Myths of the Digital Generation Cont'd

More bloggers are commenting on the myths of the Digital Generation.

Juliette White wrote of her misgivings on the notion of digital natives. As she notes, most of the evidence on their characteristics is "anecdotal."

George Siemens also critiques the so-called digital native/immigrant division of Marc Prensky, stating,

But I don't think the distinction has merit beyond a buzz phrase that has outlived the role it initially played in getting educators to think about the different types of learners now entering our classrooms.

the premise is wrong (and offensive), the remedy suggested is wrong, and the research is needlessly twisted to lead readers in directions at conflict with even the slightest amount of critical thinking. Prensky’s articles takes readers through a very shallow dive of a very deep pool.

Also critiquing Prensky's digital evangelism, Jamie McKenzie, in his article Digital Nativism, Digital Delusions, and Digital Deprivation (via George Siemens), gets to the point:

Prensky's labels are crude, inaccurate and based on no data. His gross generalizations lump complex segments together as if identical.

McKenzie's critique of Prensky is rather harsh, but he details how Prensky overgeneralizes, simplifies groups of people, and lacks evidence for his claims.

On a calmer note, Carrie Fried, Associate Professor of Psychology at Winona State University, conducted a study on how using laptops in class negatively affected learning. Her research is crucial because much of the earlier research, according to Fried, (1) did not objectively measure learning; (2) did not have a control group; but (3) prescribed how laptops could be used in the classroom. Although I wouldn't limit research to only experimental approaches, it is important that so far the effect computers on student learning has been left out. In addition to distracting other students, she found,

Students admit to spending considerable time during lectures using their laptops for things other than taking notes. More importantly, the use of laptops was negatively related to several measures of learning. The pattern of the correlations suggests that laptop use interfered with students’ abilities to pay attention to and understand the lecture material, which in turn resulted in lower test scores. The results of the regression analysis clearly show that success in the class was negatively related to the level of laptop use.

In other words, multitasking by digital natives decreases learning. Common sense dictates this finding: Learning depends on effective time on task (see Anderson & Schunn's Implications of the ACT-R learning theory: No magic bullets (pdf)), and dividing one's time among tasks lessens the amount of time devoted to any one task, along with losing time for switching between tasks. And other research has found the same results for multitasking. (See, for example, Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory and its Projects for links to online readings on multitasking and other cognitive processes.)

None of this is to say that computers cannot be used for learning in the classroom. Actually, they should be: They are part of the fabric in which we exist. Some research indicates that they can promote learning if used appropriately. (See again Fried's article and also this news about the Maine laptop project.) But also note that if used inappropriately, computers do nothing for learning.

So, we need to avoid the hype and exaggeration associated with the digital generation, focus on how Web 2.0 applications can support learning, and support instructors in gaining the skills to use these tools. Web 2.0 tools are not a panacea for ineffective instruction, but

  • They can engage students more than traditional forms of instruction.
  • They can enable students to interact with each other and others outside the classroom, thus
    • multiplying their exposure to course concepts and
    • motivating them to spend more time on task, the number one factor in learning.


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

Related posts:
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part I
Myths of the Digital Generation, Part II
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

Update (June 8, 2008) : I just came across this blog via Chris Lott: Net Gen Nonsense