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