The Myths of the Digital Generation

Henry Jenkins, Director of the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program and the John E. Burchard Professor of Humanities, interviews (Part One, Part Two) Elizabeth Soep, Research Director and Senior Producer for Youth Radio, and some of her coworkers. In the preface to the interview, he comments on problems with the term "Digital Generation." The term

  1. is "ahistorical," meaning that in every generation, youth have been technologically ahead of their parents;
  2. "collapses all young people into a so-called digital generation," forgetting the Columbine Generation myth and the Digital Divide of access and participation; and
  3. "ignores the degree that what's really powerful about most of the new forms of participatory culture of fans, bloggers, and gamers is that such affinity spaces allow young people and adults to interact with each other in new terms."

The interviews are worth reading for insight into "collegial pedagogy" between adults and children, and I'll look at that in a later post. But for now I'd like to emphasize points #1 and #2.

On #2, my classes (almost all ESL) have had a range of students: typical teenagers out of high school, single mothers, parents with children who have graduated from college, most working part-time, quite a few working full time, and the categories go on. Just looking at the teenagers, I've seen a few who have had accounts on Myspace or Xanga, but most of them didn't. One had actually signed up for an account with but had not used it and wasn't sure what to do with it.

On #1, it's obvious that cars are a recent invention, as are computers and calculators. My father showed me how to use a slide rule, but I bought a handheld calculator instead. I remember a contest on TV between someone using one of the first calculators and another using an abacus. The abacus won.

Perhaps because people forget the history of technological innovation, they exaggerate the differences between "digital natives" and "digital immigrants". Marc Prensky wrote,

They prefer their graphics before their text rather than the opposite.

An ancient proverb says that a picture is worth a thousand words. It is not new that people are visual. What is new is that we have a way of realizing our teaching visually in ways today that weren't available yesterday.

Prensky also wrote,

Unfortunately for our Digital Immigrant teachers, the people sitting in their classes grew up on the "twitch speed" of video games and MTV. They are used to the instantaneity of hypertext, downloaded music, phones in their pockets, a library on their laptops, beamed messages and instant messaging. They've been networked most or all of their lives.  They have little patience for lectures, step-by-step logic, and "tell-test" instruction. 

Are there many people who really prefer lectures? I remember sleeping through high school and many of my undergraduate college courses. Rather than the step-by-step procedures in manuals, I prefer just having someone show me what to do. I don't think I'm unique.

Although the pace of multitasking has reached a new high, it is not a new phenomenon. As Claudia Wallis in The multitasking generation states:

HUMAN BEINGS HAVE ALWAYS HAD A CAPACITY to attend to several things at once. Mothers have done it since the hunter-gatherer era--picking berries while suckling an infant, stirring the pot with one eye on the toddler. Nor is electronic multitasking entirely new: we've been driving while listening to car radios since they became popular in the 1930s. But there is no doubt that the phenomenon has reached a kind of warp speed in the era of Web-enabled computers, when it has become routine to conduct six IM conversations, watch American Idol on TV and Google the names of last season's finalists all at once.

Yes, youngsters multitask faster, but it's not new. And I would expect them to do it faster even if they hadn't grown up with it. After all, multitasking, like other physical and mental abilities, is age-related: it declines with age. The fact that "digital natives" multi-task "well" is a factor of age as well as being "digital."

As far as "twitch speed" goes, so what if "digital natives" can twitch. Are they learning anything as they twitch? In research reported on last year, Study: Multitasking hinders learning, twitch learning appears less effective:

"What's new is that even if you can learn while distracted, it changes how you learn"--making the learning "less efficient and useful," said Russell A. Poldrack, a psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

It was a small study, and it was downplayed by Stephen Downes. But APA Online reports that multitasking is less efficient. In an introductory psychology course of 137 students, Fried (see source below) looked at how using laptops in class affected learning. Having students fill out online surveys weekly, she found that

the negative influence of in-class laptop use is two-pronged; laptop use is negatively associated with student learning [according to course performance] and it poses a distraction to fellow students.

Wallis's article concurs. Here are some excepts:

The mental habit of dividing one's attention into many small slices has significant implications for the way young people learn, reason, socialize, do creative work and understand the world.

Decades of research (not to mention common sense) indicate that the quality of one's output and depth of thought deteriorate as one attends to ever more tasks.

the ability to multiprocess has its limits, even among young adults. When people try to perform two or more related tasks either at the same time or alternating rapidly between them, errors go way up, and it takes far longer--often double the time or more--to get the jobs done than if they were done sequentially, says David E. Meyer, director of the Brain, Cognition and Action Laboratory at the University of Michigan: "The toll in terms of slowdown is extremely large--amazingly so." Meyer frequently tests Gen M students in his lab, and he sees no exception for them, despite their "mystique" as master multitaskers. "The bottom line is that you can't simultaneously be thinking about your tax return and reading an essay, just as you can't talk to yourself about two things at once," he says. "If a teenager is trying to have a conversation on an e-mail chat line while doing algebra, she'll suffer a decrease in efficiency, compared to if she just thought about algebra until she was done. People may think otherwise, but it's a myth. With such complicated tasks [you] will never, ever be able to overcome the inherent limitations in the brain for processing information during multitasking. It just can't be, any more than the best of all humans will ever be able to run a one-minute mile."

In an earlier post (Twitter, or How to Fritter your Life Away), I cited Kathy Sierra, who wrote,

this onslaught [of twittering] is keeping us from doing the one thing that makes most of us the happiest... being in flow. Flow requires a depth of thinking and a focus of attention that all that context-switching prevents. Flow requires a challenging use of our knowledge and skills, and that's quite different from mindless tasks we can multitask (eating and watching tv, etc.) Flow means we need a certain amount of time to load our knowledge and skills into our brain RAM. And the more big or small interruptions we have, the less likely we are to ever get there.

And not only are we stopping ourselves from ever getting in flow, we're stopping ourselves from ever getting really good at something. From becoming experts. The brain scientists now tell us that becoming an expert is not a matter of being a prodigy, it's a matter of being able to focus.

Although this post was on Twitter, it applies also to mulitasking. The ability to focus one's attention is necessary both for acquiring expertise and for being in flow. The fact that youngsters like to multitask and that they can do it better than oldsters says little about well they learn while multitasking. And the research says otherwise.

Prensky does have some good ideas. From his website, he has apparently done well at creating computer games for learning. I think games are great for learning. If I had the money, I'd get him to create a game for my first-year composition course.

I don't doubt that there are differences between my generation and the digital generation. I also don't doubt that much of what is said about the digital native has been exaggerated to the level of myth.

Related posts:
The Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd
Hype from the Media and from Web 2.0 Evangelists

Links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes from the Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory: Projects

Links to other posts on the myth of "digital natives":
Digital Natives and Immigrants: A concept beyond its best before date
Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation


Fried, Carrie B. (in press). In-class laptop use and its effects on student learning. Computers and Education.