Speaking their language: Delivering tech-enabled learning for digital natives

Working on multiple devices

Digital natives are emerging as the globe’s dominant demographic. The term was coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky and refers to people who have been brought up in the digital era using computers, tablets, smartphones and social media from an early age. This group is very different from what Prensky calls ‘digital immigrants’; those of us who have lived in the analogue age and immigrated to the digital world.1

It’s no surprise really that these groups of people have different preferences for how they want to learn. Most learning and development practitioners are fairly comfortable with delivering effective learning for digital immigrants, that’s been the audience for the past 30 years or so. But with the growing population of digital natives in the workforce, how confident are you that your learning and development programmes are delivering against their wants and needs?

In education, Prensky suggests that failure to understand the needs of these modern learners is the fundamental cause of the decline in education in the US, “Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.” 1

Could that apply to your learning and development programmes too? Are your learners no longer the people your L&D programmes were designed for? It’s certainly something worth considering.

Although this group of digital natives might seem alien to some, we see four key requirements of digital natives that need to be satisfied in order for learning to be effective:

1. I want to learn on the go

In October 2016, we saw the use of mobiles overtake desktop for web browsing for the first time.2 Learning on the go is a key demand of digital natives and in order for mobile learning to be effective, a different approach is needed. It’s no good taking a desktop eLearning course that could take hours to complete, and making it available on a mobile device. Effective mobile learning is about ‘microlearning’. This might include short bursts of information especially via video, interactive games that reinforce learning and quick knowledge checks to evaluate current knowledge.

2. I want learning tailored to me

Digital natives are accustomed to virtual settings. They appreciate how knowledge is spread across a community and just presume learning experiences will be flexible to their individual needs and preferences.3,4

3. I want help making an upwards step

The majority of digital natives in the workforce fall into the millennial generation and a Gallup study revealed that 87% of millennials rate “professional or career growth and development opportunities” as important to them.5 This generation is a lot more intrinsically motivated than sometimes given credit for. By providing learners with a clear picture of how each learning programme will help them develop and become better at what they do, they’ll become much more engaged with the programme.

4. I want to learn socially

Digital natives want to learn and connect with each other and tech-based forms of interaction are key drivers of engagement. Consider building digital communication such as instant messaging and discussion forums into your digital learning space. Remember that digital natives have grown up in a world of social media so build learning with that approach in mind and perhaps look at areas of social networking sites that you may be able to mirror.

It’s worth remembering that the focus should be on how digital natives learn, not what the latest flashy piece of technology can deliver. An effective tech-enabled learning programme will ensure that the technology is adapted to the learners needs and wants, and not the other way around.



1Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon. 9 (5), 1–6.


3Dede, C. (2004). Planning for “neomillenial” learning styles: Implications for investments in technology and faculty. Harvard Graduate School of Education.

4Dede, C., Korte, S., Nelson, R., Valdez, G., & Ward, D.J. (2005). Transforming learning for the 21st century: An economic imperative. Common Knowledge, 399.