Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Sad State of Educational Research

After four years of digging into the digital native/net generation/millennial learner rhetoric, I have come to a distressing conclusion. The main culprits in promoting and perpetuating the unfounded claims and stereotypes are not just the pundits and commentators who started this ball rolling but educational researchers who have accepted and repeated these claims without subjecting them to the critical scrutiny you would expect.

So what we have is a process that begins with somebody making an unfounded claim that has resonance and at first glance seems to make sense (young people have been exposed to digital technology from birth so they must technologically fluent and educators need to respond this). Educators then repeat this claim and begin to frame research according to this unfounded perspective. Other researchers then cite the research of their colleagues which is based on these unfounded claims and pretty soon the original unfounded claims have been virtually accepted as self-evident truths.

This was brought to light quite vividly as I read the newly-published article, PowerPoint and Learning Theories: Reaching Out to the Millennials by Karen Gardner and Jolanta Aleksejuniene. Their study attempted to map student preferences for Power Point styles with Cognitive Load, Multimedia and Visual Learning Theories. Nothing wrong with this except their rationale was couched in the now discredited and unfounded millennial learner discourse: As millennials, today’s students are independent, inclusive (move between global and virtual communities), opinionated and aware, investigative (use technology), and expect immediacy (information at light speed) (Lippincott, 2010)… There is a developing awareness that millennial students consider technology central to communication. As we continue to introduce technology into our teaching and learning, it behooves us to make this form of communication as effective as possible.”

I thought I had read almost everything that had been written on this issue but I wasn’t familiar with the author that Gardner and Aleksejuniene cited to support their claim: Lippincott.  So before I jumped to conclusions I thought I should check the Lippincott article (Informationcommons: Meeting millennials, needs. Journalof Library Administration, 50(1), 27-37) to see if she had conducted some research that supported this claim or at least cited some research I was not aware of. What I found was more of the same. No original research but rather the repetition of the unfounded claims made by the usual sources like Prensky, Palfrey & Gasser and Oblinger & Oblinger to support her conclusion that this generation has distinctive learning styles, is fluent with digital technology, and is able to multitask efficiently. Based on this she concludes: “libraries need to understand the style of their net generation students to provide environments conducive to engagement and learning; these include how libraries present access to their collections and licensed materials, how they instruct students, how they promote services, and how they configure their spaces.” But what about all the research that debunks the millennial myth? No problem, Lippincott dismisses that in one line: “Although some believe that the characterization of an entire generation constitutes a stereotype or is just plain erroneous, others accept that there are some common ways in which many of this current generation of students are different from those who came before." So research isn’t about investigation and critical analysis it’s just about choosing which perspective you like. Some say this, others say that. I think I’ll go with this one.

In summary, we have a house of cards. Research informed by unfounded claims based on other unfounded claims. If we want educational research to be taken seriously, we need to do better.


Zanne said...

In my evaluation of a recently attended Educause webinar, I suggested webinars where voices like yours, Larry Cuban, Kraschen and Ravitch had some air time.

It's time to unlock the discursive straight-jacket and let everyone's voice out.

Alex Usher said...

Nice post. You may be interested in some work that we did in Canada, which asked students how they felt about e-learning resources in classes. For the most part, they were pretty unimpressed. See: .