The basic premise of this group of pundits is that the generation born after 1982 (or thereabouts as actual definitions of the generation vary) has been profoundly affected by growing up in a digital world. In the words of Marc Prensky, they are digital natives (as opposed to the digital immigrants born before 1982) and they have a fundamentally different relationship with technology. They are at ease with and it is an integral part of their lives. But the net gen pundits go further than this. Because they have been immersed in the digital technological world since birth, the pundits argue, this experience has changed the way they learn and interact with others, changed their values and beliefs, and even changed their brains. These claims have been made with such authority and frequency and have received such widespread coverage in the popular media that many educators and business people are now pushing for major changes in how they organize their institutions and businesses.
The list of defining characteristics that these pundits claim the Net Generation exhibits include the ability to effectively multitask, the need for immediate and frequent feedback, a strong preference for social interaction, a preference for teamwork, and a strong social conscience.
But what are these claims based on? If one actually examines the evidence it becomes clear that the net generation discourse is built on shaky foundations. Three recent reviews of the academic literature suggest that, contrary to what Tapscott and others claim, there is little evidence to support the view that significant generational differences exist. After reviewing over 20 reports and studies, Thomas Reeves and Eunjung Oh conclude, "There is very little consensus of opinion and scholarship about whether generational differences exist that are worth taking into consideration in the workplace, colleges, and universities, and other contexts. The gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculation of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution in a research and development context." A group researchers from the BC Institute of Technology (Mark Bullen, Tannis Morgan, Karen Belfer, Adnan Qayyum) came to a similar conclusion after reviewing nearly a dozen studies and articles. They conclude, "What all of these works have in common is that they make grand claims about the difference between the millennial generation and all previous generations and they argue that this difference has huge implications for education. But most significantly, these claims are made with reference to almost no empirical data. For the most part they rely on anecdotal observations or speculation. In the rare cases where there is hard data, it is usually not representative." Three British researcher also reviewed the evidence and concluded, "the picture beginning to emerge from research on young people's relationships with technology is much more complex than the digital native characterisation suggests. While technology is embedded in their lives, young people's use and skills are not uniform...there is no evidence... of a distinctly different learning style the like of which has never been seen before."
Despite a lack of strong research to support their claims, the consultants and pundits continue to sell the idea that this generation has a fundamentally different way of interacting with the world. They urge us to make radical changes in how we educate this generation and now they argue we need to change how we recruit, retain and support them in the workplace (Globe & Mail, Feb. 13: The Just-in-time Performance Review). Increasingly educators and businesses seem to be buying into these claims. There may well be grounds for making changes to how we organize our schools and workplaces but doing this based on unsupported claims about generational differences is dangerous and irresponsible. As Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin argue in their review, "The time has come for a considered and disinterested examination of the assumptions underpinning the claims about the digital natives...considered and rigorous investigation that...seeks to understand the situation before proclaiming the need for widespread change."
- Bennett, S., Maton, K & Kervin, L. (2008). The Digital Natives Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39, No. 5, 775-786
- Bullen, M., Morgan, T., Belfer, K., & Qayyum, A. (2009). The Net Generation in Higher Education: Rhetoric and Reality. International Journal of Excellence in E-Learning, 2(1).
- Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2000). Millenials Rising: The Next Great Generation. New York: Random House.
- Oblinger, D.G. & Oblinger, J.L. (Eds) (2005). Educating the Net Generation. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE.
- Prensky, M. (2001a). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. On the Horizon, 9(5)?
- Prensky, M. (2001b ). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, Part II; Do They Really Think Differently? On the Horizon, 9(6).?
- Reeves, T. & Oh, E. (2007). Generational Differences. In M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. van Merrienboer, & M. P. Driscoll (Eds). The Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (pp. 296-303).
- Tapscostt, D. (1998). Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation. Toronto: McGraw-Hill.