Digital Natives vs. the Net Generation

Blended Learning 2007 (Part 2)

And now, belatedly, time to write up my reflections from Blended Learning all those weeks ago… knowing I’ve got a paper and a half to write today as well.

The subtitle of the conference was ‘Supporting the Net Generation Learner’, which I’ll admit did leave me a little worried that the general message I would hear would be a simple re-iteration of all the usual Digital Natives tropes and clichés. Instead, through the different talks, presentations and lunch and break-time discussions the message was quite different. The Net Generation needs our help.

In this post I’ll try and set out some of the differences between the concepts of ‘Digital Natives’ and ‘Net Generation’, and why they matter.

First, I know that my understanding of the terms is not a universally accepted definitive one – and that they are at times used interchangeably. However, both terms have a range of connotations, and these can make them quite distinct. Making this comparison is also an opportunity for me to revisit many of my previous posts as I try and weave them together.

Connotations of Digital Native

The phrase ‘digital native’ implies fluency, that digital natives are all capable, able and fluent users of technology. Some of the literature on digital natives will go further and claim that they are all fluent at ‘programming’ – blurring the very significant gap between programming an iPod to play your favourite tracks and programming a computer in C++.

We know this is not true. For example, are they really tech savy? They might still be from the wrong side of the digital divide, they really might. And if they are from the right side of the divide, they still might not be capable of making sensible judgments about what they read on web.

The dangerous part of making assumptions about digital natives, is that is ascribes a level of fluency and understanding that is likely not there. And if this mis-information is used to inform education policy and practice then we risk not providing the support that kids really need.

The other (yes there is more!) negative connotation of digital native is the ‘digital immigrant’. Some authors go so far as to explicitly claim that being a digital immigrant means that you will never be a fluent user of technology. To me this seems counter-productive in the extreme – what is to be gained from telling teachers and parents that they will never, ever, be fluent users of technology? Digital super-powers which don’t exist have been ascribed to the youth, and then comes this message to deter older people, who are capable of learning to use technology, from even trying.

Connotations of Net Generation

In contrast, ‘Net Generation’ says that the differences are a generation-gap thing. And generation gaps are something that we are getting used to. Younger generations may like different music or dress different and will be more caught up in a range of trends and fashions, but generally speaking its another generation of youth. Instead of being defined by the musical or political environment around, this generation is being defined by the pervasive technology that surrounds (most) of them.

The environment now includes a huge range of social networking tools. These are easy to use, and let people keep in touch and communicate over the internet. They do not require superpowers to use – in fact the most common use of Web 2.0 is just another avenue for people to do what they would do anyway… chat to friends. OK, they can post pictures and video clips, but the underlying behaviour is the same, just the tools are different. Don’t agree? How about this hypothetical rumination on the ‘Telephone Native’:

“It’s amazing, they just pick up the phone and tap in numbers completely naturally and before you know it, they are talking to one another! I mean in my day, I had to sit down and write a letter and then post it – or actually leave my house. This new technology is amazing. Who knows where it will lead.”

Amazing indeed.

Or, how about this from a piece last month on cyber-bullying on the BBC.

“Bullying has entered the digital age. The impulses behind it are the same, but the effect is magnified. In the past, the materials of bullying would have been whispered, shouted or passed around.

“Now, with a few clicks, a photo, video or a conversation can be shared with hundreds via e-mail or millions through a website, online profile or blog posting,” concluded report author Amanda Lenhart.

Or comments from one of the presentations at BL2007 on students’ information seeking behaviour:

Just as when we had a question about a coursework, our first approach would be to ask another student – and only if that failed would we look to a tutor or the course yearbook, todays learners do the same. You can have an online discussion forum, but chances are that students will often IM other students first, and may only use forums as a last resort…

(paraphrased from, I think, Georgia Georgiou’s presentation “Take a break: How can the net generation learners become reflective lifelong learners”). I can attest anecdotally to the truth of this… this year the students in a particular group of friends each submitted a coursework where they got stumped on the same particular problem and didn’t realise that the solution was in the lecture notes (available online) and had also been asked and answered in the class discussion forum. They had clearly pooled resources and tried to work together… but their approach (get help from friends, ignore the official sources) was as poor as that of similar students in my generation.

Beyond the connotations

This post has already got a bit out of hand so I’ll try and be brief. Past the connotations attached to terms, descriptions of Digital Natives and the Net Generation tend to have a lot in common, but the differences are often there – if a little subtle.

Both views accept that students today multi-task more. Writings on Digital Natives celebrate this. Discussing the learning support needs of the Net Generation, the lack of concentration and the surface approach to learning engendered by this lack of focus are issues raised.

Digital Natives are considered masters of the technological domain. The Net Generation are surrounded by ubiquitous communication technologies, but we can question the degree to which they have mastery over it, or an unnecessary dependence on it.

When discussing learning support for Digital Natives, authors appear to consider how youth are different and how we should adapt our teaching and ways of life to suit them. The dominant theme at the BL2007 conference certainly agreed that todays youth are different. Some of these differences show as reduced attention spans and a greater tendency towards surface and strategic approaches to learning (the strange idea of ‘just-in-time-learning’, where information is gained just in time, written down or applied then quite likely forgotten just as fast – a bit like learning, only without the learning).

Yes, we have to engage learners who are more accustomed to the visual than the textual, but we also need to try and help them learn better how to engage in deeper learning.

Digital Natives and the Net Generation both exist in a rarely-ceasing flow of information – television, video games, mobile phones, texting, IM’s, social networking. But are they informing themselves to death?

The end?

Despite the length of this post, this is my first real attempt at drawing a number of threads from this blog together. Comments appreciated.

You can also find many more links to discussion about Digital Natives and Immigrants here:

5 thoughts on “Digital Natives vs. the Net Generation

  1. Tony Forster

    My reflections on trying to teach teachers vs. kids.

    Kids are more adaptable learners than adults, I expect they always have been. They have less investment in their mental models than adults and are more likely to adapt their models in the face of discordant information. In similar situations adults can show stress, anger and withdrawal.

    What has changed is the availability and rate of change of information. We grew up in a time when information was a scarce resource. Books were almost worshipped. Kids are developing strategies as a result of an oversupply of information. They skim the resources, use information and discard it. We should too.

    Where does that leave teachers? There is an endless supply of technology and information that is as new to the teachers as the kids. The kids will cope better, they are pre-programmed learning machines. One response is Sylvia Martinez’ GenYes approach of empowering kids. Another is to focus on metaskills. Another is to identify and teach the underlying universals.

  2. sylvia martinez

    I just did a blog about trying not to color what we teach kids with adult prejudices and emotional responses to change.

    We confuse kids’ facility with technology with fluency. In my experience, the kids who really know what they are doing technology are the exceptions, the rest of them just muddle through. They just do it quickly and don’t get upset when things don’t work.

    All of this means we need teachers with imagination and creativity more than ever, not less. Unfortunately this generation is being left to teach themselves in some misguided misinterpretation of their supposed skills. It’s an abdication of responsibility.

    Of course we need to treat them differently. Every child is different, not just generationally, but individually. Of course that means a teacher has to be aware of their worldview — when has this not been true?

    Plus, it’s our own fault that kids have no research skills, school traditionally has set itself up to be the single, unquestioned authority – teacher, textbook, quiz — all taking place in a closed classroom. Before, kids could NOT go to the library and NOT find the dozens of sources there. Today, kids can NOT search effectively and NOT learn about millions of sources–really, what’s changed?

    We dazzle ourselves with this new technology, pretending that something has changed and that by studying this change, we will magically find solutions to problems that have nothing to do with the change.

  3. Daniel Livingstone

    Agree with all of that Sylvia.

    Re the skimming, grabbing bits of information then discarding it… When appropriate it IS effective. Its basically a very strategic approach – What do I need to know RIGHT NOW. Grab it, use it, don’t bother to learn it. It is a skill alright, but its a way of (largely) avoiding learning.

    Lets replace the term ‘information’ with ‘knowledge’, it gives it a slightly different emphasis.

    I don’t really care whether someone recalls in minute details the names of function calls in the OpenGL API. Thats information easily gained when needed.

    But for my students it’s essential that they understand enough of how OpenGL works (and C++) that they can apply it, create original programs and fix problems in their code.

    This takes time to learn, and cannot be done ‘just-in-time’ the week before the deadline.

    The students I was referring to were using a strategic approach to 3D programming. It was unsuccessful. The skills, knowledge and understanding required for many tasks are not simply collections of information. Its not even the metaskills required to learn the skills and knowledge, its a deep(er) understanding and learning of the particlar skills etc of a particular domain.

    If kids dont engage in deep learning while at school, they can’t be expected to have the skills to engage in deep learning when they get to university. A focus on meta-skills is worthwhile, but I think it harmful if schools avoid teaching them how to learn in depth – which can only be done by learning something in depth.

    I (sadly) took a strategic approach to subjects I didn’t enjoy much when I was an undergrad. And I greatly regret it now, as very often I find myself wishing I knew how to do something I’ve already been taught but actually lack the skills to apply. In my case this is often maths or math related. The strategic skills are themselves are on occaision useful though… I just wish I’d used them less as an undergrad.

    Strategic learning is not new, but it appears (by many accounts) to becoming more commonplace and more the norm. Reflection is seen by many as an important part of the learning process, but one which modern technologies leave people with very little time for.

    ps Neil Postman might have argued that even _we_ grew up with an oversupply of information. And one alternative answer that might be appropriate from time to time would be to switch off the supply instead of skimming it at ever faster rates.

    Take time out with a book

    Im about to do just that – for the next two weeks. See ya all.

  4. Shawn

    Just a quick comment – I’ve taken to calling my students (online, distance ed high school) ‘digital wood elves’. Like Tolkien’s wood elves in The Hobbit, they are surrounded by all of this digital magic, but they don’t think critically about what they are using, how it works, or what it implies… of course, I suppose that that’s my job to teach them!

  5. Tony Forster

    Thanks Daniel
    I agree with your comments on the importance of deep learning and reflection.

    Never thought that I grew up with an oversupply of information.


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