‘Net Generation’ — A Myth?

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:

  1. It exaggerates the gaps between adults and youth.
  2. It hides more important intra-generational differences.
  3. It ignores potentially important socio-economic and cultural differences.
  4. It ignores important second level digital divides (differences in online skills).
  5. It presents a simplistic view of technology and technology use.
  6. It is based on unfounded assumptions about current approaches to teaching.
  7. Key Net Gen claims are made by people with a vested interest.
  8. 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?

10 Responses

  1. Some interesting points here Jan, thanks. It is true we need to guard against simplistic statements about technology use and age. Although it is undoubtedly true that a 20 year old is more likely to have good personal ICT skills than a 60 year old. Exaggerated claims don’t help anyone.

    The issue critical thinking skills is a complex one. Tapscott and Pensky make well known claims and I have certainly not looked into the research that this is based on. You are right that we need to be sure about the research behind such claims. Their fame is due to the buzzwords that have come out of this. Despite these findings, I think they still have a place to cause us to stop and think about the impact of web 2.0 technologies on younger generations. Also, part of the reason a phrase like millenials has taken hold is because it resonated with what we observe anecdotally.

    Let’s focus on information gathering and the critical skills associated with this. According to Bullen, most don’t display such skills. Ok fine. So what’s the point here – that technology isn’t as good as everyone makes it out to be? I’m thinking that Bullen is saying this. But surely this misses the point. The point is that by using the internet searching capabilities and supporting social media processes, you have far, far greater ability to gather information in a critical way. We need to teach this in formal education so that it can occur. The fact that we now the tools for students to practice such things is surely a big plus.

    You might be interested in a webinar by Neil Selwyn – http://cck11.mooc.ca/recordings.htm There is a lot on the vested interests that Bullen talks about.

  2. […] di continuo. Di recente in due post di Gianni Marconato, qui e qui,  e in un post intitolato ‘Net Generation’ – A Myth? apparso in Educational Technology and Change. Condivido tutti questi […]

  3. Anonymous,

    Re your third paragraph, I don’t think that is what Bullen is saying. Given what he does for a living I would say he is absolutely in favor of using technology in education (note the link to his bio in the article).

    The ability to gather information, yes, that comes with “playing” on the internet. But it does not include the part about “in a critical way.” For the most part I think the net generation is gadget literate, but not so literate in information and communication technology. The point that Bullen makes is that we do a disservice to all students, young and old, when we make decisions based primarily on anecdotal information. We can’t assume that the net gen students already have the ability to find and evaluate information relevant to whatever they are studying, anymore than we can assume that baby boomers are a lost cause when it comes to technology and education.

    Thanks for the link to Neil Selwyn’s webinar. He makes some great, if controversial points, about social media and education.

  4. […] L’ha rilanciata Gianni, continuando il discorso. Ha contribuito Andreas, segnalando un articolo che torna utile per il mio […]

    • As for Andreas Formiconi’s comment above, this is a trackback, this time of a post by Mario Mattioli. My impression is that he slightly misunderstood your report of what Mark Bullen said, Jan – and that he did not check the recording of the webinar, otherwise he would have noticed that Bullen’s criticism bore on the risks of acritically accepting Prensky’s and other promoters of the “Net Generation” concept, rather than on the statements by these promoters.

      Again, Google Translate could be used to get the gist of Mario Mattioli’s argumentation.

  5. Yes, Jan, you were the only one who was taken in.. ;-)

    Seriously, thanks for posting this very interesting article. And obviously many people were taken in on this one. Having watched my son grow up during this era, I think that there’s an crucial distinction between netizens and education-ready netizens which the popularizers of Net Gen and education have overlooked.

    Is there such a thing as the Net Generation? Yes, absolutely. But that doesn’t make NetGeners proficient in using digital technologies for educational purposes. In evaluating various projects using digital technologies in recent years, it soon became apparent that not all students were technologically savvy, period. As my colleague Alexandra Pickett has pointed out, her students are net-savvy, but only in a relatively narrow sense: they are great at using the tools they like to use (e.g., Facebook, texting), but they need to learn how to use “sophisticated online information gathering and analysis skills” just like the rest of us do/did.

    So regarding the items on the list at the end of your article, IMO #2-5 are more clear-cut than #1 & 6-8, but all of them I agree with at least to some extent. There are major gaps between adults and youth when it comes to technology use — land lines and email come to mind — but it doesn’t follow that youth are universally technosavvy…

  6. Several years ago I was asked by the people (then eCollege, now iNACOL) running the annual Virtual School Symposium to make a presentation on the subject of working with struggling students in online education courses. It was a problem I had dealt with as the director of an online school, but I didn’t feel qualified to speak on it since I felt I could talk more about what doesn’t work than what does work. (I found out when I did the presentation that this put me way ahead of most people.)

    The Keynote speaker just before my presentation rhapsodized well beyond his allotted time about how proficient this new generation was at using technologies, how they knew more than we did, and how we could incorporate all sorts of cool things into our classes that would be right in their comfort zone.

    My presentation came just after that, and I told a packed room that his experience was not my experience. One of the biggest challenges my school faced with our students was teaching them how to use the very simple technology within our courses. The room almost erupted with agreement–nobody was seeing this tech savvy generation the keynote speaker seemed to think was ubiquitous.

  7. Thanks Jan, for your positive review of our research. Given Jim Shimabukro’s post elsewhere on this blog (https://etcjournal.com/2011/03/10/7478/) I feel I need to restate what I thought I have been very clear about: our research should be not be taken as an argument for the status quo. Our point is that the impact of digital technology is a social issue and that framing it as a generational issue misses the point and hides more important issues. Each institution needs to understand it’s own needs and make changes based on those not unsubstantiated claims about a mythical net generation.

  8. In some ways it is too early to describe the impact of the netgeneration.
    Five thousand years ago when the alphabet enabled us to transcribe speech and store it for generations it took eons for us to understand its importance. Five hundred or so years ago when the printing press allowed us to make libraries available to the common person we again went through a long period of understanding this communication shift. I suspect that the information age has several characteristics. 1. Information is very accessible, 2. Information in digital form is difficult to vet, 3. Comprehension is still required after access. Comprehension is still a major factor in this new world. In other words how well do we use information after it is accessed? It will take us some time to fully begin to utilize this new world.

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