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."