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

My previous post on The Myths of the Digital Generation looked at how many of the characteristics ascribed to "digital natives" were exaggerated to the point of becoming myth. What is more founded in research (although I'm sure it has its share of controversy) is the native multitasking ability of women. Helen Fisher, professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, researches "the evolution and future of human sex, love and marriage and gender differences in the brain and behavior." From Chapter 1 (NY Times, free registration required) of her book The First Sex, here are some excerpts on what she calls women's "web thinking" and men's "step thinking":

  • As a general rule, men tend to focus on one thing at a time—a male trait I first noticed in my twenties. At the time I had a boyfriend who liked to watch the news on television, listen to rock music on the stereo, and read a book—presumably all at once. In reality, he just switched channels in his head. When he was imbibing from one modality, he tuned the others out. Not I. The flashing of the TV screen, the throbbing music, the printed words: all of these stimuli swamped my mind.
  • Janet Scott Batchler has described this gender difference succinctly. She writes feature films with her husband and partner, Lee Batchler. She says of her spouse, "He does one thing at a time. Does it well. Finishes it and moves on. He's very direct in his thought processes and in his actions. And he deals with people in that same focused way, meaning exactly what he says, with no hidden agenda. I'm the one who can juggle a hundred balls at once, and can realize that other people may be doing the same thing, professionally or emotionally."
  • Web thinking versus step thinking; an emphasis on the whole versus a focus on the parts; multitasking versus doing one thing at a time: scientists are far from understanding, even properly defining, these subtle differences between women and men.
  • As women around the world do multiple tasks simultaneously, they are mentally assessing and assimilating an abundance of data— engaging in web thinking.
  • Women are "process-oriented." They are "gathering." They want to explore the multiple interactions, the multidirectional paths, all of the permutations of the puzzle.
  • Psychologists argue that contemporary women learn to do and think several things simultaneously. Just watch a working mother in the morning, dressing children, packing lunches, feeding goldfish, pouring cereal, and arranging day care on the phone—all at once.
  • I suspect that women's talent for contextual thinking—and the related skill of multitasking—evolved in deep history. Thousands of generations of performing mental and physical acrobatics as they raised helpless infants built these outstanding capacities into the architecture of the female brain.

Note that ahough Fisher's boyfriend seemed to be multitasking, he wasn't.

Note also that many of the characteristics attributed to digital natives by Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants are also attributed to women by Fisher. One difference is that while digital natives acquire their multitasking skills through normal learning processes, according to Fisher, about 50 percent of women have it hardwired into their brain. Obviously, although Prensky claimed that digital natives' multitasking and other skills "are almost totally foreign to the Immigrants," they are not foreign to women.

Of course, Fisher's theories are (contested) interpretations of data, but to me they adhere more closely to the evidence. Prensky's interpretations are speculative extrapolations from research findings that the brain continues to adapt and is malleable, and that people think differently according to their experiences. In Part II of Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (pdf), he writes,

So, today’s neurobiologists and social psychologists agree that brains can and do change with new input.

And elsewhere:

While these individual cognitive skills may not be new, the particular combination and intensity is. We now have a new generation with a very different blend of cognitive skills than its predecessors—the Digital Natives.

From very general concepts of plasticity and malleability, Prensky jumps to a very specific conclusion of "very different" cognitive processing . And elsewhere:

But these differences, most observers agree, are less a matter of kind than a difference of degree.

This last statement is key. First, if it's more a matter of degree, then considerable more evidence is needed before claiming that it is "a very different blend." Second, what is the specific combination and what is the difference in degree? As David E. Meyer, Director of the University of Michigan's Brain, Cognition, and Action Laboratory, said with respect to Net Gen's multitasking ability, "it's a myth" (see The Myths of the Digital Generation). So, the degree doesn't seem that large.

And the particular combination doesn't seem all that new, either: For millenia, according to Fisher, women have been natural, or native, multi-taskers. (Perhaps Meyer will disagree with Fisher.)

As stated in the previous post, that each generation differs from the preceding ones is common sense. But that the differences reach mythical levels, well, let's have a little more evidence.

Related posts:
The Myths of the Digital Generation
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

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 Blogger.com 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
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.

Marc Prensky reports on the NSBA Study on Online Behaviors. The report, "Creating & Connecting: Research and Guidelines on Online Social and Educational Networking", gives some welcome statistics on how students are using the Internet, showing that much of the concern on the dangers on online social networking is exaggerated. For me, another problem is the exaggerated hype on why schools and teachers aren't using web tools.

Prensky writes:

In general, schools (teachers and administrators) are deathly afraid of what I call “The Emerging Online Life of the Digital Native” because it is something they don’t understand.

On what evidence does Prensky base these claims: (1) that schools are "deathly afraid" and (2) they are afraid because they don't understand it. I can imagine some schools and teachers being nervous, but deathly afraid? And perhaps some don't understand it, but all of the schools who don't accept it don't understand it?

I can think of other reasons for not rushing to accept social networking apps. The main one is time. I have my students using blogs, wikis, and RSS now. And I've been wanting to start incorporating podcasts and videos. But to learn how to use them (some of my students do use them, which is great!) effectively in my classes, I just don't have the time: I have two papers to write on the front burner, two on the back burner, a new text for our composition courses that I have to study and figure out what changes are needed to incorporate it, committees to serve on, and a wife, son, and daughter who I want to spend time with. (I suppose I could stop blogging to find the time.) I imagine other teachers are just as busy, too, and they may simply be finding it difficult to find the time to to restructure and revise their teaching and keep up with their other tasks and responsibilities. Of course, some teachers, as Prensky notes, are likely stuck on "lecturing."

Prensky states:

A lot of concerns about the “have nots” would go away if the schools kept their computer labs open till midnight and on weekends, and teachers assigned projects to groups where at least one member (or the school) had the technology. Kids are great at sharing and teaching each other.

Now, I like this idea, but I wonder what would be involved and how much it would cost to do this. Most people already grumble about the taxes they pay now for schools. As a member of a school's board, I know that we couldn't cover the cost with our present budget.

Prensky has other good ideas, too. The exaggeration, however, is problematic: That is, those who don't listen to the Web 2.0 evangelists are in "darkness," as Prensky puts it, and those who heed the call will be in the "light" and go to education heaven.

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

The Online Education Database is an excellent resource for online learning. Yesterday, they posted "Take Any College Class for Free: 236 Open Courseware Collections, Podcasts, and Videos". This page also has a link to their Top 100 Open Courseware Projects, The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help You Learn, and The Top 25 Web 2.0 Apps to Help a Student's or Professor's Productivity.

A study by Brescia and Miller (via Stephen's Web) on the benefits of instructional blogging suggests that the main benefits are "the reinforcing of course engagement and the repetition of exposure to coursework are the most valuable aspects of blogging."

i just came across two sites giving good advice on how to use (and not use) blogs in the classroom. James Farmer has two posts, one on how to use blogs and another on how not to use them. And Doug of Borderland comments on Farmer's posts.

On how not to use blogs in education, Farmer's main points (my summary of his summary of his paper "Blogs @ Anywhere: High fidelity online communication") are:

  • Don't use

    • blogs as "discussion boards, listservs or learning management systems"
    • group blogs
    • blogs for something they're not made for
  • And don't forget RSS

On how to use blogs in education, the main points are to use:

  • blogs "as key, task driven, elements of your course" (that is, provide structure and purpose)
  • assessment that promotes, or at least allows, personal pursuits and expression
  • blogs for what they are good for
  • blogging tools that work (Farmer covers 9 major multi-user blogging tools here.)

On not using group blogs or blogs as discussion boards, etc., at the university level, Barbara Ganning has a different perspective. See her BlogTalk paper, "Blogging as a Dynamic, Transformative Medium in an American Liberal Arts Classroom", in which she discusses her use of blogs in the classroom, including a class blog that ties together students' individual blogs, communication, and class management.

Doug supports Farmer's main points with his own experience, although noting that more centralized management systems are appropriate for younger learners. Along these lines, he notes the need for more conversation on using blogs in elementary schools, giving several examples, one of which is more teacher oversight at the lower levels:

Mainly, younger kids have a very different notion about private vs. public information. I know this is an issue for all students, but younger kids have a harder time recognizing personal boundaries. A kindergartener, for instance, would be far more likely to tell her classmates that her mother is in jail than would a 5th grader, for instance.

It makes sense to use technology for what it does well and also to take into consideration the age and background of the students. Not paying attention to this point may result in little impact on students' involvement or learning, as Farmer, based on his reading of others' use of blogs in education, asserts in his paper:

While the resulting feedback indicated a degree of satisfaction and no objection to the use of blogs, there was little to indicate any significant shift in student perceptions and activity in the learning environments. While it is beyond the scope of this examination to argue hard and fast rules, this could be attributed, along with other factors such as the nature of assessment, to the use of blogs as collaborative areas without the use of aggregation.

There are quite a few comments on Farmer's pages, indicating that the environment affects the implementation of Farmer's guidelines. With respect to foreign language learners, in particular, we need to be careful. Still, let me emphasize Farmer's point on keeping RSS in students' minds. As he says,

Ignore RSS at your peril: Probably the biggest mistake that adopters tend to make is to ignore RSS or just through it a casting glance. The problem is that these people aren’t bloggers and just don’t understand. Without RSS blogs would pretty much just be extensions of geocities pages. Your learners are NEVER going to surf each others sites everyday and the majority of them won’t even go to that funky web-based aggregator you set-up.

RSS, or news, feeds are like subscribing to a newspaper or magazine: it comes to you instead of you going to the corner store to buy a copy. Why use news feeds? Well, mainly (1) to save time and (2) to be exposed to a variety of opinions. More concretely on time, you, and your students, can subscribe to all of the class blogs and other blogs of interest so that instead of clicking on 10, 20, or more different sites, all new posts are aggregated at one's own site (and perhaps another aggregation at a single class site). On the latter reason, you and your students can create search feeds for news groups and news (via Google News or Yahoo News) and for websites and blogs that can keep a current flow of information on topics related to class studies, projects, or personal interests. Participating in knowledge networks is crucial for students to develop an awareness of audience, competing values, and diverse perspectives, which, in turn, is essential for learning to write thoughtful and complex responses to and essays on an issue.

For more info on news feeds, see my brief introduction here. For an introduction on possibilities in higher education, go here, and for different RSS platforms, read "RSS readers: best of breed picks". And, again, be read Farmer's article.As Farmer notes,

The development of knowledge through learning to self-publish and comment on postings that adhere to the protocols and norms of behaviour in the chosen communication network is expected to enhance the learners’ reflective, meta-cognitive and written skills as well as management of their learning.

In a nutshell, the combination of blog writing and news feeds helps connect students to one another and to others outside the classroom, creating networks of learning that promote reading, writing, and critical thinking.

On Wednesday at the NJTESOL-NJBE Spring Conference, I presented an overview in blog format of different web 2.0 tools for enhancing classroom instruction (i.e., blogs, wikis, RSS, Flickr, social bookmarking, and podcasting). I plan to keep it up on the Internet as a website (not blog) resource. You can find it here, grandiosely entitled "The Web 2.0 Classroom".