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This is part 2 of my posting on the myths around the popular concept of the digital native. In this follow up commentary I post several links to research reports that challenge the validity of Prensky's original distinction between digital natives and digital immigrants.
The first paper comes from a good colleague of mine, Dr Neil Selwyn, from the London Knowledge Lab. I have met Neil on several occasions and he stands out in the field as one of the true critics of the growth of ICT in education from a scholarly perspective. He points out in an article entitled 'The Digital Native - Myth and Reality' that 'a misplaced technological and biological determinism underpins many current portrayals of children, young people and digital technology'.
Dr Selwyn goes on to say:
"It is clear that we would do well to avoid the excesses of the digital native debate and instead concentrate on enhancing our understandings of the realities of technology use in the contemporary society" (Selwyn, 2008, p.12).
This is not a pragmatic stance but rather one that seeks to look beyond the hyperbole of technology use in education. Notably, Neil has written two articles about the adoption of ICT in New Zealand education from a policy perspective in journals that I have edited. For citation purposes the full reference to the above paper is:
Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native: myth and reality. ASLIB Proceedings, 61 (4), pp.364-379.
A year earlier Dr Sue Bennett and colleagues called on the need to critically review the evidence for the so-called digital native in an article published in the British Journal of Educational Technology. The authors wrote in their abstract about the dangers of uncritically accepting a new moral panic:
"The idea that a new generation of students is entering the education system has excited recent attention among educators and education commentators. Termed ‘digital natives’ or the ‘Net generation’, these young people are said to have been immersed in technology all their lives, imbuing them with sophisticated technical skills and learning preferences for which traditional education is unprepared. Grand claims are being made about the nature of this generational change and about the urgent necessity for educational reform in response. A sense of impending crisis pervades this debate.
However, the actual situation is far from clear. In this paper, the authors draw on the fields of education and sociology to analyse the digital natives debate. The paper presents and questions the main claims made about digital natives and analyses the nature of the debate itself. We argue that rather than being empirically and theoretically informed, the debate can be likened to an academic form of a ‘moral panic’. We propose that a more measured and disinterested approach is now required to investigate ‘digital natives’ and their implications for education."
The full study can be accessed through the following reference:
Bennett, S., Maton, K., Kervin, L. (2008). The 'digital natives debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, 39 (5), 775-786.
The lack of empirical evidence to support claims about digital natives is further explored in an Australian study by Dr Gregor Kennedy and colleagues on the Net-Generation. This collaborative ALTC funded project was framed around the assumption:
"That a so-called Net Generation of students is passing through our universities. Born roughly between 1980 and 1994 these students have been characterised as being technologically savvy, having grown up in an age where computers, mobile phones and the Internet are part of mainstream culture and society. A number of commentators have even suggested that educators – whom they label ‘digital immigrants’ – need to radically adjust their teaching and learning strategies to accommodate their ‘digital native’ students, predominantly by adopting and capitalising on the affordances of emerging technologies" (Educating the Net-Generation Handbook, 2009, p.5).
I was given a first hand introduction to Gregor's work when he gave a keynote address based on this study at the Fourth International Blended Learning Conference at the University of Hertfordshire, UK. A copy of Gregor's keynote presentation is available online through Elluminate.
Importantly, the study found limited evidence to support the notion that a homogenous group of Net Generation students, broadly adept with the latest technology, are entering universities. The report also found little evidence that technology usage patterns can be explained primarily on the basis of broad generational differences – dispelling the digital natives versus digital immigrants argument.
Instead, the report notes that any differences in students’ technology usage patterns were more likely to be related to the university they were attending and a range of other key demographic variables including their gender, whether they were domestic or international residents, and their socio-economic status. Notably, technology use did not vary significantly according to subject discipline. The full report is published in the Net-Generation Handbook and a summary of the major findings was also published in the following journal article:
Kennedy, G., Judd, T., Churchward, A., & Gray, K. (2008). First year students' experience with technology: Are they really digital natives? Australasian Journal of Educational Technology, 24 (1), 108-122.
A research team led by Dr Chris Jones in the UK reports similar findings in a study of students at five universities. I heard first hand about this study in a presentation Chris gave at M-2009 -- the International Council for Open and Distance Education Conference in Maastricht. This study also appears in the journal Computers & Education in which the authors write:
"This article reports key findings from the first phase of a research project investigating Net generation age students as they encounter e-learning at five universities in England. We take a critical view of the idea of a distinct generation which has been described using various terms including Net generation and Digital Natives and explore age related differences amongst first year university students. The article draws on evidence from a survey of first year undergraduates studying a range of pure and applied subjects.
Overall we found a complex picture amongst first-year students with the sample population appearing to be a collection of minorities. These included a small minority that made little use of some technologies and larger minorities that made extensive use of new technologies. Often the use of new technology was in ways that did not fully correspond with the expectations that arise from the Net generation and Digital Natives theses. The article concludes that whilst there are strong age related variations amongst the sample it is far to simplistic to describe young first-year students born after 1983 as a single generation. The authors find that the generation is not homogenous in its use and appreciation of new technologies and that there are significant variations amongst students that lie within the Net generation age band."
It should come as no surprise that there are variations and differences within specific age cohorts. Again, the concept of the digital native is shown to be relatively naive. Here is the full reference to this study:
Jones, C., Ramanau, R., Cross, S., & Healing, G. (2010). Net generation or Digital Natives: is there a distinct new generation entering university? Computers & Education, 54 (3), 722-732.
The latest publication to discredit the concept of the digital native recently appeared in the British Educational Research Journal. Helsper and Eynon (2010) report:
"Generational differences are seen as the cause of wide shifts in our ability to engage with technologies and the concept of the digital native has gained popularity in certain areas of policy and practice. This paper provides evidence, through the analysis of a nationally representative survey in the UK, that generation is only one of the predictors of advanced interaction with the Internet. Breadth of use, experience, gender and educational levels are also important, indeed in some cases more important than generational differences, in explaining the extent to which people can be defined as a digital native.
The evidence provided suggests that it is possible for adults to become digital natives, especially in the area of learning, by acquiring skills and experience in interacting with information and communication technologies. This paper argues that we often erroneously presume a gap between educators and students and that if such a gap does exist, it is definitely possible to close it."
Once again, there is more to the digital skill divide than a generational gap. The full paper is available through the following reference:
Helsper, E., & Eynon, R. (2010). Digital natives: where is the evidence? British Educational Research Journal, 36 (3), 503-520.
In summary, what can we take from this work? What is the lesson from this research? Put simply, the digital native is a myth. The other major lesson is the need to be wary of sweeping generalisations. Many teachers, academics and researchers fell into the trap of promoting crude binary thinking in relation to the adoption of new digital technologies. Changes that technology brings to our lives are inherently complex and multi-faceted; and we should not underestimate the impact society (and education) has on the nature of technology. In this regard, technology both changes and is changed by society.
The nature of this dynamic relationship does not mean that we should ignore the experiences and expectations of today's learners and the potential of new digital technologies to enhance university-level learning and teaching. Instead, we just need to be cautious about the use of technology for educational purposes and remain open to all manner of possibilities and unexpected outcomes.
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