By Jan Schwartz
In January this year I participated in a webinar offered by IT Sligo (Ireland) titled, Separating Fact from Fiction in the Digital Generation. The webinar leader was Mark Bullen from the British Columbia Institute of Technology (which meant the webinar was at a reasonable hour for the west coast of the U.S.). It was an eye opener for me because I had been sucked in by the popular books, Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning (2010), by Marc Prensky and Grown Up Digital: How the Net Generation Is Changing Your World (2008) by Don Tapscott.
I have a tendency to grab on to these types of books, and if everything sounds logical I go with it. I guess that would be okay if I didn’t pass the information on to others as if it were the whole truth and nothing but the truth. In my industry, career education, elearning is still very new, and in some cases nonexistent, so that’s the danger in passing on information that is, at best, suspect. Fortunately, that did not happen — but only because I watched that webinar!
Bullen made many important points, and you can watch the recording here, but what struck me first was that the proprietary research conducted by Prensky and Tapscott, I suppose to sell books, did not include a report of the methodology used. Bullen, being a researcher, found that samples were small in most cases and biases were not removed so the authors’ generalization that the digital generation, or millennials, learn differently than the rest of us, that it’s a generational thing, and that technology is creating a generation of critical thinkers is suspect. Most of the students in the samples were already sophisticated users of technology. According to Bullen, what these and other authors sell is speculation based on anecdotal information, and their conclusions are not backed by sound research.
Since that webinar I’ve looked at some of Bullen’s other work (research and presentations), and of the seven academic studies he reviewed, all reported similar results, i.e., claims of a net generation are unfounded. Some of those results are:
- young people do not demonstrate sophisticated online information gathering and analysis skills — they rely on branded search engines (Hargittai et al., 2010);
- digital generation students are not homogenous, there are clear differences in technology users, and demographic variables are more predictive of experience than age (Bennett et al., 2010);
- no meaningful difference between net generation and non-net generation students (Bullen, Qayyum, Morgan, 2010).
Studies done in the UK have found similar results. The most interesting to me was the book released under the Educause label, Educating the Net Generation by Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005. This book had one research-based chapter that pretty much contradicted all of the other speculative, anecdotal chapters. I think that most people reading a book put out by Educause would believe it was well researched. Personally, I’ve always trusted that Educause would do the research before putting their name on something.
Why should we care about this issue? Bullen gave these reasons, among others (in bold italics):
- Stereotyping which includes saying that young people are competent in using technology and older people are incompetent. Personally, I’m in my 6th decade providing tech support for much younger people and I am self taught.
- Hides intra-generational differences. There are some students who definitely are tech savvy and those who are not, and what about culture, race and socioeconomic status?
- Institutions are making important decisions about technology and learning. eLearning is so new to many career schools that they could be making decisions based on these books. It would sure impact my decision if I “knew” that the incoming students were sophisticated users of technology and if I thought they had an expectation of learning differently (or I had an expectation that they would learn differently) because of their relationship with technology. These are not inexpensive decisions.
The seminar ended with some reasons, excerpted below, to be skeptical:
- It exaggerates the gaps between adults and youth.
- It hides more important intra-generational differences.
- It ignores potentially important socio-economic and cultural differences.
- It ignores important second level digital divides (differences in online skills).
- It presents a simplistic view of technology and technology use.
- It is based on unfounded assumptions about current approaches to teaching.
- Key Net Gen claims are made by people with a vested interest.
- Research doesn’t support most of the key Net Gen claims.
I am wondering if I am the only person who was taken in by these popular books?
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