certainly plausible at first read and are thus not easily disregarded, yet his analysis was at the same time arguably superficial and its influence, arguably also, has been both harmful and helpful to learners, educators, and instructional designers alike.

It is also useful to recognize that it is helpful for developing theory and method and even policy about learning to have postulations like Prensky’s about trends and influences of technology voiced and to thoughtfully consider how they may have or are influencing learning experience and design. Nevertheless, works like Prensky’s – ones that seem to make good “common” sense on the surface and have catchy names and phrases attached to them for easy recall – are too often taken as indisputable “fact” by individuals and groups inclined to avoid critically thinking them through based on their experiential or other forms of evidence (we see this a lot with individuals who are uneducated or poorly educated) and by individuals and groups prone to pick and choose ideas that support their agendas neatly (we see this a lot among politicians, policymakers, and journalists and the “media”).

Invariably, though, once the dust settles from the initial impact of such big ideas, like Prensky’s Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants, it is the case that research and more cautioned observers and critical thinkers alike will offer reflections on the idea’s accuracy and impact, which several have done. I refer you as additional reading to this reprint of the article by Helsper and Eynon (2010) from the esteemed British Educational Research Journal. Though from a British perspective, these authors’ critical argument about the harm generational assumptions can have on learners and educators is significant to consider as an instructional designer.

[Learner Scholarship Tip: You might also search in the Library and otherwise online items from the References list in the article to see where their sources come from and additional learning. Using an article’s “References” to locate and read original/other sources on a topic is a common research technique effective scholars and academic researchers use. Why? Simply because it is a way for YOU to determine (with your own critical mind!) where authors got their ideas and to confirm if they’ve interpreted sources correctly and cited them meaningfully (per your original analysis & evaluation of the sources)!]

I share all of this to recommend you are sure to expand your reading and, thus, thinking to draw your own conclusions about Prensky’s work and its influence on instructional design. For me, reviewing available evidence, I think Prensky’s ideas were useful as frames of reference and conversation – as conversation starters and lenses for analyses of events of the current era – yet ultimately they did more harm than good in the short-term because they led to an ageist bias (that “young” people are adept and can use technology effectively to learn and “old” people are inept and unlikely to learn well with digital technologies) and that has unnecessarily furthered the segregation of so-called and perceived groups of “young” and “old” learners and, yes, educators as well.

Some examples that come readily to my mind are:

  • The child or adolescent learner who comes from an impoverish home environment into a digital tech-intensive school environment and who may not have friends or other access means for exposure to digital devices. This learner most likely has little to no exposure to smartphone, tablet, or even desk/laptop computer use outside the school. Nevertheless, the “digital native” assumption means the learner is given a curriculum that requires a preference, familiarity, and even fluency with using digital means for  learning. The learner falls behind classmates in performance due to the “digital divide” they’ve experienced in their home environment from more affluent classmates and is branded as an under-performer at worst and under-achiever at best. Still, the learner is disadvantaged all because of a “meme” (or metaphor, concept, label, profile…whatever you want to call the assumption of any young person as a “Digital Native”).
  • The middle-aged or older adult learner who is moderately, advanced, or even highly tech-inclined individual who is forced to complete a low-tech style curriculum design (in college classrooms, workplace training programs, etc.) under an erroneous assumption they, like their adult peers in the class, are not capable of using high-tech style learning tools and who becomes quickly bored with the learning process and drops out of the class, or even an entire degree, certificate or training program.
  • The skilled and seasoned and caring educator who is subtly forced out of practice because of an assumption by policy or persons in their workplace they are unable or will be slow to learn to effectively use technology to teach a younger and pressumably more technologically and digitally savvy learner populations. Perhaps the educator could have been offered an assessment of motivation, will, or even coaching for how to use a more peer-learning based model and acting as a facilitator (aka that other popular meme: “guide on the side”), rather than ousted on an assumption traditional lecture and “teacher-to-student” interaction (aka the other meme: “sage on stage”) is all the educator would be willing to use as an instructional method. Worse yet, the educator may even believe that they are unable to adapt to provide what is needed to their students and become depressed and unhappy in their profession based on widespread assumptions about age-capabilities in popular press and policy decisions. That is, a feeling of satisfaction and career success could be undone for the educator all due to a widespread misapplication of a hypothesis about generational styles

Can you think of any examples that illustrate possible effects (positive or negative) in applying Prensky’s ideas without critical analysis of the individual learner’s needs could have? Have you personally experienced any positive or negative effects from his ideas in your learning or workplace environments? 

I’ll close here by noting that some of the “backlash” I’ve observed as linked to the widely and often misinformed application of Prensky’s ideas has been a move toward individualization, or personalization, of learning designs. Trends such as competency-based learning, adaptive learning technologies, prior learning and skills assessments, and the like are proliferating in 2016, in part, I’d argue, to realize the ideal that each and every learner (regardless of age) can access educational opportunities and experience learning as they prefer and need to for optimal learning (i.e., having an ability to recall, apply, and transfer to new contexts their knowledge and skills).
That is: The disruption to the monolithic “curriculum” that makes broad assumptions about what learners of certain ages (and genders!) need or prefer and are capable of is arguably revolutionary. And, in some sense, Prensky’s folly (or, rather, the folly of those who failed to think critically about and apply his ideas cautiously) has created (arguably) positive change that, perhaps ironically, is facilitated by “digital” technology!


Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On The Horizon, 9(5), 1. Retrieved from – Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants – Part1.pdf 

Helsper, E. & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: Where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36(3), 503-520. Retrieved from