Friday, July 8, 2011

Digital Learners not Digital Natives

It appears the tide is finally turning and the uncritical acceptance of the digital natives discourse is giving way to a more nuanced perspective on digital technologies in higher education. The research has clearly demonstrated that this is not a generational issue but rather a social phenomenon that involves everybody to a greater or lesser degree and that we need to work harder to try to understand what it means for higher education. The generational myth provided a dangerously simplistic solution that prevented us from making sense of the phenomenon and its implications. The recent ED-MEDIA conference in Lisbon highlighted how the discourse has shifted. As I reported in a previous post there were several conference presentations on the topic that acknowledged the irrelevance of generation.

What I find troubling, however, is that while many researchers have acknowledged that the notion of the digital native is not supported by research and that the digital natives/immigrants dichotomy is unhelpful, they continue to frame the issue in generational terms. As an example, The Life of the Digital Native, reports on an excellent piece of research that used an original and creative methodology to develop an understanding of how students at one Australian university are using digital technologies in their social and academic lives. But note the title, The Life of the Digital Native. If we agree that age is not relevant, why not focus on digital learners, regardless of age? Similarly, The Natives are Restless: Meeting the Diversity and Needs of Millennial Students in a Large Undergraduate University (again, note the title) reported on course design strategies that were employed to address the perceived needs of millennial students even though the authors acknowledge, "the assumption that all Gen Y students are digitally native may in fact be a gross overgeneralsation." In Digital Natives and Technology Literate Students: Do Teachers Follow Their Lead,  the authors again acknowledge the weakness of the digital natives argument, "Even though youth is extensively using the new technologies, it does not mean that they use them appropriately... they lack the necessary knowledge  and skills in order to safely, effectively and efficiently use the Web 2.0 tools.", but they then proceed to investigate the issue from generational perspective. Even Bates & SangrĂ  in their new book, Managing Technology in Higher Education: Strategies for Transforming Higher Education, give undue prominence to the millennial myth by suggesting one of the rationales for using e-learning is to address the needs of the digital native. In a section entitled Accommodating the Learning Style of Millennials, they devote the better part of a page to describing the purported characteristics of digital natives before then pointing out the evidence doesn't support the digital native claims. They conclude,"we are not  failing just Millennials, we are failing all our students if we don't use technology to its full potential." But this misses the point: there are no millennial students. There are no digital natives. There are only digital learners.


M-H said...

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Yes. At the risk of repeating myself, YES!!! Thanks Mark, you've nailed it.

Lynda said...

The trouble is everything needs a 1-3 word catch-phrase these days. And once created, pop psych ideas are hard to kill. Particularly if the a) give people weapons to promote themselves with or b) excuses for not learning something that was hard work.