Open myths, closed responses about ‘digital natives’

The latest issue of the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning (Volume 26, Issue 5 – October 2010 – Wiley Online Library) has a special section of articles on various aspects of the “net generation” and “digital natives”. This is a topic I’ve written about a couple of times, noting that while students may be facile with technology it doesn’t mean they know anything about it. This myth creates misunderstandings and false generational prejudices that may seduce educators into feeling that youth don’t need their guidance and wisdom in this area, when in fact, the exact opposite is true. It also creates excuses for teachers to deny that technology must be incorporated into classrooms. (see Digital natives/immigrants – how much do we love this slogan?)

The Journal has some fabulous looking articles – but I can’t read them. Most of you can’t read them either. It’s a closed journal. Sorry, only for academics and researchers. Here’s the problem. The “digital native” myth is being perpetuated in popular culture, books, and keynote speeches, all easily accessible. These rebuttals, well-researched (I assume), peer-reviewed, and not sensationalized, are locked behind closed doors.

So when teachers hear that the curriculum is being modified to meet the needs of “digital natives” – what can they do? When educators present at conferences about this issue, should they cite the abstract to refute the silly (but free) sloganeering? When they talk to friends, neighbors, teachers, or the school board who think that kids “brains are different now” can they pull from a deep knowledge of brand new, relevant research? No – it’s not available.

I’ve taken the liberty to cut and paste the abstracts from the articles here. But’s that all we get!

Beyond the ‘digital natives’ debate: Towards a more nuanced understanding of students’ technology experiences Bennett, S. and Maton, K. – The idea of the ‘digital natives’, a generation of tech-savvy young people immersed in digital technologies for which current education systems cannot cater, has gained widespread popularity on the basis of claims rather than evidence. Recent research has shown flaws in the argument that there is an identifiable generation or even a single type of highly adept technology user. For educators, the diversity revealed by these studies provides valuable insights into students’ experiences of technology inside and outside formal education. While this body of work provides a preliminary understanding, it also highlights subtleties and complexities that require further investigation. It suggests, for example, that we must go beyond simple dichotomies evident in the digital natives debate to develop a more sophisticated understanding of our students’ experiences of technology. Using a review of recent research findings as a starting point, this paper identifies some key issues for educational researchers, offers new ways of conceptualizing key ideas using theoretical constructs from Castells, Bourdieu and Bernstein, and makes a case for how we need to develop the debate in order to advance our understanding.

Beyond natives and immigrants: exploring types of net generation students G. Kennedy, T. Judd, B. Dalgarno and J. Waycott – Previously assumed to be a homogenous and highly skilled group with respect to information and communications technology, the so-called Net Generation has instead been shown to possess a diverse range of technology skills and preferences. To better understand this diversity, we subjected data from 2096 students aged between 17 and 26 from three Australian universities to a cluster analysis. Through this analysis, we identified four distinct types of technology users: power users (14% of sample), ordinary users (27%), irregular users (14%) and basic users (45%). A series of exploratory chi-square analyses revealed significant associations between the different types of technology users and the university that students attended, their gender and age and whether the student was local or international. No associations were found for analyses related discipline area, socio-economic status or rurality of residence. The findings are discussed in light of the rhetoric associated with commentaries about the Net Generation, and suggestions about their implications for teaching and learning in universities are offered.

Net generation students: agency and choice and the new technologies C. Jones and G. Healing – Based on research investigating English first-year university students, this paper examined the case made for a new generation of young learners often described as the Net Generation or Digital Natives in terms of agency and choice. Generational arguments set out a case that links young people’s attitudes and orientations to their lifelong exposure to networked and digital technologies. This paper drew on interview data from mixed methods research to suggest that the picture is more complex than the equation of exposure to new technologies and a generational change of attitudes and capacities. Starting from the position that interaction with technology is mediated by activity and an intentional stance, we examined the choices students make with regard to the technologies they engage with. We explored the perceived constraints students face and the way they either comply or resist such constraints. We concluded that agency actively shapes student engagement with technology but that an adequate conception of agency must expand beyond the person and the self to include notions of collective agency identifying the meso level as an activity system that mediates between the students and their technological setting.

Debunking the ‘digital native’: beyond digital apartheid, towards digital democracy – This paper interrogates the currently pervasive discourse of the ‘net generation’ finding the concept of the ‘digital native’ especially problematic, both empirically and conceptually. We draw on a research project of South African higher education students’ access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) to show that age is not a determining factor in students’ digital lives; rather, their familiarity and experience using ICTs is more relevant. We also demonstrate that the notion of a generation of ‘digital natives’ is inaccurate: those with such attributes are effectively a digital elite. Instead of a new net generation growing up to replace an older analogue generation, there is a deepening digital divide in South Africa characterized not by age but by access and opportunity; indeed, digital apartheid is alive and well. We suggest that the possibility for digital democracy does exist in the form of a mobile society which is not age specific, and which is ubiquitous. Finally, we propose redefining the concepts ‘digital’, ‘net’, ‘native’, and ‘generation’ in favour of reclaiming the term ‘digitizen’.

via Journal of Computer Assisted Learning – Volume 26, Issue 5 – October 2010 – Wiley Online Library.


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