Saturday, March 20, 2010

Six Reasons to be Skeptical

Six reasons to be skeptical of the Net Gen discourse:

1. It exaggerates the gaps between adults and youth.
According to Henry Jenkins, adults are "seen as fumbling and hopelessly out of touch, and youth, seen as masterful". This encourages adults to feel helpless, and justifies "their decision not to know and not to care what happens to young people as they move into the on-line world." Ultimately it disempowers adults.

2. It hides more important intra-generational differences.
According to Reeves & Oh, research shows that "generational differences are weak as a researchable variable. " It also shows that differences in how learners use technology is often greater within an age cohort than it is between and that treating net generation learners as a homogeneous groups ignores these important differences. See Pedro (2009) and Kennedy et al. (2007) and (2008).

3. It ignores potentially important socio-economic and cultural differences.
Almost of all the claims about the net generation are based on observations of middle and upper class north American youth.

4. It ignores important second level digital divides.
By promoting the stereotype that all youth are sophisticated users of digital technology, the net gen discourse overlooks the inequalities in the capacity to use technology, skills and competencies required and information literacies. According to Thompson (2009)"Without attention to these potential second level digital divides, gaps and inequalities may widen over time despite concerted efforts to provide access to ICT"

5. It is based on unfounded assumptions about current approaches to teaching.
One of the key themes of the net generation discourse is that the current educational paradigm does not adequately deal with the needs of the net generation. The argument is that we need to move away from the current transmission mode of teaching to a more student-centered, interactive and collaborative mode. While there may still be a lot of this style of teaching, most public school education at the K-12 level moved away from the transmission mode over 20 years ago. In higher education we see the widespread use of case-based, problem-based, inquiry-based and experiential learning approaches.

6. The evidence doesn't support most of the key Net Gen claims.
Almost all of the claims of the net gen discourse are in popular media and if they are based on research, it is proprietary and full methodological details are not provided. All of the sound research that refutes the claims is published in scholarly journals and has been subject to peer review.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Researching the Net Generation: Separating Fact from Fiction

Elluminate Live presentation: March 17, 10 am PDT
Mark Bullen, Tannis Morgan, Adnan Qayyum


Generation is often used to explain and rationalize the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in higher education. However, a comprehensive review of the research and popular literature on the topic and an empirical study at one postsecondary institution in Canada suggest there are no significant generational differences in how learners say they use ICTs or their perceived behavioural characteristics. The results of this investigation add to a growing body of research that calls into question the prevailing net generation discourse that argues that generation can be used to explain the use of ICTs in higher education. This presentation will review and analyze the key net generation claims and the growing body of empirical research that contradicts the popular view of the net generation learners as being sophisticated users of digital technologies with unique needs.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Is Generation Really Relevant?

Norm Friesen has weighed in on the question of generation and education with his blog posting, Generations and Educational Change. In it he argues that the generation is not a very useful construct, at least in the way that is used in the popular discourse around the net generation. Drawing the work of Karl Mannheim, Friesen says, "as a sociological category, a generation is only one of a number of ways in which a society is layered, stratified or differentiated. Other forms of differentiation include race, gender and class. Of these, generation as a category is generally considered as providing the weakest basis for differentiation." He also quotes Reeves & Oh who conclude: "Generational differences are weak as a researchable variable in a manner similar to learning styles.." (p.303)

Friesen goes further in undermining the value of generation by pointing out that the coherence of generation is usually defined in terms of “a collective response to a traumatic event or catastrophe --like the 9/11 attacks" (Edmunds & Turner, 2002, p. 12). As Friesen say, "by comparison, the adoption of new media technologies (occurring at different rates for different classes, genders and nationalities) is not characterized by the cultural force or distinctiveness of an event such as an attack or disaster."

So I was surprised that, after dismissing generation as useful construct, Friesen concludes, "Tapscott and others are right to identify the issue of generations as highly relevant to education, but they are wrong to focus only on one generation in isolation from others and from the sociology of generations generally."

There is a growing body of excellent research that suggest quite clearly that generation is not the issue. Friesen refers to some of this in his blog posting but there is much more. As Reeves & Oh conclude:

"The bottom line on generational differences is that educational technology researchers should treat this variable as failing to meet the rigor of definition and measurement required for robust individual differences variables. The gross generalizations based on weak survey research and the speculations of profit-oriented consultants should be treated with extreme caution in a research and development context. (p. 303)

Edmunds, J. & Turner, B. (2002). Generations, Culture and Society. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Mannheim, K. (1953). The problem of generations. In Mannheim, K. (Ed.). Essays on the Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge Kegan Paul.(see:

Reeves, T. C., & Oh, E. J. (2008). Generation differences and educational technology research. In J. M. Spector, M. D. Merrill, J. J. G. van Merrienboer & M. P. Driscoll (Eds.), Handbook of research on educational communications and technology (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum. Pp. 295-303.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

German Study Casts Doubt on Net Gen Claims

Research out of Germany that investigated students’ use of Internet services, media types and e-learning preferences has concluded that the "vast army of internet-enthusiasts" that" was expected to descend upon the universities" has not yet appeared.

In a chapter in Looking Toward the Future of Technology-Enhanced Education: Ubiquitous Learning and the Digital Native, edited by Martin Ebner and Mandy Schiefner, Rolf Schulmeister says his results are "sobering for anyone – deceived by the steep rise of user numbers in Web 2.0 Communities – who assumed that a new era of university education was dawning with the rise of interactive environments." One of his key conclusions is consistent with the findings of our research that shows that students are very pragmatic and instrumental in their use of ICTs. It has "become apparent that education is not the primary purpose of media use and that there is no transfer from extensive computer experience to learning."

Read the Students, Internet, E-Learning and Web 2.0.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

New Study Highlights Superficiality of Digital Native Concept

One of our main criticisms of the digital native or net generation discourse is that presents a simplistic and superficial picture of an entire generation and ignores the complexity of technology use and its relationship to context. Eszter Hargittai has published an interesting study that reveals some of this complexity and provides compelling evidence for why we need to take a more nuanced approach to research in this area. Hargittai's study concludes that the premise that the net generation are universally knowledgeable about the web is not supported by the data, "rather, we observe systematic variation in online know-how even among a highly wired group of young adults based on user background...Overall, the results of this study show support for the importance of taking a more nuanced approach to studying the relationship of Internet use to social inequality. Far from being simply dependent on mere access, systematic differences are present in how people incorporate digital media into their lives even when we control for basic connectivity. Moreover, these differences hold even among a group of college students, precisely the type of population that popular rhetoric assumes to be universally wired and digitally savvy. These assumptions are not supported by the evidence, however.

Read the full article.


People who have grown up with digital media are often assumed to be universally savvy with information and communication technologies. Such assumptions are rarely grounded in empirical evidence, however. This article draws on unique data with information about a diverse group of young adults’ Internet uses and skills to suggest that even when controlling for Internet access and experiences, people differ in their online abilities and activities. Additionally, findings suggest that Internet know-how is not randomly distributed among the population, rather, higher levels of parental education, being a male, and being white or Asian American are associated with higher levels of Web-use skill. These user characteristics are also related to the extent to which young adults engage in diverse types of online activities. Moreover, skill itself is positively associated with types of uses. Overall, these findings suggest that even when controlling for basic Internet access, among a group of young adults, socioeconomic status is an important predictor of how people are incorporating the Web into their everyday lives with those from more privileged backgrounds using it in more informed ways for a larger number of activities.