Monday, December 21, 2009

A Critique of the Net Gen Discourse from Germany

In Is There a Net Gener in the House? Dispelling a Mystification, Rolf Schulmeister analyzes the evidence for the existence of a "net generation" and concludes many of claims are overstated or unsupported

"Generation: Multivariate analyses of the use of media always arrive at different contours of the users and describe their diversity rather than their unity.

The Use of Media: It turns out that the use of media alone is not sufficient for the existence of the net generation but rather that the motives for the use of media are essential in the context of such an analysis.

The Motivation for the Use of Media: The preferences of the young for specific internet activities provide information about the spectrum of their interests; the age distribution of their preferences suggests that the actual interests are influenced by socialization.

Socialization: An interpretation of youth people’s use of media is the result of the understanding of their ontogenetic development and socialization. This perspective agrees with the basic assumption of the Uses & Gratification-approach, which presupposes that the needs of youth determine the choice of the media and not, to put the cart before the horse, assuming that media make the young. The young take up the media they require in order to satisfy their needs.

Student Responses and University Didactics: students value live teaching and prefer a moderate use of media. Active self-determined participation required by Web 2.0 is only pursued by a minority of students."

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Research Questions Technological Determinist Net Gen Discourse

A study of first-year students' use of technology at five UK universities concludes there is much more diversity than is portrayed in the popular net generation literature. According to Jones & Ramanau (2009), "the broad brush approaches to generational changes obscure the subtle but important differences between students" of the same generation. And Jones & Cross (2009) argue that the net generation is more like a "collection of minorities with a small number of technophobic students and large numbers of others making use of new technologies but in ways that do not fully correspond with many of the expectations built into the Net Generation and Digital Natives theses".

Their study of about 600 first year students in five UK universities found widespread use of many digital technologies but found limited use of participatory digital technologies such as blogs, wikis and virtual worlds: "there is no evidence of a significant uptake of any of these technologies amongst the first students." The study was conducted in the Spring of 2008.

They conclude that educational policy makers in universities and government should be cautious about "adopting technological determinist arguments that suggest that universities simply have to adapt to a changing student population who are described as a single group with definite and known characteristics."

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Conference Board Study Warns Against Generational Stereotyping

The Conference Board of Canada has released a study on generational differences in the workplace that urges employers not to manage by stereotype and to be very cautious about the largely unfounded claims in the popular literature about generational differences.

While this study focuses on generational differences in the workplace, its conclusions confirm many of the conclusions of the Digital Learners in Higher Education research project which has so far found that in higher education, generation is not the issue and that most of the claims about generational differences are not supported by research.

The Conference Board surveyed over 900 workers in three different generations (Boomer, Gen X and Gen Y) on their self-perceptions regarding personality characteristics, workplace motivation, learning styles, communication preferences and social interaction behaviours. "The survey results do not support a conclusion that there are major differences in the personality types, work-life balance desires, or learning preferences from one generation to the next...employers need to be wary of programs and practices that warn of vast gulfs between the generations, and promise to elevate organizational performance through what might be termed 'management by stereotype'"

The study's advice to employers: don't design workplace policies to fit particular generations of workers, instead develop a human resource management system "that makes all workers feel equally valued and is based on respect, shared values, flexibility, and fairness." This is what we said about the generational issue in higher education: don't design learning based on generational stereotypes, instead focus on the needs of your learners and the learning context.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Report Concludes Generation Not the Issue

The Phase 1 report of the Digital Learners in Higher Education research project concludes that most of the net generation claims are not based on sound research and that discussions of technology in higher education need to move beyond generation. "The study revealed that while some of the descriptors of Net Generation learners are evident in BCIT learners, there is not a clear difference between generations of learners. In other words, generation does not help explain differences in how BCIT learners approach their studies, or how they learn, communicate and use technology. We suggest that it is more useful to look at the type of program and discipline as factors that influence use of ICTs."

Read the full report.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Generational Stereotyping a Thriving Industry

In The Millennial Muddle, Eric Hoover argues that using generational stereotyping to explain the net generation is part of a thriving industry. But the characteristics assigned to this generation, he says, are often based only on "on a hodgepodge of anecdotes, statistics, and pop-culture references". In the case of Howe & Strauss' Millennials Rising, he makes the same observations we made in an earlier posting. The "core traits" that Howe & Strauss identify: special, sheltered, confident, team-oriented, conventional, pressured, and achieving are based on "surveys of teachers and about 600 high-school seniors in Fairfax County, Va., which in 2007 became the first county in the nation to have a median household income of more than $100,000, about twice the national average."

The Millennial label, Hoover says, " tends not to appear in renderings of teenagers who happen to be minorities, or poor, or who have never won a spelling bee. Nor does the term often refer to students from big cities and small towns that are nothing like Fairfax County, Va. Or who lack technological know-how. Or who struggle to complete high school. Or who never even consider college. Or who commit crimes. Or who suffer from too little parental support. Or who drop out of college."

Hoover observes: "To accept generational thinking, one must find a way to swallow two large assumptions. That tens of millions of people, born over about 20 years, are fundamentally different from people of other age groups—and that those tens of millions of people are similar to each other in meaningful ways. This idea is the underpinning of Mr. Howe's conclusion that each generation turns a historical corner, breaking sharply with the previous generation's traits and values."

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Exposing the Shaky Foundations of the Net Gen Discourse

It is always reassuring when your thinking is confirmed by others. It is a particularly reassuring when somebody as articulate as Neil Selwyn does it. In The Digital Native: Myth and Reality, Selwyn adds to the growing body of literature that is exposing the shaky or non-existent foundations of the popular discourse on the net generation. In doing so, he sums up our views precisely but more articulately. Selwyn reviews the literature on young people and digital technology in information sciences, education studies and communication/media studies and concludes that: "young people's engagements with digital technologies are varied and often unspectacular - in stark contrast to popular portrayals of the digital native."

But more than that, he sums up exactly what is wrong with the current net generation discourse:

"Whilst often compelling and persuasive, the overall tenor of these discursive constructions of young people and technology tends towards exaggeration and inconsistency. The digital native discourse as articulated currently cannot be said to provide an especially accurate or objective account of young people and technology. A we shall go on to discuss in further detail, claims, for instance, over the innate skills and abilities of young people are grounded rarely, if at all, in rigorous, objective empirical studies conducted with representative samples. At best the “evidence base" for much of the digital native literature is rooted in informal observation and anecdote. Within many of the accounts outlined above, the use of actual evidence or objective analysis appears not to be a major consideration as long as a persuasive case can be. Thus, at best the digital native literature tends to adopt a legalistic rather than social scientific notion of “evidence” in terms of helping establish a particular case or point of view regardless of contradictory findings (Gorard, 2002)."

Monday, September 21, 2009

OECD New Millennium Learners' Conference

It is a refreshing change to be at a conference focused on the impact of digital technologies on education that is grounded in evidence rather than hype and speculation. As background reading for the conference, which started today (Sept. 21) and runs until Sept. 23, the OECD organizers released a number of reports based on the research being conducted by the Centre for Educational Research & Innovation (CERI) New Millennium Learner Project. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the OECD findings are consistent with the findings of our research. They clearly support the view that this is a much more complex issue than is portrayed by the futurists and pundits and that few of their major claims are supported by research.

What became apparent, though, as I prepared for my participation in a panel discussion on needs and opportunities for new millennium learners is that there are two related but quite distinct discourses around the digital learner. The one that takes centre stage in North America and which I have been most critical of because there no solid research to back it up, is the Net Generation discourse. It suggests, among other things, that the net generation has learned a new set of sophisticated technology skills by merely being exposed to the technologies since birth. The implication is that we don't need to teach this generation how to use the technology to make sense of the overwhelming and increasing amount of information available to us. In fact, we are told, they can teach older generations how to use the technology. The second discourse is the 21st Century Skills discourse that informs this conference. It argues that the digital, networked technologies have changed the nature of the world and work. Work is increasingly knowledge-based, and the technologies are making increasing and vast amounts of information instantly available to us. To cope with these fundamental changes, it is argued, we need new skills of information and knowledge management using ICTs. It is not enough to know how to send text messages, use word processing tools, post to blogs, use Facebook etc. We all need to be able to to use these technologies to locate, analyze, evaluate and synthesize information that is relevant to our lives and work. Clearly, this is a fundamentally different perspective than the one put forward in the net generation discourse and it is supported by some excellent research that has been undertaken by OECD CERI.

To read two contrasting perspectives on the 21st Century Skills discourse read An Operating System for the Mind and the position put forward by the Common Core group.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

OECD Report Calls for More Research On Net Generation

The OECD has released a well-documented review of the net generation (or new millennium learner) research that confirms what most of the other methodologically sound research has suggested: "there is not enough empirical evidence yet to support that students' use of technology and digital media is transforming the way in which they learn, their social values and lifestyles, and finally their expectations about teaching and learning in higher education."

The report does conclude that students in higher education are heavy users of digital media and that they favour the use of technology but that they value technology use in education for its ability to improve access, convenience and productivity, not to radically change teaching and learning.

New Millennium Learners in Higher Education: Evidence and Policy Implications recommends that higher education institutions invest more in empirical research to "elucidate ways technology can provide more than convenience and productivity, in particular learning benefits either by providing a more rewarding experience or better learning outcomes, or both at the same time."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Multitaskers Bad at Multitasking

A study just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that people who consider themselves multitaskers aren't actually very good at multitasking.

"Results showed that heavy media multitaskers are more susceptible to interference from irrelevant environmental stimuli and from irrelevant representations in memory. This led to the surprising result that heavy media multitaskers performed worse on a test of task-switching ability, likely due to reduced ability to filter out interference from the irrelevant task set. These results demonstrate that media multitasking, a rapidly growing societal trend, is associated with a distinct approach to fundamental information processing."

BBC News article

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Digital Elites and Digital Apartheid

Besides the lack of a solid research base for the digital native/immigrant (or net gen) discourse, one of our other critiques has been the fact that it represents a very North American view of the world and particularly of education. So from South Africa comes an insightful critique from Laura Czerniewicz who explains why it is a problematic discourse for her country:

"In the South African context, and indeed in many post colonial contexts, the term is loaded with baggage and problematic connotations. There exists another whole set of discourses to do with natives and settlers, native laws etc to which we do not wish to be party. And indeed, while the term has been reclaimed in some instances (such as The Native Club), there seems to be no sense of irony in the present use of the term digital native."

Monday, August 17, 2009

Digital Native/Immigrant Distinction Not Supported by Evidence

Here's another study that contradicts the widely-held view about the existence of a "digital divide" between so-called digital natives and digital immigrants. Guo, Dobson and Petrina (2008) collected data from over 2,000 pre-service teachers between 2001 and 2004 and concluded:

"there was not a statistically significant difference with respect to ICT competence among different age groups for either pre-program or post-program surveys. This study implies that the digital divide thought to exist between “native” and “immigrant” users may be misleading, distracting education researchers from more careful consideration of the diversity of ICT users and the nuances of their ICT competencies. "

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: An Analysis of Age and ICT Competency in Teacher Education

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Digital Textbooks and the Snark Syndrome

I think I now do most of my academic and professional reading online so I have no doubt there is a place for digital text. I am not sure I would want to read an entire textbook online but having a digital version certainly makes the content much more accessible. But I get concerned when the motivation for moving to digital textbooks and digital resources is based on the unsupported claims about the net generation and its supposed digital literacy.

This article from the New York Times provides an example of the Snark Syndrome at work as the move to digital textbooks is justified by one school district official on the grounds that kids today are "wired differently". According to Sheryl R. Abshire, chief technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La, “they’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they think of knowledge as infinite. They don’t engage with textbooks that are finite, linear and rote." Really?

By all means, let's use digital resources but let's do it on the basis of an identified and appropriate need not an unsubstantiated generalization that, because it has been repeated several times, is treated as fact.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Snark Syndrome and the Net Gen Discourse

In 1993 Eileen Byrne coined the terms the 'Snark Syndrome' and the 'Snark Effect' to describe how educational policymaking and teaching theory in relation to women and science was based on "assertion rather on clear, logical or empirical soundness."

A Snark is the imaginary animal in Lewis Carroll's poem, The Hunting of the Snark:

'Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.

'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have have said thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.'

In Women and Science: The Snark Syndrome, Byrne says about women in science:

"By dint of repetition three times (or thirty), the educational community had internalized an oversimplified and often unscholarly selection of beliefs and premises which had descended to the 'everyone knows that...' level of slogan-like impact."

Thus the Snark Syndrome is the "assertion of an alleged truth or belief or principle as the basis for policymaking or for educational practice, although this proves to have no previous credible base in sound empirical research"

The Snark Effect is the application of the Snark Syndrome to implement specific educational policies and practices.

The Snark Syndrome is clearly at play in the discussions around the Net Generation and education. I have lost track of the number of times I have heard educators repeat the stereotypes about the Net Generation: short attention span, expert mutitaskers, technologically savvy etc etc. Countless Michael Wesch-like You Tube videos are circulating urging us to wake up and change our ways or else risk losing an entire generation of learners who we are failing to engage. The answer, we are told, is more digital technology. We are letting consultants, futurists, technology sales people and others with a limited understanding of education set the agenda. We blindly accept their recommendations and repeat them as fact. The Snark Syndrome may have already led to the Snark Effect but we still have a chance to turn back this uninformed wave and insist that educational policy and practice be based on sound research and theory.

My thanks to Tannis Morgan for pointing us to Eileen Byrne's work: Women in Science: The Snark Syndrome, London, The Falmer Press, 1993.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

A Light-hearted Look at the Millennial Hype

In the Millenials Guide to Millenial Guides, Dan Macsai (a millennial) pokes fun at the plethora of books that purport to explain this apparently complex and unique generation. According to Macsai, "by and large, these books are long, boring and peppered with irritating half-truths. In Trophy Kids, for example, there's a whole page dedicated to deciphering text-message lingo, replete with acronyms like "CRBT" (crying really big tears) and "FOMC" (falling off my chair)--none of which I have ever sent, received, or heard anyone say. And in Generation Me, Jean M. Twenge, Ph.D., posits that the 1994 movie Clerks is "a pretty accurate illustration of how young people talk, with about two swear words in every line." Gimme a f***ing break."

Monday, July 20, 2009

Evidence Doesn't Support Generational Distinction

It has become accepted, almost without question, that the so-called net generation is fundamentally different than previous generations and that we must change they way we treat net geners in the workplace, in our educational institutions and in the marketplace. Leading proponents of this view include Canadian futurist and consultant, Don Tapscott, Marc Prensky, Neil Howe and William Strauss and Diana & James Oblinger.

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."

Articles referenced:
  • 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.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Born Digital Research Methods

One of the problems with the net generation discourse is that, for the most part, it is not being driven by issues that have been identified in academic research. Instead, educators are responding to the hype, speculation and murky research in the lay press and often accepting uncritically the claims that these writers are making. The popular literature that does claim to have a basis in research rarely reports the kind of methodological detail that would allow readers to make an informed judgement of its quality.

Elsewhere I highlighted the methodological problems with Grown Up Digital. Surprisingly, despite being the work of two academics, Born Digital provides us with even fewer methodological details. So, it may well be based on sound research, but all we are told about the research that informs the book is contained in two paragraphs:
  • They conducted a series of focus groups and interviews of young people.
  • They held 100 converstaions with young people from around the world about the technologies they use, their online identities and their views on privacy and safety.
  • They held conversations with about 150 informants.
They tell us nothing about how the data was analyzed, how the informants and interview subjects were chosen, what specific questions were asked, nor how their study is grounded in the existing literature. These, of course, are the requirements of academic research, not popular writing, but the problem is academics are citing the popular net gen literature as if it were academic research. I have stopped counting the number of articles that refer to claims made by Prensky, Tapscott and other as if they were based on conclusive evidence. Some like Danah Boyd even argue that academics worry too much about academic rigour and should be more willing to accept generalizations: "Academics tend to err on the side of nuance and precision, eschewing generalizations and coarse labels. This is great for documenting cultural dynamics, but not so great for making intervention." But isn't this precisely the problem? Interventions are being advocated, based on speculation and/or research that has not undergone the accepted process of scholarly review and publication. It is fine to raise the issues in the popular press but when the claims are accepted uncritically by educators and cloaked in an aura of research respectability, we have problems.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Born Digtal

This book by John Palfrey and Urs Gasser is one of the few on the subject of the Net Generation that is written by academics so I am hoping it will be more solidly grounded in research than most of the others. I have only just started reading it and so for the message is mixed. On the one hand, they use much of the usual net gen rhetoric: how fundamentally different this generation is from all others, how technologically literate net geners are...constantly connected, tremendously creative, how they relate to information differently etc. And of course, the huge impact this generation is going to have on just about everything:

"Digital Natives will move markets and transform industries, education and global politics. The changes they bring about as they move into the workforce could have an immensely positive effect on the world we live in."

But while it begins with the usual generational hype, the authors do raise some issues that aren't mentioned in most of the other popular books on the subject. For example, they highlight the fact that the digital native discourse is only relevant to a small segment of the world's population:

"The vast majority of young people born in the world today are not growing up as Digital Natives. There is a yawning participation gap between those who are Digital Natives and those who are the same age, but who are not learning about digital technologies and living their lives the same way. For billions of people around the world, the problems facing Digital Natives are mere abstractions."

However the fact that Palfrey and Gasser seem to uncritically accept the digital native/digital immigrant metaphor makes me wonder how seriously they will be about critiquing the hype. For as Henry Jenkins points out, the digital natives/immigrants metaphor:

"erases class boundaries in young people's access to and ability to participate in the new media landscape. The Digital Natives metaphor doesn't acknowledge either the digital divide (in young people's access to the technologies) or the participation gap (in young people's access to the social skills and cultural competencies needed to fully and meaningfully participate in the emerging digital culture.)"

More on Born Digital in future posts.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Study Questions Millennial Motivation

A longitudinal study of the academic attitudes of American teenagers is raising questions about what motivates the millennial generation to attend college. And the findings suggest that this generation may have a much more pragmatic and practical motivation than many believe. The study by Susan A. Dumais found that the millennial generation is much less engaged in school than the previous generations. As Mark Bauerlein suggests in his analysis of the study, this "conclusion contradicts the characterization of X-ers as slackers and Millennials as sincere go-getters." But he goes on to point out the problem with trying to describe generations: "While X-ers rated academic values (attending class, getting good grades, graduating) more highly than Millennials did, Millennials rated continuing one’s education more highly than did X-ers. In other words, even though they didn’t care as much about academic behaviors themselves as X-ers did, Millennials considered just going to college more important."
Read Mark Bauerlein's article about the study.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Digital Learners in Austria

A study out of Austria provides more evidence that we need to carefully scrutinize the claims about the existence of a generation of digitally literate learners who are demanding new ways of learning and working.

Walther Nagler and Martin Ebner surveyed first year undergraduate students at Graz University of Technology in 2007 and 2008 about their use of digital technologies. Like other surveys of higher education students, they found widespread use of digital technologies and possession of devices such as laptops and mobile phones, but not a sophisticated use of the technology: "Although young students are technologically increasingly well-equipped, they do not exhaust the potential of their devices or the potential of common Web 2.0 applications." What is somewhat surprising then is Nagler and Ebner's conclusion that their evidence supports the need for a "rethinking of essential structural elements at universities."

Read the the paper, Is Your University Ready for the Ne(x)t-Generation.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

More Research Questions the Net Gen Hype

The results of another study are casting more doubt on the prevailing view of the "net generation". This study, out of Ashridge Business School in the UK, produced similar results to those from our BCIT study and are consistent with research done in Australia and elsewhere in the UK.

The Ashridge study found, among other things:
  • Media hype has produced a largely untrue image of Generation Y, which may be restricting their potential in the workplace and society.
  • Just like any other group of human beings, Generation Y is made up of individuals. There are wide variations in their attitudes and behaviour.
  • The generational landscape is complex, with many different influences and variables. Teasing out real cause and effect is a challenge.
  • Generational boundaries of about 20 years do not accurately represent the backgrounds and behaviours of cohesive groups. Instead, Generation X and the Baby Boomers are better represented by being split into two ten-year cohorts, and the same may be true of Generation Y as it matures.
  • Viewpoint is important. How each person sees him/herself and how others may see that person is often different and leads to stereotyped images of Generation Y and of older generations by Generation Y.
One concern I have about this study is few details of the research methodology are provided and it appears that the full report is only available for purchase.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Why the Net Gen Rhetoric is Dangerous

In his article, Making Way for the Millennials: How Today's Students are Shaping Higher Education Space, Persis Rickes relies on the largely unfounded claims about the net generation to argue for re-designing campus physical spaces. Here are some examples:

"Given their comfort level with technology and penchant for team-oriented behavior, Millennials are substantively changing instructional space—as well as the very nature of instruction. Because today’s students socialize, study, and collaborate in groups, the learning environment is no longer place-bound. This translates to a need for multipurpose spaces for group activities, including small group/seminar rooms and blended social/academic spaces. As veteran multitaskers, students do not view spaces as single purpose in nature."

"Because Millennials prefer to learn and work in teams, small group rooms are needed that can be used as breakout space during class or for study and project work after class has ended. "

"To adapt to a new generation of students, the library has become another partner in collaborative learning. Given the penchant of Millennials to multitask, it frequently serves as a quasi-student union space—and vice versa. "

Rickes relies largely on the work of Howe & Strauss which has been critiqued elsewhere in this blog. I do not question the need for learning spaces that are fit for purpose and that meet the needs of today's learners but let's base our planning decisions on what we know about our learners not on questionable claims about an entire generation.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Educating the Net Generation - Australian Research Project

It's too bad this research project has the same title as the book by Oblinger and Oblinger because, unlike the book, this research project does a much better job of providing some evidence-based understanding of how this generation is using digital technology and the implications for teaching and learning.

The project, which is based at the University of Melbourne has investigated how "commencing first year students and their teachers use traditional and emerging technology-based tools in their everyday lives and to support student learning and drawn on the expertise of teachers and the results of this investigation to develop and implement pedagogically sound, technology-based tools to enhance student learning in local learning environments."

One of the outputs of the project is a handbook, Educating the Net Generation: A Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy which is available for download. The researchers have also published a number of articles and made several presentations at academic conferences.

Key findings of this research project:
  1. The rhetoric that university students are Digital Natives and university staff are Digital Immigrants is not supported.
  2. There is great diversity in students’ and staff experiences with technology, and their preferences for the use of technology in higher education.
  3. Emerging technologies afford a range of learning activities that can improve student learning processes, outcomes, and assessment practices.
  4. Managing and aligning pedagogical, technical and administrative issues is a necessary condition of success when using emerging technologies for learning.
  5. Innovation with learning technologies typically requires the development of new learning and teaching and technology-based skills, which is effortful for both students and staff.
  6. The use of emerging technologies for learning and teaching can challenge current university policies in learning and teaching and IT.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Social to Learning Technology Transfer Not Automatic

Back in August 2008 I posted a link to two Australian conference presentations based on research done by Gregor Kennedy and colleagues. Here's an article in the Australian Journal of Educational Technology that reports on that research, First Year Students Experience with Technology: Are They Really Digital Natives.

One of the key conclusions of this study is consistent with the findings of our research:

More research is needed to determine the specific circumstances under which students would like their 'living technologies' to be adapted as 'learning technologies'. The positive association between students' use of technology and their preference for its use at University leaves unanswered the question as to whether students' everyday skills with emerging technologies will correspond to skills associated with beneficial, technology based learning. As noted by a number of authors (Kirkwood & Price, 2005; Katz, 2005) the transfer from a social or entertainment technology (a living technology) to a learning technology is neither automatic nor guaranteed. These issues point to many unresolved issues that warrant further investigation.

Read the full article.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The New Millennium Learner

New Millennium Learner is the OECD term for Net Gen Learner. The OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) has an NML project that aims to "analyse this new generation of learners and understand their expectations and attitudes. The background paper published in 2006 for this project is one of the few papers on this topic that avoids going overboard with calls for radical transformation. Although a bit long-winded, the policy recommendations are measured and thoughtful and include:
  1. Bridging the gap between NML experiences of ICT-mediated inter-personal communication and knowledge management inside and outside classrooms by enriching schools’ range of available ICT devices and services, and by allowing room for using them in a variety of educational experiments and innovative practices.
  2. Making arrangements to better take into account NML voices regarding how education should be.
  3. Addressing gender and socio-economic imbalances.
  4. Creating incentives for the software industry to develop educational software for a vast range of devices (from computers to cellular phones) that try to apply the principles that make video-games so attractive and successful among NML.
  5. Engaging initial and in-service teacher training institutions in all these processes.
I do have concerns about this paper, however. Like most of the net gen literature it does not seriously question the underlying premise that this is a generational issue. In fact, the paper begins with the premise that there is a New Millennium Learner and that we need to define and characterize it. Although later in the paper the question is asked: is this "a generation-wide phenomenon: can the term be applied to cover all members of the generation?", the evidence used to answer it is sketchy at best: percentage of young people using computers and the Internet; the main uses of computers (information seeking, e-mail and instant messaging); and use of alternative devices such as cell phones. This kind of data says nothing about the impact on learning and does not support the many other claims that are made about this generation, some of which are repeated in this paper: preference for multimedia over text, expertise with multitasking, need for immediate feedback. The paper also repeats the claims about changes in social and personal values made by Tapscott and others: the NML is particularly hopeful, self-assured, determined etc. but then concludes, "there seems to be no empirical evidence yet to support this."

Overall the message of this paper is a bit contradictory. Unfounded claims are repeated and then dismissed but the basic premise of the existence of a distinct generation that needs our attention and requires policy responses remains unquestioned. On a more positive note, I was pleased to see a short discussion of socio-economic and gender issues. These are not often mentioned in the net gen literature.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

The Net Gen and Web 2.0

Here's more evidence that suggests the need for skepticism when it comes to the hype about the Net Gen and technology use.

This article in The Social Computing Journal suggests that the growth in use of social networking technologies like Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In is not among the Net Generation but among older users:

"Baby boomers... are embracing popular consumer technology applications nearly 20 times faster than younger generations. Compared to a year ago, Gen Y consumers between the ages of 18 and 24, are decelerating their use of consumer electronics and related services including social networking, blogging, listening to podcasts and posting video on the Internet. Yet, there was a 67 percent increase among baby boomers reading blogs or listening to podcasts."

The article suggests three explanations for this:
1. The Net Gen are not early adopters but rather followers waiting to see what the older, more experienced peers latch on to before they jump in.

2. The Net Gen has an innate sense that too much connectivity and too much time online is unproductive

3. The Net Gen is all about being cool, and these tools are no longer leading edge, and therefore cool.

But maybe the real explanation is that this isn't a generational issue. Bennett et al. (2008), for example, suggest there may be as much variation within generations as between. So perhaps analyzing technology use in this way isn't very helpful. Certainly making educational technology decisions based on generation is not useful.

Monday, May 4, 2009

TLT Conference Presentation - better version

Here's a higher quality version of my presentation to the Teaching and Learning to the Power of Technology conference. It is divided into several six minute segments. I have included the Power Point presentation below.

View more presentations from Mark Bullen.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Net Gen Presentation at TLT Conference

I presented at the Teaching and Learning to the Power of Technology conference in Regina, Saskatchewan this week. The topic generated a lot of interest from the audience. The conference was excellent and the organizers streamed many of the presentations. Mine is available for viewing and the Power Point can be downloaded.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Grown Up Digital Research Methods

In Grown Up Digital, Don Tapscott makes some substantial claims about the Net Generation and its impact on business, education and society in general. He calls for major changes to our educational institutions and to how employers treat employees. His recommendations are based on the results of a $4 million research project. But how was that research conducted?

One of the ways we determine the quality of research is by examining the methods used. We want to be sure the research methodology is appropriate, that appropriate sampling and analysis techniques are used, that there is no bias and that the conclusions are supported by the evidence. But the research that informs Grown Up Digital is proprietary. In other words, it was conducted under contract for several businesses. As a result, only some of the "high level findings and main conclusions" can be shared publicly. This means the reader has little opportunity to assess the quality of the research.

While Tapscott doesn't provide the full details of his methodology that would allow for a proper assessment, he does share some of the methodology:
  • Data was gathered from a sample of 7685, composed of randomly selected Internet users, stratifed to avoid gender or socioeconomic bias.
  • Interviews were conducted using an online questionnaire.
  • Facebook group was used to collect over 200 stories.
  • Discussions on a global online network TakingITGlobal were conducted and analyzed
While the sample is large, and the sources varied, there is an obvious problem here. The data was gathered from people who are already engaged with digital technologies: Internet users, Facebook users and participants of an online discussion. This is a biased sample. One of the main goals of the research was to determine how engaged this generation is with digital technology and whether there are generational differences. Might the results have been different if people who aren't active users of the technology were sampled?

This highlights the value of academic research and why we need to be careful about how we use proprietary research. Academic research is subject to peer review and it requires transparency and openness of methods. With proprietary research, it is up to the sponsor to decide what to make publicly available.

Friday, April 17, 2009

An Informed Review of Grown Up Digital

In an earlier post, I took a somewhat skeptical view of Don Tapscott's latest book, Grown Up Digital. I said I was put off by the techno-utopic language but encouraged by the amount of data he had collected. At least one reader took me to task for appearing to pass judgment without having read the book. Fair enough.

Well I"m now making my way through the book so I'm in a positon to make a more informed review. Over the next few days I will post my observations beginning with the following:

According to Tapscott, there are eight "norms" that distinguish the Net Generation from other generations. One of them is what he calls "Scrutiny": "Net Geners are the new scrutinzers. Given the large number of information sources on the Web, not to mention unreliable information - spam, phishers, inaccuracies, hoaxes, scams, and misrepresentations - today's youth have the ability to distinguish fact from fiction...The Net Generation knows to be skeptical whenever they're online." (p. 80)

But he goes even further: "On the Net, children have to search for, rather than simply look at, information. This forces them to develop thinking and investigative skills – and much more. They must become critics. Which Web sites are good? How can I tell what is real and what is fictitious – whether in a data source or in the teenage movie star in a chat session.” (p. 21)

How do we reconcile these claims with the results of a substantial study conducted in the UK that found exactly the opposite:
  • the information literacy of young people, has not improved with the widening access to technology: in fact, their apparent facility with computers disguises some worrying problems
  • internet research shows that the speed of young people’s web searching means that little time is spent in evaluating information, either for relevance, accuracy or authority
  • young people have a poor understanding of their information needs and thus find it difficult to develop effective search strategies as a result, they exhibit a strong preference for expressing themselves in natural language rather than analysing which key words might be more effective
  • faced with a long list of search hits, young people find it difficult to assess the relevance of the materials presented and often print off pages with no more than a perfunctory glance at them
The problem is Tapscott's conclusion is not based on the right evidence. The evidence he uses is the Net Gen respondents self-reported online behavior when searching for product information: "Almost two-thirds of Net Geners tell us they search for information about products that interest them before purchase. They compare and contrast product information online; they read blogs, forums and reviews; and they consult friends." (p. 323). But this is hardly evidence of critical thinking skills and highly developed information literacy skills.

More in the coming days.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Skepticism from Down Under

Christopher Scanlon writes in The Australian:

"The question is, why is there such a divergence between claims about digital natives and the realities of the classroom?"

His answer echoes many of the concerns we have about this issue. He identifies class, commercial interest and confusion as contributing to the divergence:

"It's partly a matter of class because there are some students who perfectly fit the mould of digital natives. For example, it's not surprising that two Harvard law professors were among the first to write about such students...The digital natives theory is also partly driven by commercial interest. It's worth noting that Prensky, who was one of the first to popularise the idea of the digital native, is also the chief executive and founder of Games2Train, a company that specialises in creating computer learning games...Confusion also plays a part. It's telling that most of the accounts of digital natives come not from natives themselves but from middle-aged people observing young adults using computers. Those writing about digital natives confuse the ability to navigate around ready-made online environments or download content from the net for a general ease with technology."

Read the full article.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Generation is Not the Issue

Here is the presentation of the results of the research that looked at how students at the BC Institute of Technology are using information and communication technologies. The results clearly show that generational differences are not the issue. Contextual issues such as the nature of the program are more important considerations when making decisions about the integration of learning technologies.

Here's the SlideShare version which allows you to control the slides. Note, however, the audio does not sync up properly when you use the slide advance.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Communication Preferences of the Net Generation

Further to the previous post on the BCIT research, we also examined our students' communication preferences. We wanted to find out how they were using information and communication technologies (ICTs) to communicate with their peers and with their instructors. We were also interested in finding out if there were any differences in ICT use and age.

Our survey of a random sample of over 400 BCIT students did find some statistically significant differences but overall, we found that net generation and non-net gen students were not using ICTs more than face to face communication to interact with their peers.

We found that net gen students were more likely to use instant messaging, text messaging, Facebook/MySpace and phone to communicate with peers than non-net gen students.

However, when communicating with instructors, the only significant difference in use of ICTs between net gen and non net gen was with WebCT. Non-net gen students were more likely to use WebCT than net gen students.

By far the most common mode for communicating with instructors for both net gen and non net gen sudents is talking in person.

Monday, February 23, 2009

More Evidence Supports the Need for Caution

Results of research being conducted that the BC Institute of Technology cast serious doubt on many of the Net Generation claims.

We surveyed a random sample of over 400 students to determine the extent to which the students in the net generation category exhibited the characteristics that have been attributed to this generation by people like Don Taspscott, Marc Prensky, and Neil Howe & William Strauss, and others. These characteristics include:
  1. Digitally literate
  2. Preference for structure and experiential learning
  3. Social
  4. Goal oriented
  5. Community minded
  6. Connected
  7. Multitaskers
  8. Preference for group work
  9. Aversion to reading and text
The results show that at BCIT there is no statistical difference between net gen and non-net gen students on items 1-5. But even for items 6-9, where there were statistically significant differences, the effect sizes were very small, representing only between 1.4% and 2.9% of the variance.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Google Generation Study Casts More Doubt

This comprehensive study of how young learners are searching for and researching content was commissioned by the British Library. While it focuses on the implications for libraries, it contains some valuable insights into how these learners use information technologies. The results tend to contradict much of the prevailing hype about the net generation. The study defines the "Google Generation" as anybody born after 1993.

Here are some of the claims about this group that the study refutes:
  1. They have zero tolerance for delay and their information needs must be fulfilled immediately
  2. They are the `cut-and-paste’ generation
  3. The find their peers more credible as information sources than authority figures
  4. They need to feel constantly connected to the web
  5. They prefer quick information in the form of easily digested chunks, rather than full text
  6. They are expert searchers
The study did find evidence to support the following claims:
  1. They are more competent with technology
  2. They have very high expectations of ICTs
  3. They prefer interactive systems and are turning away from being passive consumers of information
With respect the claim that this generation multitasks in all areas of their lives, the study concluded there is no solid evidence to support this but "it is likely that being exposed to online media early in life may help to develop good parallel processing skills. The wider question is whether sequential processing abilities, necessary for ordinary reading, are being similarly developed."

Thanks to Agnes Bosanquet and the McQuarrie University Learning & Teaching Centre blog for drawing my attention to this study.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Digital Wisdom or Digital Cynicism?

I've never liked the digital native/digital immigrant terminology because it is simplistic and inaccurate. It divides people into two categories and attributes behaviours, attitudes and ways of learning to them, based solely on when they were born. The person who coined those terms, Marc Prensky, has now come up with a new one, digital wisdom.

"Digital wisdom is a twofold concept, referring both to wisdom arising from the use of digital technology to access cognitive power beyond our innate capacity and to wisdom in the prudent use of technology to enhance our capabilities...Leaders are digitally wise when they use available techniques to connect with their constituents for polling and to solicit contributions and encourage participation, as Barack Obama did so well in the 2008 U.S. presidential campaign. "

Well, I'm not sure about this term either. My conception of wisdom doesn't include using digtial technology to convince people to give you money and vote for you. What is the difference between digital wisdom and digital literacy? For me, wisdom must have a moral dimension. Would Coca Cola be considered digitally-wise because it uses demographic data from social networking applications to increase its sales and market share?

Read the full article and judge for yourself.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

More on Generational Differences

Here's another review of the literature that raises serious questions about the conventional wisdom around generational differences. According to Thomas Reeves and Eujong Oh, "Generational differences are the subject of much popular speculation but relatively little substantive research. Among the speculations are suggestions that instructional designers should take generational differences into account when developing instruction and that games and simulations will be more effective learning environments with today's younger generation than they have been with earlier ones...Most of the popular literature on the subject...appears to rest on limited data, almost always conducted by survey methods characterized by a lack of reliability and validity data."

Read the full chapter from the Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology (2007), edited by J. Michael Spector, M. David Merrill, Jeroen van Merrienboer, Marcy P. Driscoll.

Thanks to Norm Friesen for drawing my attention to this.