Thursday, August 28, 2008

Born Digital

Yet another book has been published that addresses the so called "digital generation gap".

Here's the publisher's description of Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser:

"The most enduring change wrought by the digital revolution is neither the new business models nor the new search algorithms, but rather the massive generation gap between those who were born digital and those who were not. The first generation of “digital natives”-children who were born into and raised in the digital world-is now coming of age, and soon our world will be reshaped in their image. Our economy, our cultural life, even the shape of our family life will be forever transformed. But who are these digital natives? How are they different from older generations, and what is the world they’re creating going to look like? In Born Digital, leading Internet and technology experts John Palfrey and Urs Gasser offer a sociological portrait of this exotic tribe of young people who can seem, even to those merely a generation older, both extraordinarily sophisticated and strangely narrow. Based on original research and advancing new theories, Born Digital explores a broad range of issues, from the highly philosophical to the purely practical: What does identity mean for young people who have dozens of online profiles and avatars? Should we worry about privacy issues? Or is privacy even a relevant value for digital natives? How does the concept of safety translate into an increasingly virtual world? Is “stranger-danger” a real problem, or a red herring? A smart, practical guide to a brave new world and its complex inhabitants, Born Digital will be essential reading for parents, teachers, and the myriad of confused adults who want to understand the digital present-and shape the digital future."

Now, I haven't read this book so perhaps I should withhold my comments but the language in this description suggests its more of the same: sweeping unsubstantiated generalizations about an entire generation.

However, somebody who has read the book suggests otherwise. Dana Boyd writes:

"If you're an academic and you choose to pick up this book - and I strongly encourage you to do so - try to read it in context. Because it is deeply grounded in research, it might be tempting to see it as an academic book with too few citations. I'd encourage you to resist the critical reflex that comes with being piled higher and deeper and appreciate the ways in which scholarly work is being leveraged as a tool for cultural intervention. I think that JP and Urs have done an astonishing job and believe that they deserve our deepest gratitude. I for one am VERY thankful of their efforts to make change based on what we know instead of what we fear."

I certainly agree with making change based on evidence but that is the problem with the net generation discourse. It argues for radical change based on flimsy evidence. If Palfrey and Gasser do have the evidence then we're moving in the right direction but I'm not sure what to make of this part of Boyd's recommendation for this book:

"Combatting pre-existing images requires more than accuracy, more than nuance. It requires either a new more-sticky image or a reworking of the original image. By working inside the frame of "digital natives," JP and Urs seek to ground that concept through a realistic image of practice. Reclaiming a term does not relieve it of all of its baggage, but it is a service to discourse if you can accept that the term won't just disappear by ignoring it. Once it's grounded, nuance becomes possible in entirely new ways."

Friday, August 22, 2008

A Critical Review of the Net Gen Evidence

According to three Australian researchers, our skepticism of the grand claims made about the "net generation" and the supposed impact on education is well-founded. According to Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin, the claims that this generation of learners is so different from previous generations that a fundamental change to our educational systems is needed "have been subjected to little critical scrutiny, are undertheorised, and lack a sound empirical basis"(p. 776).

In their article in the latest issue of the British Journal of Educational Technology (Vol. 39, No. 5, 775-786). The three researchers from the University of Wollongong and the University of Sydney review the evidence and analyze the debate. They conclude that "...rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a 'moral panic'" (p. 775).

The idea that a new generation of students is entering the education system has excited recent attention among educators and education commentators. Termed `digital natives' or the `Net generation', these young people are said to have been immersed in technology all their lives, imbuing them with sophisticated technical skills and learning preferences for which traditional education is unprepared. Grand claims are being made about the nature of this generational change and about the urgent necessity for educational reform in response. A sense of impending crisis pervades this debate. However, the actual situation is far from clear. In this paper, the authors draw on the fields of education and sociology to analyse the digital natives debate. The paper presents and questions the main claims made about digital natives and analyses the nature of the debate itself. We argue that rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a `moral panic'. We propose that a more measured and disinterested approach is now required to investigate `digital natives' and their implications for education.

The full article is accessible online through library e-journal databases.

Thanks to George Siemens for alerting me to this article.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Goodbye Net Gens, Hello First Globals

When a product is no longer selling, businesses will often "re-brand". Take the same thing and call it something different. Does the same thing happen with ideas? Say goodbye to Net Gens and hello to.....First Globals.

In a newly-released book (The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream) John Zogby highlights the emerging influence of the First Globals, whom his book calls "the most outward-looking and accepting generation in American history." First Globals, he says, are more socially tolerant and internationally aware.

According to Zogby the First Globals are causing a "fundamental reorientation of the American character away from wanton consumption and toward a new global citizenry in an age of limited resources."

And of course, there are implications for higher education. According to an interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, "these days...students are much more likely to have experienced other cultures firsthand, either as tourists or because they have immigrated from someplace else. Whether college for them is a traditional complex of buildings or an interactive online message board, said Mr. Zogby, there is a different student on campus."

Now, I haven't read this book but I'm always skeptical when I hear sweeping claims being made about paradigm shifts at "lightning speed", "transcendent change" and when educational innovation is compared to microbrewed beer, automobile sharing, and DVD rentals by mail.

Zogby's claims are based on data from polls conducted in 2007 of several thousand Americans.

Read the Chronicle of Higher Education review of the book.

The Way We'll Be: The Zogby Report on the Transformation of the American Dream

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Net Generation and Web 2.0 Technologies

Research conducted at three Australian universities suggests that the Net Generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies, or were not, in 2006. Gregor Kennedy and his colleagues surveyed over 2500 first year students at the University of Melbourne, University of Wollongong, and Charles Sturt University in 2006. As well, follow-up focus group interviews were held with 46 students.

The results show that these Australian students were infrequent users of Web 2.0 technologies. More than 80% had never produced a podcast or contributed to a Wiki. More than 70% and never kept their own blog and more than 50% had never used a social networking site, read someone else's blog or downloaded a podcast.

Furthermore, the focus group interview revealed a considerable level of ignorance about these technologies. "For example, when one student was asked how a blog could usefully support her studies, she responded by saying: 'What’s a blog? I don’t know what it is'. Similarly, in focus group discussions about podcasting, two students from separate focus groups reported being unfamiliar with any such technology or service" (p. 522).

The authors conclude, "these research results indicate that we must be wary of overgeneralising the distinctive features of this generation, as individuals or as a group, their lifestyles or their learning styles based on assumptions about technology use or preferences" (p. 522).

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Contributors Wanted

When I started this blog back in May during the CNIE (Canadian Network for Innovation in Education) conference, my intention was for it to become a forum for sharing ideas, research, resources and perspectives on the net generation theme. I did not want this to be just my personal soapbox. So far that has not been very successful. While my postings have generated some comments, there are virtually no postings from the other contributors I have invited. So I am throwing open the invitation. If you having something to say and share about the net generation, I invite you to become a contributor to this blog. Just send me your e-mail address and I'll set you up.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Finally Some Evidence

There is so much irresponsible use of shoddy "research" to support claims about the net generation (often by researchers and academics who should know better) that when I stumble on research that actually is based on solid data, I am delighted. Actually, I didn't stumble on this, my colleague (co-skeptic) Tannis Morgan did.

Kevin Ramey (2008) studied undegraduate students at Texas Tech University and found that there was relatively high agreement with all but two of the seven characteristics of the millenial generation identified by Howe & Strauss (2003): special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving.

But hang on. It's too early to start the "I told you so" chorus. While this study is well-done and the conclusions are based on real data, not speculation and anecdotal evidence, a couple of things are worth highlighting.

First, this was a sample of convenience and Ramey states clearly that the results "cannot be generalized to a greater population". (One of the strengths of graduate research is that these limitations have to be spelled out. Not so with the punditry and speculation that is passed off as research and that gets a much higher profile.)

But, more importantly, the generational characteristics that were used as the basis for this study are quite different than the ones that are most frequently used to describe this generation. In fact all of them, except perhaps team-oriented, are not that remarkable or distinguishing and certainly have little obvious connection to the notion that this generation has been profoundly affected by its immersion in a net-connected, technological world. Interestingly, the one characteristic that is most closely connected to the use of Internet technology (team-oriented) is the one for which students had the lowest level of agreement (less than half agreed with this).

It is also important to note that these data are based on student self-perceptions, not objective evidence of the existence of these characteristics. Now, self-perception is important and I'm not dismissing it, but often there is no connection between the kind of person I think I am and the kind of person I really am, or for that matter, the kind of person that other people think I am.

And that brings me to my final point. Ramey not only asked students for their self-perception of these seven characteristics but their perception of their peers on the same characteristics and he found significant differences between self and peer perceptions. For some characteristics (confident, pressured, achieving, conventional), students rated themselves higher than their peers. For the characteristic of special, they rated their peers significantly higher. What this highlights is the weakness of relying solely on perceptions.

This study is better than most that have been done on this topic but we need to go beyond self-perception if we are to get an accurate reading of what this generation is really like.

Howe, N. & Strauss, W. (2003). Millenials Go To College: Strategies For A New Generation On Campus. Washington DC: American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

Ramey, K. (2008). Undergraduate Perceptions of Characteristics Attributed to Millenial Generation College Students and Implications for University Recruitment and Retention. Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Texas Tech University.