Thursday, December 23, 2010

Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue

The idea that generation explains how young people use digital technologies and that these "digital natives" are fundamentally different from the older "digital natives" in how they use and understand technology has been successfully debunked. Our work and in particular, the article, Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue, is part of the significant body of research that has exposed the superficiality of the techno-determinist rhetoric of the popular futurists (e.g., Tapscott, Prensky, Palfrey & Gasser and others). This article has been accepted for publication in the Canadian Journal of Learning & Technology but will probably not be published until sometime in 2011 so we are making a pre-publication version of the article available now.

We and others (e.g., see special issues of Journal of Computer Assisted Learning and Learning, Media & Technology) have moved beyond the simplistic generational perspective and have begun to explore the deeper and more important issues related to how higher education learners understand and use digital technologies in different parts of their lives. Stay tuned for more on this.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Learning, the Net Generation and Digital Natives

The journal, Learning, Media and Technology has just published an issue with  focus on the theme, Learning, the Net Generation and Digital Natives. I have only had chance to scan the articles but it looks like a very interesting issue that adds to the growing body of research that is helping to provide us with an evidence-based understanding of how young people are using digital technologies and how leisure and academic uses are interconnected. The issue is edited by Chris Jones from the UK Open University, Institute of Educational Technology.

From the editorial:

The articles in this issue paint a complex picture of change amongst young people, a picture at odds with the idea of a Net Generation composed of Digital Natives. They address the ways that leisure and study activities intertwine and suggest new methods for research need to be adopted to complement the predominantly survey methods currently deployed. The articles show that young people at school and university use technologies in ways that are related to their purposes and exhibit a diversity that contrasts with the idea of a sharp generational change. The articles agree that there are significant age-related changes but they suggest that these changes are mediated by the active appropriation of technology by young people who act purposively and in relation to influential institutional contexts.

Unfortunately, the journal is not open access so if you don't have access through your institution, you will have to pay to read this publically-funded research.

Thanks to Tannis Morgan for bringing this to my attention.

Friday, October 29, 2010

The Digital Future of Higher Education

The evidence is clear: when it comes to the use of digital technologies in higher education, generation is not the issue. Portraying technology use in generational terms is simplistic and potentially costly. This is the conclusion of our research and of many other studies. But that doesn't mean our work is done. We still need to gain a fuller and deeper understanding of what impact the pervasive use of digital technologies is having on students and their learning. This is what we are now focusing on in the second phase of our Digital Learners in Higher Education research project. And it also one of the themes of an interesting one day conference that is being organized by Norm Friesen at Thompson Rivers University. Debating the Digital Future of Higher Education will feature keynote presentations by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY University, and Professor Michael A. Peters, author of Knowledge Economy, Development and the Future of Higher Education and a debate on the net gen issue with yours truly.

The conference takes place Feb 22. Check out the website for details. Early bird registration starts from only $99.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Special Issue of Journal of Computer Assisted Learning

The Journal of Computer Assisted Learning has published a special issue on the Net Generation. It contains four excellent articles that move beyond simplistic notions of generation and provide a more nuanced and theoretically-grounded understanding of digital technology use. Unfortunately JCAL is not an open access journal so unless you have access to an institutional subscription, you will have to pay to read these articles. Why do we keep giving away our publically-funded intellectual property so publishers can sell it back to us?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Visitors and Residents

One of the problems with The Net Gen discourse is that assumes that all people in this age group (which is not consistently defined) have the same set of characteristics, skills and aptitudes, particularly with respect to digital technologies. This simplistic, generationally and technologically deterministic perspective hides much more important differences in how people use and understand technology and particularly the social web. David White's visitors and residents principle is an excellent example of how moving beyond age provides us with an opportunity to get a deeper understanding of how people use and understand digital technology. I am a bit uncomfortable with labeling because people rarely fall neatly into the conceptual boxes we create but this framework is a much more meaningful way of thinking about the use of the social web and as David White emphasizes, it should be viewed more as spectrum rather than two discrete categories.

According to White: "The resident is an individual who lives a percentage of their life online. The web supports the projection of their identity and facilitates relationships. These are people who have an persona online which they regularly maintain. This$ persona is normally primarily in a social networking sites but it is also likely to be in evidence in blogs or comments, via image sharing services etc"

"The Visitor is an individual who uses the web as a tool in an organised manner whenever the need arises. They may book a holiday or research a specific subject. They may choose to use a voice chat tool if they have friends or family abroad. Often the Visitor puts aside a specific time to go online rather than sitting down at a screen to maintain their presence at any point during the day."

The research that David White and colleagues are doing suggests that age has nothing to do with whether you are a visitor or a resident. Once again, generation is not the issue.

Watch David White's engaging presentation on the visitors and residents principle.

Thanks to Terry Anderson for bringing this to my attention.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Generational Explanation is a Gross Oversimplification

There is a growing body of solid research-based evidence that contradicts the popular view of the digital native as part of a technologically-savvy generation that differs fundamentally from previous generations. The latest evidence comes from a special issue of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Desribing or Debunking: The Net Generation and Digital Natives. The four articles in the special edition reject the popular view as a gross oversimplification and argue that the issues at play are more complex and nuanced that we have been led to believe. The articles show that generation is not a useful or accurate variable and that technology adoption and use is much more varied within the net generation age group than the popular discourse suggests. For example, in the article, Beyond Natives and Immigrants: Exploring Types of Net Generation Students, Kennedy et al. identified four statistically robust types of student technology users: Power, Ordinary, Irregular, Basic. All of these were within the net generation age group. This, they say, confirms previous research that found widespread diversity in students' technology experiences. They conclude: "the clear implications of these findings is that large scale changes in curriculum or teaching approach based on assumptions about the technology experience of this generation of students as suggestted, for example, by Prensky (2001a) snd by Oblinger (2008) cnnot be justified."

I haven't read the other three articles but, based on the abstracts, they appear to provide some new and more useful insights into the issue.

Table of Contents:
Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students' technology experiences, S. Bennett and K. Maton
Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students,
G. Kennedy, T. Judd, B. Dalgarno and J. Waycott
Net generation students: agency and choice and the new technologies,
C. Jones and G. Healing
Debunking the ‘digital native’: beyond digital apartheid, towards digital democracy,
C. Brown and L. Czerniewicz

Journal of Computer Assisted Learning:

The only shortcoming of this special journal issue is it is not open access.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Net Gen Skeptic Message and the Media

It has taken over two years but it finally feels like our message is getting through and that educators are starting to seriously question the prevailing myth about the uniqueness of the net generation and all that supposedly implies. I have been encouraged by the frequent requests to speak on this issue from all over the world. Perhaps it's only because the organizers can't afford the high fees of the net gen myth generators, but I have had the opportunity to present at a number of educational conferences over the past two years, events that normally would have invited somebody to present the net gen perspective.

Also encouraging is that the mainstream media is paying attention. I was interviewed on the morning CBC Radio program in Prince George earlier in the month and then on the national CBC News Network.  My experience with these two interviews reveals a lot about the pervasiveness of the net gen myth and the difficulty in presenting a complex issue in the mainstream media. It also reminds me of one of the reasons I got out of television news over 30 years ago.

I first got a request from the CBC Radio afternoon program in Prince George but after explaining my perspective to the producer in a pre-interview she confessed that this wasn't what they were expecting and they would have to get back to me. They never did and I suspect the reason is they were looking for somebody to present the same old story about how the net generation is changing the world. It was reassuring then when a few days later the CBC morning show called and after listening to me explain my point of view agreed to interview me. I was somewhat put off as I sat listening to the lead-in to my interview at 7:40 am and heard the announcer say, "Coming up, an interview with a BCIT professor who doesn't believe in technology in the classroom." Where did this come from? I have never expressed that position so I began my interview by correcting that misrepresentation. After that I thought things went pretty well. The interviewer, Wil Fundal, asked some excellent questions that actually allowed me to speak to some of the key findings of our research.

Contrast this with my experience with CBC News Network later in the week. I was initially asked to be part of a panel discussion with Don Tapscott but he had to withdraw due to an emergency so I was left with a one on one interview with the host Dianne Buckner. Despite spending over 30 minutes giving the background to the associate producer, the questions in the four minute interview ended up being something like, "So, is there a place for technology in the classroom?" and "So, is technology making our students stupid?" and "What are some of the concerns about using technology in the classroom?" In other words, questions clearly informed by the simplistic technology is good or bad discourse. I struggled to redirect the conversation to my point which is this is not a matter of technology good or bad, but using technology appropriately that takes into account the context and is not driven by superficial, simplistic and unfounded notions of generation. I think I got my point across but it wasn't easy. It didn't help that it was 7:45 am on a Sunday and I was speaking to a camera. Diane Buckner thanked me and moved on to the next weighty issue on the show, how to manage expectations of children when doing back to school shopping.

So I think the net gen skeptic message is gaining traction but it is a struggle. The simplistic net gen myth clearly is an easier sell than our message and the mainstream media doesn't handle complexity well.

Two interesting postscripts: CBC Radio obliged my request and sent me an mp3 copy of my interview, but only on the condition that I not post it on a website. CBC News Network said they would send me a DVD of my interview but it would take about two weeks!. Apparently they can't send me a digital file.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Multitasking Lowers Academic Performance

It says something about how firmly entrenched the net generation myth has become that we need to conduct a study to show that being distracted and unfocused has a negative impact on academic performance.

One of the claims made by the net generation myth creators is that young people can multitask efficiently. They can do this, apparently, because they have grown up with digital technology and have become used to multitasking. This claim isn't based on any research but rather is a dubious conclusion based on observing that young people seem to be always doing so many things at the same time: texting, surfing the Internet,  chatting on mobile phones, and, somewhere in between, studying. They must, the simple-minded argument goes, be doing all of those things well. Well, no.

A study from the Open University of the Netherlands, reported in the Daily Mail, shows that students who were using Facebook while studying had exam results that were 20% lower than those who were not using Facebook but instead were focusing their attention on the studying.

Dr. Paul Kirschner who conducted the study says: "Our study, and other previous work, suggests that while people may think constant task-switching allows them to get more done in less time, the reality is it extends the amount of time needed to carry out tasks and leads to more mistakes...We should resist the fashionable views of educational gurus that children can multi-task, and that we should adapt our education systems accordingly to keep up with the times."

Friday, July 30, 2010

Methodology Matters in Digital Learner Research

The study by Hargittai et al. (2010) that I reported on in my previous post is and example of a methodologically sound piece of research. This is unlike much of the popular writing on this topic which tends to be speculative, anecdotal or research based on questionable methodology. Educators have tended to pay more attention to the latter than the former. The result is a widepread belief that all people born after 1982 are technologically sophisticated and digtially literate and that we need to make radical changes to our educational systems to accomodate this generation. As the growing body of sound research, like that of Hargittai et al. (2010) is showing, this popular view is not grounded in fact.

Here are some key methodological strengths of the Hargittai study:
1) they actually observed user behaviour rather than relying on self reports and they didn't restrict what Web sites participants could consult: "Our findings suggest that utilizing this more naturalistic method allows us to uncover user practices that have been hard to capture using earlier methods."
2) They linked trustworthiness and credibility to branding which has been neglected in earlier studies and they took into account the full search context in their investigation: "How users get to a Web site is often as much a part of their evaluation of the destination site as any particular features of the pages they visit."
3) They used a mixture of quantitative and qualitative methods.
4) They administered a paper/pencil survey, "to avoid biasing against people who feel less comfortable filling out Web forms or who spend less time online and thus may have less opportunity to participate."

Look at the popular Net Gen literature and you won't find this kind of methodological rigour. And you won't find this conclusion:
"Students rely greatly on search engine brands to guide them to what they then perceive as credible material simply due to the fact that the destination page rose to the top of the results listingsof their preferred search engine."

A British study released last year came to similar conclusions about the information seeking behaviour of what it called the "Google Generation", a slighter younger group born in 1993 and later.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Digital Literacy of "Digital Natives"

A clear trend is emerging in the net gen literature. On one hand, the pundits and futurists continue to argue that "digital natives" are sophisticated users of the new technologies who critically analyze the information they access online. In most cases, we have to take their word for these claims because the underlying research (if there is any) is often proprietary and the authors reveal little of their methodology.

On the other hand, most of the academic research on this topic is showing that generation really isn't an important discriminator and that "digital natives", in fact, appear to have a superficial understanding of the new technologies, use the new technologies for very limited and specific purposes, and have superficial information-seeking and analysis skills. Now a new study has just been published that provides further evidence of the need to be extremely skeptical of the the often-repeated claims made by the likes of Tapscott, Prensky, and Palfery & Gasser and others.

Hargittai, Fullerton, Menchen-Trevino and Thomas (2010) investigated how young adults at a US university look for and evaluate online content. They found that the students they studied displayed an inordinate level of trust in search engine brand as a measure of credibility: "Over a quarter of the respondents mentioned that they chose a Web site because the search engine had returned that site as the first result suggesting considerable trust in these services. In some cases, the respondent regarded the search engine as the relevant entity for which to evaluate trustworthiness, rather than the Web site that contained the information." Only 10% of the students bothered to verify the site author's credentials: "These findings suggest that students' level of faith in their search engine of choice is so high they do not feel the need to verify for themselves who authored the pages they view or what their qualifications might be."

When asked how they decide to visit a Web site, the most important factor mentioned by the students was "being able to identify easily the sources of information on the site". However,  "knowing who owns the Web site" and "knowing what business and organizations financially support the site" were less important to students. When asked how they determine the credibility of the information, the least common actions were "checking if contact information is provided on the Web site" and "checking the qualifications or credentials of the author." Checking the "about us" section the Web site was also something that students did either rarely or on average.

Contrast these findings with what Tapscott (2009) has to say in Grown Up Digital:
"Net Geners are the new scrutinizers. Given the large number of information sources on the Web, not to mention unreliable information - today's youth have the ability to distinguish fact from fiction. The Net Generation knows to be skeptical whenever they're online. "

Palfrey & Gasser (2008) in Born Digital provide a slightly different, but equally positive, perspective on the critical faculties of "digital natives". They argue that "digital natives have a sophisticated process for gathering information from the Web that allows them to develop a deep understanding of current events and issues is often underestimated." "Digital natives" are "interacting with information in constructive ways", gathering information "through a multistep process that involves grazing, a 'deep dive', and a feedback loop. They are perfeting the art of grazing through the huge amount of information that comes their way on a daily basis."

But here's the important difference between the work of academic researchers like Hargittai and colleagues and books by people like Tapscott and Palfrey and Gasser: Hargittai's work has been subjected to peer review by experts in the field, has been published in academic journals and provides full details of the research methodology and how the research was funded and supported.

As Hargittai and colleagues conclude:
"While some have made overarching assumptions about young people's universal savvy with digital media due to their lifelong exposure to them (e.g., Prensky, 2001; Tapscott, 1998)...empirical evidence does not necessarily support this position...Students are not always turning to the most relevant cues to determine the credibility of online content."

Read the full article, Trust Online: Young Adults' Evaluation of Web Content.

Monday, July 5, 2010

What's the Big Deal? - Part 2

When a former president of Columbia Teachers College starts repeating the net gen myths, I start to get worried. That's what Arthur Levine has done in a post to Inside Higher EducationDigital Students, Industrial-Era Universities. In it, Levine repeats all the same old claims about "digital natives": they "live in an anytime/anyplace world, operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, unbounded by physical location; they are "more concerned with the outcomes of education — learning and the mastery of content, achieved in the manner of games"; they are "active learners, preferring interactive, hands-on methods of learning such as case studies, field study and simulations"; they "are gatherers, who wade through a sea of data available to them online to find the answers to their questions"; they "are are oriented more toward group learning, multiple “teachers” or learning resources, and social networking, characterized by collaboration and sharing of content."

Based on these unfounded claims, he then argues that higher education should be making significant changes to the curriculum, pedagogy, and delivery methodologies: "What must the means by which we educate the digital natives who are and will be sitting in our classrooms — employing calendars, locations, pedagogies, and learning materials consistent with ways our students learn most effectively. "

I don't have a particular issue with any of the proposed changes that Levine puts forward. Most address issues of flexibility and responsiveness and moving from a teaching to a learning paradigm and away from common processes to common outcomes. As Levine says, "with this shift will come the possibility of offering students a variety of ways to achieve those outcomes rooted in the ways they learn best." Yes, but grounding those changes in unfounded and stereotypical views of a generation is dangerous because, as I have said before, all the credible research (ours included) suggests this isn't a generational issue and that viewing it in those terms hides more important differences.

Another example of why debunking the Net Gen myth is a big deal.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

The Challenges of Constant Connectivity

In my previous post I highlighted Neil Selwyn's EDMEDIA debate presentation in which he argued that too much of the social media in education discourse is happening within an "ed tech bubble". He referred to the "self-contained, self- referencing and self-defining nature of the debate" and he called for a broader discussion with people outside "the bubble".

I'm not sure if Sherry Turkle would be considered outside the ed tech community but she is certainly somebody who brings a refreshingly thoughtful perspective on the issues related to the use and impact of digital technologies.

Here is an edited version of an interview she gave for the excellent PBS series, Digital Nation, in which she talks about the challenges of constant connectivity and argues for a more considered approach to digital technologies that recognizes that we are in the early days of learning how to use these technologies and understanding their impact.

"I don’t really care what technology wants. It’s up to people to develop technologies, see what affordances the technology has. Very often these affordances tap into our vulnerabilities. I would feel bereft if, because technology wants us to read short, simple stories, we bequeath to our children a world of short, simple stories. What technology makes easy is not always what nurtures the human spirit."

Read: Digital Demands: The Challenges of Constant Connectivity

Friday, July 2, 2010

Social Media and Education

Neil Selwyn has written an excellent critique of the view that social media is having a postive impact on education. The Educational Significance of Social Media - A Critical Perspective is Selwyn's presentation at an ED MEDIA 2010 debate on the motion: "that the use of social media and networking is contributing to the attainment of significant educational goals in ways that suggest even more powerful future impact."

Selwyn argues that the social media discourse is "driven by belief, speculation, anecdote and personal experience rather than recourse to actual evidence."  He takes aim at a central part of the net gen discourse: the view that "digital natives" are actively engaged with social media, not just as passive consumers but active contributors. "The majority of people who do use social media are perhaps best termed as ‘non-active users’ – passively downloading content rather than engaging in any meaningful acts of creation or sharing."

He concludes by highlighting what I think is one of key problems with the ed tech/social media field today, the fact that too much of our discourse is self-referential and self-congratulatory, happening in an "Ed-Tech bubble." He says "we need to stop talking amongst ourselves, and start talking to those people outside of the educational technology community who do not usually engage in such discussions. One of the obvious limitations to current enthusiasms for social media is the self-contained, self- referencing and self-defining nature of the debate. These are generally conversations that only ever take place between groups of social media-using educators – usually using social media to talk about the educational benefits of social media. Outside of the narrow ‘Ed-Tech bubble’ very few people are engaging with these discussions. We therefore need to ... stimulate a new phase of discussion, dialogue and conversation about what social media is – and what social media could be – with everyone involved in education."

Other work by Neil Selwyn:
Adult Learning in the Digital Age: Information Technology and the Learning Society
The Digital Native: Myth and Reality

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

What's the Big Deal?

That's often a question I get asked about our research around the net gen and how learners are using new technologies for social and educational purposes. The implication being that it really doesn't matter if this net gen thing is overhyped and not very accurate. Well, here is an example of why it does matter.

The University of Missouri appears to have grounded its new online learning initiative on the misguided and ill-informed view that all learners in the net gen age group are technology addicts who constantly multitask, communicate digitally and want to use these technologies in their learning. "That's how they learn. That's how they think," says Steven Graham, senior associate vice president for academic affairs at the University of Missouri. Well, actually, it's not, at least not all of them. In fact we know very little about the impact of digital technologies on thinking and learning. What we do know is that all the credible research suggests this isn't a generational issue and that viewing it in those terms hides more important differences. There is a fair amount of survey data on student preferences for technology in learning and it tends to show that, in general, they prefer a moderate amount and face-to-face teaching is the preferred mode. As an example, the 2009 ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology concludes that students, "are more likely to describe themselves in terms of mainstream adoption of technology, and they consistently report that they prefer only a moderate amount of IT when it comes to their courses."

Despite that the University of Missouri is spending nearly half a million dollars to develop 124 new online courses because that's what they think students want.

That's why this is such a big deal.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Small Study Finds Gap between Educational and Informal Use

Only 29 students were surveyed in this study by Swapna Kumar so we have to be cautious about the results. The undergraduate education students at a large private university were asked about their perspectives on Web 2.0. technologies, specifically about their informal and educational use of these technologies.

The results confirm other studies that show that technology use is multifaceted and that we need to look more deeply at how the technology is being used. Like other studies, this study found students consumed far than they produced with technology. In other words they were primarily passive users of the technology and not making full use of the affordances of Web 2.0 technologies.

On the other hand, Kumar's finding contradicted other studies in finding that the students were able to transfer their personal expertise with the technologies to the academic context:

"the qualitative data summarized earlier in this paper reveal that students in this group use Instant Messenger when completing assignments, and Google Docs for archiving and group work, even if their professors are unfamiliar with Google Docs. They suggested innovative and relevant ways in which online videos, podcasts, and wikis can enhance their educational experience in contrast to research reported by Caruso and Kvavik (2005) and Kennedy et al. (2008). Students’ voluntary descriptions of how these resources have been used in courses that they have attended, as well as their enthusiastic suggestions, signify their interest in the use of new technologies in higher education."

But as Kumar points out, this interest in the academic use of the technology may have been driven by the students' interest in teaching and the fact they were enrolled in an educational foundations course. As we have said, the context is critical.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

New Study Debunks Digital Native Myth...or does it?

One of my critiques of the net gen discourse is that it has been fuelled in large part by non-academic research. Many of the claims emerge from proprietary studies that have not been vetted through the academic peer review process. The authors of these studies are not required to disclose important details such as methodology, funding sources, and potential conflicts of interest. Without this kind of detail it is difficult to assess the quality of the research and the validity of the findings. Despite this, the conclusions are disseminated far and wide using social media and soon become entrenched.

Well, we have a new study that purports to show that digital natives aren't as technologically savvy as people like Tapscott and Presnky would have us believe. Our research certainly supports this conclusion but the trouble with this new study is that:
a) it was conducted by a private consulting company, Cengage Learning so, as far as I know, there was no requirement for peer review;
b) only very limited methodological details have been publically released.

Despite that, the headline that is appearing in the blogosphere is something like "Digital Native Myth Debunked". If we look at the data that this conclusion appears to be based on, it is pretty thin: "65 per cent of instructors think students are tech savvy when it comes to using digital tools in the classroom. Conversely, only 42 per cent of students believe there is enough support for educational technology, evidence of a perception gap in how adept students are versus how savvy they are presumed to be." Hardly myth-debunking evidence. What is more troubling is all we know about this study is that data was collected via a survey of 765 students and 308 instructors. We don't know where these instructors and students were, what the response rate was, how they were selected or what the actual survey questions are.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Six Reasons to be Skeptical

Six reasons to be skeptical of the Net Gen discourse:

1. It exaggerates the gaps between adults and youth.
According to Henry Jenkins, adults are "seen as fumbling and hopelessly out of touch, and youth, seen as masterful". This encourages adults to feel helpless, and justifies "their decision not to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world." Ultimately it disempowers adults.

2. It hides more important intra-generational differences.
According to Reeves & Oh, research shows that "generational differences are weak as a researchable variable. " It also shows that differences in how learners use technology is often greater within an age cohort than it is between and that treating net generation learners as a homogeneous groups ignores these important differences. See Pedro (2009) and Kennedy et al. (2007) and (2008).

3. It ignores potentially important socio-economic and cultural differences.
Almost of all the claims about the net generation are based on observations of middle and upper class north American youth.

4. It ignores important second level digital divides.
By promoting the stereotype that all youth are sophisticated users of digital technology, the net gen discourse overlooks the inequalities in the capacity to use technology, skills and competencies required and information literacies. According to Thompson (2009)"Without attention to these potential second level digital divides, gaps and inequalities may widen over time despite concerted efforts to provide access to ICT"

5. It is based on unfounded assumptions about current approaches to teaching.
One of the key themes of the net generation discourse is that the current educational paradigm does not adequately deal with the needs of the net generation. The argument is that we need to move away from the current transmission mode of teaching to a more student-centered, interactive and collaborative mode. While there may still be a lot of this style of teaching, most public school education at the K-12 level moved away from the transmission mode over 20 years ago. In higher education we see the widespread use of case-based, problem-based, inquiry-based and experiential learning approaches.

6. The evidence doesn't support most of the key Net Gen claims.
Almost all of the claims of the net gen discourse are in popular media and if they are based on research, it is proprietary and full methodological details are not provided. All of the sound research that refutes the claims is published in scholarly journals and has been subject to peer review.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Researching the Net Generation: Separating Fact from Fiction

Elluminate Live presentation: March 17, 10 am PDT
Mark Bullen, Tannis Morgan, Adnan Qayyum


Generation is often used to explain and rationalize the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in higher education. However, a comprehensive review of the research and popular literature on the topic and an empirical study at one postsecondary institution in Canada suggest there are no significant generational differences in how learners say they use ICTs or their perceived behavioural characteristics. The results of this investigation add to a growing body of research that calls into question the prevailing net generation discourse that argues that generation can be used to explain the use of ICTs in higher education. This presentation will review and analyze the key net generation claims and the growing body of empirical research that contradicts the popular view of the net generation learners as being sophisticated users of digital technologies with unique needs.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Is Generation Really Relevant?

Norm Friesen has weighed in on the question of generation and education with his blog posting, Generations and Educational Change. In it he argues that the generation is not a very useful construct, at least in the way that is used in the popular discourse around the net generation. Drawing the work of Karl Mannheim, Friesen says, "as a sociological category, a generation is only one of a number of ways in which a society is layered, stratified or differentiated. Other forms of differentiation include race, gender and class. Of these, generation as a category is generally considered as providing the weakest basis for differentiation." He also quotes Reeves & Oh who conclude: "Generational differences are weak as a researchable variable in a manner similar to learning styles.." (p.303)

Friesen goes further in undermining the value of generation by pointing out that the coherence of generation is usually defined in terms of “a collective response to a traumatic event or catastrophe --like the 9/11 attacks" (Edmunds & Turner, 2002, p. 12). As Friesen say, "by comparison, the adoption of new media technologies (occurring at different rates for different classes, genders and nationalities) is not characterized by the cultural force or distinctiveness of an event such as an attack or disaster."

So I was surprised that, after dismissing generation as useful construct, Friesen concludes, "Tapscott and others are right to identify the issue of generations as highly relevant to education, but they are wrong to focus only on one generation in isolation from others and from the sociology of generations generally."

There is a growing body of excellent research that suggest quite clearly that generation is not the issue. Friesen refers to some of this in his blog posting but there is much more. As Reeves & Oh conclude:

"The bottom line on generational differences is that educational technology researchers should treat this variable as failing to meet the rigor of definition and measurement required for robust individual differences variables. The gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculations of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution in a research and development context. (p. 303)

Edmunds, J. & Turner, B. (2002). Generations, Culture and Society. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mannheim, K. (1953). The problem of generations. In Mannheim, K. (Ed.). Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.(see:

Reeves, T. C., & Oh, E. J. (2008). Generation differences and educational technology research. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. J. G. van Merrienboer & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Pp. 295-303.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

German Study Casts Doubt on Net Gen Claims

Research out of Germany that investigated students’ use of Internet services, media types and e-learning preferences has concluded that the "vast army of internet-enthusiasts" that" was expected to descend upon the universities" has not yet appeared.

In a chapter in Looking Toward the Future of Technology-Enhanced Education: Ubiquitous Learning and the Digital Native, edited by Martin Ebner and Mandy Schiefner, Rolf Schulmeister says his results are "sobering for anyone – deceived by the steep rise of user numbers in Web 2.0 Communities – who assumed that a new era of university education was dawning with the rise of interactive environments." One of his key conclusions is consistent with the findings of our research that shows that students are very pragmatic and instrumental in their use of ICTs. It has "become apparent that education is not the primary purpose of media use and that there is no transfer from extensive computer experience to learning."

Read the Students, Internet, E-Learning and Web 2.0.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Study Highlights Superficiality of Digital Native Concept

One of our main criticisms of the digital native or net generation discourse is that presents a simplistic and superficial picture of an entire generation and ignores the complexity of technology use and its relationship to context. Eszter Hargittai has published an interesting study that reveals some of this complexity and provides compelling evidence for why we need to take a more nuanced approach to research in this area. Hargittai's study concludes that the premise that the net generation are universally knowledgeable about the web is not supported by the data, "rather, we observe systematic variation in online know-how even among a highly wired group of young adults based on user background...Overall, the results of this study show support for the importance of taking a more nuanced approach to studying the relationship of Internet use to social inequality. Far from being simply dependent on mere access, systematic differences are present in how people incorporate digital media into their lives even when we control for basic connectivity. Moreover, these differences hold even among a group of college students, precisely the type of population that popular rhetoric assumes to be universally wired and digitally savvy. These assumptions are not supported by the evidence, however.

Read the full article.


People who have grown up with digital media are often assumed to be universally savvy with information and communication technologies. Such assumptions are rarely grounded in empirical evidence, however. This article draws on unique data with information about a diverse group of young adults’ Internet uses and skills to suggest that even when controlling for Internet access and experiences, people differ in their online abilities and activities. Additionally, findings suggest that Internet know-how is not randomly distributed among the population, rather, higher levels of parental education, being a male, and being white or Asian American are associated with higher levels of Web-use skill. These user characteristics are also related to the extent to which young adults engage in diverse types of online activities. Moreover, skill itself is positively associated with types of uses. Overall, these findings suggest that even when controlling for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Spanish Study Questions Net Gen Claims

The Open University of Catalonia has replicated the survey first administered in Canada at the BC Institute of Technology and the results are almost the same: there is no substantial difference between net generation-aged students and others in terms of their technology preferences and characteristics.

The survey sought to explore students' use of technology to communicate with peers and instructors, and the extent to which students fit the typical net generation profile: social, preference for group work, need for structure, skilled multitaskers.

Marc Romero, Montse Guitert and Albert SangrĂ¡, in a paper submitted to the 2010 European Distance and E-Learning Network conference, conclude, "Based on the analysis of this data, we can say there is very little difference between the study and communication preferences of net generation and non-net generation learners at UOC. This finding is consistent with the findings of the BCIT study and is further evidence that the notion of the Net Generation as presented in the literature is more a speculation than real."

The UOC survey is part of the Digital Learners in Higher Education research project involving BCIT, UOC and the University of Regina.