#digitalnatives and #edtech and #woolongong- The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology, Bennett et al Feb 2008

I blogged the other day on a recent paper on the myth of the digital native. Here is another paper, by Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin, from nearly a decade ago, on the same theme – and equally trenchant:

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.

On an entirely different note, the authors are/were affiliated with the University of Woolongong. Recent days have seen the death of Geoff Mack, who wrote the song “I’ve Been Everywhere” Originally a list of Australian placenames :

The song inspired versions internationally – the best known being Johnny Cash’s and The Simpsons’ – but the wittiest alternative version is this (NB – Dapto is a few miles from Wollongong)

Anyway, back the digital natives. Bennet et al begin with a quote from Marcel Proust:

The one thing that does not change is that at any and every time it appears that there have been
‘great changes’.
Marcel Proust, Within a Budding Grove

The authors summarise what a digital native is supposed to be like – and the not exactly extensive evidence base for their existence:

The claim made for the existence of a generation of ‘digital natives’ is based on two
main assumptions in the literature, which can be summarised as follows:

1. Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated
knowledge of and skills with information technologies.
2. As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.

In the seminal literature on digital natives, these assertions are put forward with limited
empirical evidence (eg, Tapscott, 1998), or supported by anecdotes and appeals to
common-sense beliefs (eg, Prensky, 2001a). Furthermore, this literature has been referenced,
often uncritically, in a host of later publications (Gaston, 2006; Gros, 2003;
Long, 2005; McHale, 2005; Skiba, 2005). There is, however, an emerging body of
research that is beginning to reveal some of the complexity of young people’s computer
use and skills.

No one denies that a lot of young people use a lot of technology – but not all:

In summary, though limited in scope and focus, the research evidence to date indicates
that a proportion of young people are highly adept with technology and rely on it for a
range of information gathering and communication activities. However, there also
appears to be a significant proportion of young people who do not have the levels of access or technology skills predicted by proponents of the digital native idea. Such generalisations about a whole generation of young people thereby focus attention on
technically adept students. With this comes the danger that those less interested and less able will be neglected, and that the potential impact of socio-economic and cultural factors will be overlooked. It may be that there is as much variation within the digital native generation as between the generations.

It is often suggested that children who are merrily exploring the digital world are ground down with frustration by not having the same access to computers in school. This is part of a more general (with familiar rhetoric for the health IT world) demand for transformation (the word “disruptive” in its modern usage had not quite caught on in 2008) As is often the case, the empirical evidence (and also, I would say, a certain degree of common sense) is not with the disrupters:

The claim we will now examine is that current educational systems must change in
response to a new generation of technically adept young people. Current students have
been variously described as disappointed (Oblinger, 2003), dissatisfied (Levin & Arafeh,
2002) and disengaged (Prensky, 2005a). It is also argued that educational institutions
at all levels are rapidly becoming outdated and irrelevant, and that there is an urgent
need to change what is taught and how(Prensky, 2001a; Tapscott, 1998). For example,
Tapscott (1999) urges educators and authorities to ‘[g]ive students the tools, and they
will be the single most important source of guidance on how to make their schools relevant and effective places to learn’ (p. 11).Without such a transformation, commentators
warn, we risk failing a generation of students and our institutions face imminent

However, there is little evidence of the serious disaffection and alienation among students
claimed by commentators. Downes’ (2002) study of primary school children
(5–12 years old) found that home computer use was more varied than school use and
enabled children greater freedom and opportunity to learn by doing. The participants
did report feeling limited in the time they were allocated to use computers at school and
in the way their use was constrained by teacher-directed learning activities. Similarly,
Levin and Arafeh’s (2002) study revealed students’ frustrations at their school Internet
use being restricted, but crucially also their recognition of the school’s in loco parentis
role in protecting them from inappropriate material. Selwyn’s (2006) student participants
were also frustrated that their freedom of use was curtailed at school and ‘were
well aware of a digital disconnect but displayed a pragmatic acceptance rather than the
outright alienation from the school that some commentators would suggest’ (p. 5).

In 2008 Bennett et al summarised similar issues relating to students actual rather than perceived technical adeptness and net savviness to the 2016 authors:

Furthermore, questions must be asked about the relevance to education of the everyday
ICTs skills possessed by technically adept young people. For example, it cannot be
assumed that knowing how to look up ‘cheats’ for computer games on the Internet
bears any relation to the skills required to assess a website’s relevance for a school
project. Indeed, existing research suggests otherwise. When observing students interacting
with text obtained from an Internet search, Sutherland-Smith (2002) reported
that many were easily frustrated when not instantly gratified in their search for immediate
answers and appeared to adopt a ‘snatch and grab philosophy’ (p. 664). Similarly,
Eagleton, Guinee and Langlais (2003) observed middle-school students often making
‘hasty, random choices with little thought and evaluation’ (p. 30).
Such research observes shallow, random and often passive interactions with text,which
raise significant questions about what digital natives can actually do as they engage
with and make meaning from such technology. As noted by Lorenzo and Dziuban
(2006), concerns over students’ lack of critical thinking when using Internet-based
information sources imply that ‘students aren’t as net savvy as we might have assumed’
(p. 2). This suggests that students’ everyday technology practices may not be directly
applicable to academic tasks, and so education has a vitally important role in fostering
information literacies that will support learning.

Again, this is a paper I could quote bits from all day – so here are a couple of paragraphs from towards the end that summarises their (and my) take on the digital natives:

Neither dismissive scepticism nor uncritical advocacy enable understanding of whether
the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and in what ways education might need
to change to accommodate it. As we have discussed in this paper, research is beginning
to expose arguments about digital natives to critical enquiry, but much more needs to be
done. Close scrutiny of the assumptions underlying the digital natives notion reveals
avenues of inquiry that will inform the debate. Such understanding and evidence are
necessary precursors to change.

The claim that there is a distinctive new generation of students in possession of sophisticated
technology skills and with learning preferences for which education is not
equipped to support has excited much recent attention. Proponents arguing that education
must change dramatically to cater for the needs of these digital natives have
sparked an academic form of a ‘moral panic’ using extreme arguments that have lacked
empirical evidence.

Finally, after posting the prior summary of Kirschner and deBruckyne’s paper, I searched hashtag #digitalnatives on Twitter and – self-promotingly – replied to some of the original tweeters with a link to the paper (interestingly quite a few #digitalnatives tweets were links to discussions of the Kirschner/deBruckyne paper) Some were very receptive, but others were markedly defensive. Obviously a total stranger coming along and pedantically pointing out your hashtag is about something that doesn’t exist may not be the most polite way of interacting on twitter – but also quite a lot of us are quite attached to the myth of the digital native


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