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.