Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Two More Studies Confirm the Trend

Six years ago in 2008, a small group of researchers at the British Columbia Institute of Technology decided to test some of the key claims of the digital natives discourse. At that time the hype was at its height and the idea that we had a  generation of learners unlike any other, with unique learning characteristics attributable to their immersion in a digital world was accepted as fact. The pressure on educators and administrators to respond to this phenomenon was immense. The Digital Learners in Higher Education group produced one of the first research studies that showed the hype was indeed hype and that there was no empirical basis for the key claims of the digital natives discourse. Since then there has been a steady stream of good quality research from around the world that has confirmed this.

The most recent study to be published comes out of New Zealand. Technology use and learning characteristics of students in higher education: Do generational differences exist? by  Kwok-Wing Lai and Kian-Sam Hong investigated the validity of the key digital native claims by surveying 799 undergraduate and 81 postgraduate students at a large research-intensive university in New Zealand and documented their use of digital technologies in university and social activities. They compared three age groups of students (under 20, 20–30 and over 30) to see whether there were any differences in their learning characteristics. Their study was based on the work of Bullen, Morgan & Qayyum (2011). Their conclusion:

"The findings of this study supported findings in the literature that the net generation’s use of digital technologies is more complex than it has been characterised. Although digital technologies use is part and parcel of young people’s daily lives, how they are used is not homogeneous. Furthermore, findings from this study do not support the notion of a unique learning style or preference for the current generation of young people. Although the younger generation of students may do things and learn slightly differently, their way of using digital technology is similar to older generations of learners. "

An earlier 2013 study by Penny Thompson, from the United States, The digital natives as learners: Technology use patterns and approaches to learning, "used a survey to gather data on the technology use of university freshmen, the degree to which they identified with the claims being made about their approaches to learning, and the productiveness (in terms of focused attention, deep processing, and persistence) of their approaches to learning. Valid surveys were received from 388 freshmen at a large Midwestern land grant university." Thompson did not examine age differences and technology use but she did conclude that some of the key claims of the digital natives discourse were not supported by her research:

"students may be using a narrower range of technology tools than the popular press authors claim, and they may not be exploiting the full benefits of these technology tools when using them in a learning context. Findings from this study also suggest that the in approaches to learning is varied and complex rather than deterministic."

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Spanish Study Finds Generation is Irrelevant

To date the published results from the international research project, Digital Learners in Higher Education, have been based on data from one North American post secondary institution. Now we have the first results from one of our European partners, the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC). In Do UOC Students Fit the Net Generation Profile: An Approach to Their Habits in ICT Use, Marc Romero and colleagues sought to determine whether or not UOC students fit the popular Net Generation or Digital Native profile and whether there were any generational differences in how they perceived their social, academic and professional uses of ICT. Their results add to the growing body of evidence which is increasaingly showing that generation is not relevant in trying to understand the impact of digital technology in higher education. Romero et al. conclude: 
"Taking into account the difference between the UOC’s Net Generation students and non-Net Generation ones regarding their use of ICT in academic and social activities, our findings seem to support the irrelevance of the age factor: We could not find any general and significant difference between the two groups in the vast majority of items...The analysis of the data gathered demonstrates that the difference among our students is produced more by their use of ICT than by their age."

Read the full article in the International Review of Research in Open & Distance Learning.

Friday, May 10, 2013

An Asian Perspective on the Digital Learners Discourse

One of our criticisms of the digital natives discourse has been that it was originally grounded almost entirely in a North American context. The critical reaction to this discourse has tended to be more geographically and culturally balanced with research coming from a number of European countries as well as Australia. To date, however, there has been little research conducted in developing countries or in Asia. David M. Kennedy and Bob Fox have started to fill that gap with their research conducted at the University of Hong Kong.
In Digital natives’: An Asian perspective for using learning technologies, the authors investigated how first year undergraduate students used and understood various digital technologies. Their findings are consistent with the findings of our research: while they found the first-year undergraduate students at HKU were using a wide range of digital technologies, they also found they were using them primarily for "personal empowerment and entertainment" and that the students were "not always digitally literate in using technology to support their learning. This is particularly evident when it comes to student use of technology as consumers of content rather than creators of content specifically for academic purposes"

Friday, March 8, 2013

Crossing Boundaries: Digital Learners and the Social and Academic Use of Technology in Higher Education

Phase 2 of the Digital Learners in Higher Education project has uncovered some important insights into how learners in higher education are thinking about and using digital technologies for social and academic purposes and how they separate and integrate their uses.
We have submitted an article for publication but given how lengthy the scholarly publication process is, we have decided to release it here for feedback and comment.
Crossing Boundaries: Digital Learners and the Social and Academic Use of Technology in Higher Education
Tannis Morgan, Mark Bullen

This article reports on a study that used third generation Activity Theory as a framework to investigate how postsecondary students think about and use digital technologies in their social and academic lives. The results confirm the fallacy of the digital native stereotype but go further by uncovering important insights into how students at one institution can have quite different approaches to the use of digital technologies and different use profiles. We identified three dynamic and evolving use profiles: instrumental, separator and integrator. The aggregation of these profiles provides a starting point for understanding the nuances of digital learners in higher education.
Download the full article.

Friday, January 25, 2013

New Directions for the Digital Natives Discourse

In her thoughtful analysis of the digital natives literature (The Digital Native Debate in Higher Education: A Comparative Analysis of Recent Literature), Erika Smith concludes:
Much of the criticism regarding the digital native debate underscores a lack of research that
authentically maps not only the rapidly shifting technology developments, but also the emergent
nature of the perceptions and viewpoints informing the learner, educator, and researcher
assumptions and beliefs underlying such debates.
. She goes on to urge researchers to "move beyond the digital native debate toward other authentic understandings of today’s learners" (as we have with our Digital Learners in Higher Education project) and suggests a focus on the following questions researchers focus on the following questions:
  • What is the role of the language in both informing and reflecting our perceptions of and
    experiences with emerging technologies in education, to which Prensky (2001a) and
    Seely Brown (2002) allude?
  • If there is a new teaching and learning ecology, as Seely Brown (2002) states, how can
    we authentically understanding and engage with this ecology beyond the binaries of
    digital native/immigrant?
  • Rather than simply considering technology usage and digital emergences, how might we
    further understand the various perceptions, values, and perspectives.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Comparing Digital Learners in Face-to-Face and Virtual Universities

The digital native/net generation hype has quieted down in recent months and thankfully has given way to an increasing amount of solid research into how learners are using digital technologies and what the impact might be of their growing social and educational use. One of the more positive features of some of the new research is that it is not just coming out of conventional North American University contexts.
Beyond the Net Generation Debate: A Comparison of Digital Learners in Face-to-Face and Virtual Universities reports on research conducted by BegoƱa Gros, Iolanda Garcia and Anna Escofet who compared the behaviour and preferences towards ICT of face-to-face students and online students in five Spanish universities (one offers online education and four offer face-to-face education with LMS teaching support). Their research attempted to answer the following questions:
  1. What are the differences between the use of “living” technologies and “learning” technologies by younger and older students?
  2. What kinds of activities are supported by those technologies in everyday life and in academic life among younger and older students?
  3. In which way does the university model affect learners in terms of ICT use and preferences? 
Their conclusions are similar to those of many of the other studies that have examined digital technology use in higher education: age or generation is not the issue and there are more important factors at play that educators need to consider:
"Although access to and use of ICT is widespread, the influence of teaching methodology is very decisive. For academic purposes, students seem to respond to the requirements of their courses, programmes, and universities, as suggested by Brown and Czerniewicz (2008). In all cases, there is a clear relationship between the students’ perception of usefulness regarding certain ICT resources and the teachers’ suggested uses of technologies. The most highly rated technologies correspond with those proposed by teachers. In face-to face environments, the pedagogical model seems to be based on a traditional model in which the teacher provides the content and students value the use of ICT to present this content. In online environments, students perceived technology as supporting learning and communication. In this case, the value of ICT is not related to the content but to the learning process."
This is remarkably similar to the Digital Learners in Higher Education research which is guided by the following research questions:
  1. Do postsecondary students distinguish their social and educational use of ICTs?
  2. What impact do students’ social use of ICTs have on postsecondary learning environments?
  3. What is the relationship between social and educational uses of ICTs at in postsecondary education
In particular see Learning in Digital: An Approach to Digital Learners in the UOC Scenario which also examined the use digital technologies in a Spanish virtual university and Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue which examined the issues in a Canadian technical/vocational institutional context.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Researchers of Tomorrow Lack Digital Skills

In the UK, JISC has just released a large study of the research behaviour of doctoral students born between 1982 and 1994. This is the supposedly digitally fluent "net generation". The digital natives who live and breath digital technology. Not so according to this study. Here the key findings:
  • "This generation of doctoral students operate in an environment where their research behaviour does not use the full potential of innovative technology.
  • Doctoral students are insufficiently trained or informed to be able to fully embrace the latest opportunities in the digital information environment.
  • Doctoral students are increasingly reliant on secondary research resources (eg journal articles, books), moving away from primary materials (eg primary archival material and large datasets).
  • Access to relevant resources is a major constraint for doctoral students’ progress. 
  • Open access and copyright appear to be a source of confusion for Generation Y doctoral students, rather than encouraging innovation and collaborative research. Authentication access and licence limitations to subscription-based resources, such as e-journals, are particularly problematic. "
The three year study was jointly commissioned by the British Library and JISC and began in 2009. It involved 17,000 doctoral students from 70 universities at various stages in the project.

Read the full report.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Students Confused by Digital Technologies

"New research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), has revealed that some university students are confused by the array of technologies available to them during the course of their studies. The report, led by Dr Christopher Jones from the Institute of Educational Technology at The Open University, also found that whilst many students are distracted by social networking sites during study, a small minority of their peers do not even use e-mail."

Read more:

Friday, April 20, 2012

The New Net Generation Myth

I guess it was bound to happen. As new technologies develop and spread, new myths are created.  We have had 10 years of unfounded hype about the "net generation" which we were told was fundamentally different than previous generations because of its exposure to digital technology. Never mind that most of these claims are not supported by research. Now we have many of the same claims being made but about the specific impact of mobile technologies and as a result we have new generational labels like the "mobile generation" or the "re-generation".

According to Tammy Erickson, in How Mobile Technologies are Shaping a New Generation, "the "Re-Generation" began to take shape around 2008. Individuals at the formative ages of 11 to 13, those born after about 1995, were part of a substantively different world than the one that had shaped 11 to 13 year olds over the preceding fifteen or so years...they are the first unconscious participants in an era when everyone has access to everything, everywhere, at every time. This is the generation of mobile technology, wireless communication, and clouds of constant content.

And what are the characteristics of this generation?

A pervasive sense of connection
Options (not obligations)
Anonymity and the ability to hide
Confidence and control . . . to be an initiator, designer, problem-solver

Sounds familiar. It is too easy to look at statistics on use and make all sorts of inferences but what good research has shown is that using a computer, tablet or smart phone for one task doesn't necessarily translate to others, doesn't make the user a sophisticated user of the technology and doesn't necessarily have any impact on other skills and traits.

Yes, the data clearly show widespread use of digital technology and mobile technology but it is a big leap from this to claims like,  " a generation of  unconsciously competent users of both computers and of the Internet. " or "a generation that is used to asking big questions — and is confident of finding answers. ... They have had the experience of digging deeply into a burning
question because they have access to a mountain of information."

We have only just managed to debunk the net generation myth. Let's not start again with a "regeneration" myth.

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Role of Digital Technology in Learning

Here's another study that suggests student use of digital technology in higher education is more complex and nuanced that the net gen discourse suggests. Gabriel et al's approach and findings are very similar to ours in the Digital Learners in Higher Education project. Among other things, like us, they found differences in how students thought about and used digital technologies in their academic and non-academic live:

"Students' most frequent use of technology outside of school was email, Internet, social media, texting on cell phones, instant messaging, and talking on cell phones. The focus was on communication and socializing with others. The students' most frequent use of digital technologies in school were (in descending order) accessing information on the Internet, using email, word processing, math and science programs, texting on cell phones, and accessing electronic databases. In school, the students tended to use digital technologies to collect, select, and work with information. The differences between these two lists are significant. Some students felt that there was a place for all technologies in an educational form, while others wanted to maintain a separate digital footprint for inside the classroom as well as outside the classroom digital technologies."