Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The New Millennium Learner

New Millennium Learner is the OECD term for Net Gen Learner. The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has an NML project that aims to "analyse this new generation of learners and understand their expectations and attitudes. The background paper published in 2006 for this project is one of the few papers on this topic that avoids going overboard with calls for radical transformation. Although a bit long-winded, the policy recommendations are measured and thoughtful and include:
  1. Bridging the gap between NML experiences of ICT-mediated inter-personal communication and knowledge management inside and outside classrooms by enriching schools’ range of available ICT devices and services, and by allowing room for using them in a variety of educational experiments and innovative practices.
  2. Making arrangements to better take into account NML voices regarding how education should be.
  3. Addressing gender and socio-economic imbalances.
  4. Creating incentives for the software industry to develop educational software for a vast range of devices (from computers to cellular phones) that try to apply the principles that make video-games so attractive and successful among NML.
  5. Engaging initial and in-service teacher training institutions in all these processes.
I do have concerns about this paper, however. Like most of the net gen literature it does not seriously question the underlying premise that this is a generational issue. In fact, the paper begins with the premise that there is a New Millennium Learner and that we need to define and characterize it. Although later in the paper the question is asked: is this "a generation-wide phenomenon: can the term be applied to cover all members of the generation?", the evidence used to answer it is sketchy at best: percentage of young people using computers and the Internet; the main uses of computers (information seeking, e-mail and instant messaging); and use of alternative devices such as cell phones. This kind of data says nothing about the impact on learning and does not support the many other claims that are made about this generation, some of which are repeated in this paper: preference for multimedia over text, expertise with multitasking, need for immediate feedback. The paper also repeats the claims about changes in social and personal values made by Tapscott and others: the NML is particularly hopeful, self-assured, determined etc. but then concludes, "there seems to be no empirical evidence yet to support this."

Overall the message of this paper is a bit contradictory. Unfounded claims are repeated and then dismissed but the basic premise of the existence of a distinct generation that needs our attention and requires policy responses remains unquestioned. On a more positive note, I was pleased to see a short discussion of socio-economic and gender issues. These are not often mentioned in the net gen literature.


Chris said...

This review and analysis of national data is somewhat frustrating, for me. My concerns can be summarized by one paragraph from the report:

"To sum up, there are a number of indications suggesting that today’s higher education students are most likely to be new millennium learners, growing steadily and already having a universal character in some OECD countries. However, there are limits to this. As a matter of fact, as it happens with learning styles, there are different profiles of students in relation to the uses of digital media. Therefore it would be
an oversimplification to claim that all students in higher education are equally complying with the stereotype of the new millennium learners."

The first sentence of the paragraph - on which many readers and advocates for change will focus - commits the same oversimplication described in the last sentence. As you mentioned, the message of the report is a bit contradictory, but I find the contradictions to be within a single paragraph and not the whole of the report.

Mark Bullen said...

Thanks for your comment. The more recent report from the OECD is much better, in my view. The message is much clearer. Despite the overwhelming evidence, it seems difficult for people to concede that generation is irrelevant.