By Jim Shimabukuro
I’ve been reading the ETCJ discussion about the “Net Generation” and whether or not they’re really any different from other generations and wondering why Mark Bullen is spending so much energy trying to prove that they’re not different and claiming otherwise is “dangerous.”
The discussion began a few days ago when Jan Schwartz introduced readers to a webinar by Bullen, Separating Fact from Fiction in the Digital Generation (19 Jan. 2011), and in her article, she credits him for saving her from the “danger” of proliferating the myth about the “Net Generation.” With all this talk about “danger,” I decided I had to make time for the webinar.
If I had to place myself in a generation, I’d have to say I’m in the TV generation. I was in grade school when TV antennas began sprouting on roofs in the neighborhood. That was the ’50s, and that tiny glowing window to the world was magic. For the first time, I had visual access to the world that film and printed material could only hint at. Overnight, the world shrank to the size of a base pad in our living room.
Now that I think back, the word “danger” was also attached to TV. As a kid, September 9, 1956, Sunday evening, was one of the biggest days in my life. Elvis Presley appeared live on the Ed Sullivan Show. Back then, rock ‘n’ roll was considered dangerous, and Elvis was the king of rock ‘n’ roll. I never understood why it was dangerous, and I still don’t.
Anyway, to learn more about the dangers of the “Net Generation,” I clicked on the link Jan provided and watched Bullen’s archived webinar. I dreaded the thought of sitting through a lecture in linear, chronological fashion, from start to finish. I seldom ever do that for any reading other than novels and shortstories. I scan more than read and can get the gist out of, say, an article, in a few minutes. If there’s anything worth pursuing, I double back to key places for more info. Thus, watching a 50-minute lecture that I could have read in minutes was torture. But I decided to gaman. Gaman is the Japanese word for endure, and it seems to capture the ordeal a lot more accurately.
This is what I learned: Basically, the real danger for Bullen isn’t the “Net Generation” per se. It’s the impact that it might have on instructional practice in higher ed that concerns him. The argument goes something like this: If the “Net Generation” is truly different, then colleges would have to change instructional practices to accommodate the new learning style. It’s this need to change that represents a danger for Bullen and other college educators. (However, this causal relationship seems to be a non sequitur, at least to me. Why, I wonder, would colleges feel compelled to radically change proven practices to accommodate a generation that may or may not be different? Colleges always have the option to reject change.)
Thus, if Bullen and others like him can prove that the “Net Generation” is a sham, a fake, a myth, then all’s right with the world and college professors, administrators, and staff can continue as they have for the last century and a half without fear — adding an electronic bauble here and an internet gadget there in their aging classrooms and lecture halls.
So, how do they go about proving that it’s all a lie? Well, as academics, they turn to their favorite weapon. Research.
They claim that proponents of the term, “Net Generation,” haven’t done the research, that their arguments are built of sand and even a cursory step into their flimsy assumptions will bring them down. In other words, they don’t have hard numbers, and without them, their views are like sandcastles, easily obliterated.
Thus, when I listened to Bullen’s lecture, I paid special attention to his research because, unlike his adversaries, he apparently had done his homework. However, when he finally arrived at the point where he would share the review of literature that supported his claim, he was suddenly aware of time and skipped through the slides so quickly that I wasn’t able to read them. Not a problem, I thought. Since the video was a recording, I could return to those slides later.
When he arrived at this own research, I expected him to go into more depth since this had to be the primary proof for his claim. However, he went through the methods and procedures so quickly that I thought I had missed the most critical part of a study such as this — the subjects. After all, this was an investigation to determine if there were any significant difference between two supposedly distinct populations — Net Gens and Non-Net Gens.
But I didn’t hear anything about the number of subjects, age ranges, class levels, or selection process. Did I miss it? I clicked on pause and tried to use the video scroll bar to move back to previous slides, but the feature was clunky and imprecise. I gave it up and decided to continue with the lecture. Surely subjects would come up again.
Toward the end of the lecture, Bullen responded to questions from the audience — typed into a chat box and read by the host, Brian Mulligan. The very last was what I wanted to hear, but suddenly Bullen’s memory was less than precise about the subjects in the study. He faltered and seemed, to me, to be vague and evasive.
Despite the awkward scrolling, I returned to earlier segments, especially those that presented supporting studies. I was surprised that Bullen provided few if any details to follow up on the studies. And I couldn’t find a list of works cited. After quick Google searches, I could find only a few of the documents.
OK, I thought. This was a 50-minute webinar with slides so it’s reasonable to assume that some of the details would be omitted. These were critical in my eyes, but I can understand that they may not be as important for Bullen and others. In any case, he referred the audience to a written version of the study, “Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation Is Not the Issue” by Bullen, Morgan, and Qayyum (Canadian Journal of Learning Technology, 30 Sep. 2010), which would provide the details. I’ll find the info there.
When I logged in to the study, my first question was, Who were the subjects? I googled and quickly learned that they were students in 14 courses at British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). Out of a 43,000 student body, 435 participated. And, surprisingly, level 1 and 2 courses were eliminated because, Bullen et al. explain, “these were courses taken mainly by first-year students. These first-year students were removed from the sample because the survey was being administered early in a new academic year. Most first-year students would have little experience at the institution to draw on to complete the survey” (7). This decision seemed odd to me since, by the researchers’ logic, the first-years would be the least “contaminated” group. For a study such as this, prior learning could be a confounding factor that jeopardizes validity. That is, the results may be attributable to variables other than generational differences. As it were, those in the actual sample were upper-level students who were already immersed and experienced in “the program structures and cohort models at the institution [which] require 25 to 35 weekly classroom hours” (13).
Since BCIT is a technical institute, the students were from technology-oriented courses — see the table below. Thus, they can’t be considered representative of all college students. In fact, the only meaningful generalizations would be narrowed to non-level 1 students in similarly intense technical colleges. The authors mention this limitation in the written report of the study, but Bullen fails to make it clear in the webinar, leaving the impression that the results are generalizable to all colleges.
The year 1982 was used as the cutoff. The Net Gens, born in 1982 or later, would have been 28 or younger at the time of the study. The Non-Net Gens were 29 or older. There were 323 Net Gens and 91 Non-Net Gens, for a 78%-22% split. This huge disparity in numbers surprised me. A more even split, I would think, would be a goal since number of respondents could impact outcomes. For example, Non-Net Gens who were less technically inclined might have systematically refused to participate in the study. Furthermore, in his response to the age question at the end of the webinar, Bullen said the ages ranged from 18 to mid-50s. According to the paper report, the average age was 24.1 years, which probably means few were in their 40s and 50s. A more even distribution of ages might have affected the results.
In his attack on Net Gen advocates, Bullen was especially critical of generalizations built on poor sampling practices. Yet his own sampling raises questions. For example, the subjects, despite age differences, appear to be from the same population by virtue of their fields of study (technical), study habits, and immersion in “the program structures and cohort models at the institution.” Thus, any absence of significant differences could be attributed to a lack of true randomness in the sampling pool.
Furthermore, the study reports that the students, regardless of generation, were content with the quality and types of technology used in their courses. Yet, in “Are Digital Natives a Myth or Reality?: Students’ Use of Technologies for Learning” (11 Dec. 2008), which Bullen cites in support of his position, Margaryan and Littlejohn warn that their “study shows that students’ attitudes to learning appear to be influenced by the approaches adopted by their lecturers. Far from demanding lecturers change their practice, students appear to conform to fairly traditional pedagogies, albeit with minor uses of technology tools that deliver content” (1). In other words, Net Gens might have been taking their cue from the way classes are run at BCIT. Had they had opportunites to learn under different conditions, e.g., social networking in completely online learning environments, they might have responded differently.
In another study, “The ‘Digital Natives’ Debate: A Critical Review of the Evidence” (British Journal of Educational Technology, 2008), cited in Bullen’s webinar in support of his position, Bennett, Maton, and Kervin say that their “evidence points to differences in the ways young people use technology inside and outside of school, and suggests that school use of the Internet can be frustrating, but there is little basis to conclude that these differences are causing widespread and profound disengagement in learning” (781). In other words, the fact that students aren’t complaining about the technology in their BCIT classes doesn’t mean there are no differences between the generations. In fact, the implication is that the use of technology within schools may not be an appropriate variable in measuring the differences between generations. The real differences may be outside the context of rigidly controlled college classrooms.
Bullen also cites “The Literature on Young People and Their Information Behaviour: Work Package II” (18 Oct. 2007) in his Webinar. The authors, Williams and Rowlands, say that “all (10) of the studies which looked at young adults, were university-based. As Large (2005) has pointed out, ‘In comparisons between young people and adults, …[research] … has focused very heavily on university students, who may not be the most interesting group to compare with children and teens'” (6). The implication here is that Net Gens, as a whole, may have significant in-group differences. Bullen also makes this point, but having made it, he fails to follow up on the possibility that a different subpopulation of Net Gens, perhaps in their early teens, might differ significantly from Non-Net Gens.
Williams and Rowlands also warn about problems with sampling: “As can be seen, virtually half (24/49) of research studies reviewed had sample sizes of 50 or below. Indeed, of the 15 studies with 100 plus subjects, five represent what is almost certainly the same sample of 188 children aged 4 to 18 years, from various schools in the Whitley Bay area of the UK, reported on by Shenton and Dixon (2002, 2003a, 2003b, 2003c, 2004).” Yet, in the webinar, Bullen fails to mention the authors’ concern about generalizability based on small sample sizes or poor sampling procedures.
So who is Mark Bullen and why does he view Net Gens as a threat? In the first three paragraphs on his “about me” page in his personal blog, we learn that he is the dean of the Learning and Teaching Centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT). Prior to that, he was the Associate and Acting Director of the Distance Education and Technology department at the University of British Columbia (UBC) and the Director of the Centre for Managing and Planning E-Learning (MAPLE). In short, he has invested a lot of his time and the colleges’ resources in developing and maintaining current practices, and one has to wonder if this track record might explain his efforts to defend the status quo against the real or imagined dangers that the Net Gens represent.
I question the oversimplification of the issue of technological change. Regardless of whether or not Net Gens are different, colleges ought to be looking at ways to use technology to improve learning. In other words, change and improvement, as goals, are independent of generational differences or similarities. To use the lack of difference as justification for continuing business as usual is missing the point of technology altogether. Technology is here to stay, and its presence will only grow exponentially in the coming months and years. This fact alone ought to motivate educators to explore ways to adapt or adopt it in innovative ways. The quibble about Net Gens is, at best, a distraction.
Throughout the webinar and the coauthored article, Bullen inexplicably places a premium on some forms of research and rejects others as worthless. Yet, a closer look at what he refers to as “research” reveals what amounts to reviews of literature masquerading as research and studies with limited generalizability and often conflicting or confounding findings. In each case, the “research” has limited usefulness for teachers in the field. There are also problems with the validity of survey designs that need to be addressed.
Bullen’s dismissal of research methods that are also used by classroom teachers is unfortunate. Personal and shared observations, experiences, anecdotal evidence, informal studies, etc. can be extremely effective as research tools and have been used for ages by teachers. They are often more relevant than huge, expensive, formal studies that were conducted under remote conditions that simply can’t be replicated in a teacher’s classroom. Teachers can design and carry out informal research of their own to test different approaches, hunches, resources, etc. in the confines of their classroom. What they learn can enhance their practice, and when shared with others by word of mouth or publication, the ensuing dialogue can be invaluable. In fact, in my experience, this is the type of research that’s the most effective and, in the long run, sustainable. Change begins, in other words, with a teacher identifying a problem in her classroom, analyzing it, adapting, adopting, or inventing solutions, testing them, sharing the results with colleagues, etc. She doesn’t call it “research,” but that’s exactly what it is. In fact, this is what teaching is all about, day in and day out, and this is what makes it the world’s most challenging profession.
Despite the fact that the “Net Generation” might be a myth, students younger than 30 who are comfortable and proficient in ICT for personal and extracurricular purposes provide an opportunity for further study. Colleges should view them as an asset rather than a threat. If the Net Gens are significantly different from older generations, then colleges have all the more reason to open their arms to change. How, exactly, do they use ICT outside of classroom situations? How can these practices be incorporated into formal learning? Do they provide the foundation for radically new visions of what a college can be? If yes, what are those visions? If no, what needs to be changed before they can become useful tools for learning?
Finally, for what it’s worth, I believe the “Net Generation” is not a myth. It’s probably true that there are many exceptions, but as a whole, I believe people born in the last 30 (or even 40) years are different from those who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s. I don’t have hard numbers so this is an opinion, but it’s an opinion based on 35 years in the college classroom and on being a father of four children. The difference isn’t so much in their ability to do or not do the things that I consider ICT savvy. It’s in their expectations and view of the world. For them, anytime-anywhere communication is a fact of life.
For them, photo albums, favorite music and videos, address books, friends, file cabinets and files, personal journals, phone books, shops, news, movies, restaurants, travel agencies, dictionaries, encyclopedias, language translators, novels, books, periodicals, exotic places in the world, romance, games, museums, classes, course grades, teachers, counselors, advisors, tutors, librarians, doctors, lawyers, politicians, government services, college catalogs, college schedules of classes, tax forms, applications and reservations for driver’s exams, live sports events, TV programs, music shops, radio, maps, telephones, social networks, calendars, schedules — all are online and accessible via tiny shirt-pocket-sized personal communications devices such as the iPhone. And these are two-way. They can interact with anyone from anywhere either synchronously or asynchronously, and they can do so with photos and videos, which they’ve shot themselves with their iPhones, as well as text.
Does this make them different? Well, think about it. Bullen’s warnings notwithstanding, we don’t need research for this. Their sense of space is radically different. By removing the face-to-face (F2F) dimension from communications, they no longer need all the accoutrements that go along with F2F interactions. Their sense of time is radically different. They can find information about almost anything from anywhere in the world, 24-7. They can do so instantly.
What are the implications for colleges? The most obvious is that classrooms and offices are no longer necessary. Their functions can be transferred to ICT devices. This doesn’t mean that colleges should abandon their buildings and campuses, but it does mean that they ought to begin looking at ways to use the new media to facilitate learning by a new generation of students for whom anytime-anywhere is a reality and not just an option.
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