16 May 2011

#H800 A Critical View of the Net Generation

Bennett (Bennett et al, 2008) takes a critical look at the claims made by proclaimers of the Net Generation (Tapscott, 1998), Digital Natives vs Digital Immigrants (Prensky, 2001) and the Millennials (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005).  They conclude that there is very little evidence to support the grand claims they make, which can be summarized in two claims:
-      This generation (born after 1980) is fundamentally different from elder generations, because they have been immersed in a technology-rich environment for all their lives.
-      Current education isn’t coped to deal with this generation and should be restructured for this reason.

They use the term moral panic, a term introduced by Stanley Cohen (1972):
“In general, moral panics occur when a particular group in society, such as a youth subculture, is portrayed by the news media as embodying a threat to societal values and norms.” (Bennett et al, 2008, p.782)
They identify a lack of theoretical and empirical foundations to support the claims.  Instead arguments are based on anecdotal evidence or alleged common sense belief and thrust forward by technological determinism.  

The authors debunk the arguments for the existence of a Net Generation and the accompanying sense of urgency to reform education:
-      There are considerable differences in ICT skills within the generation born after 1980;
-      The discourse doesn’t account for individual learning preferences or styles within the generation;
-      ICT skills are often superficial and not
-      Skills attributed to the Net Generation such as multitasking are not new and may depend more on age (development of short-term memory) than on generation membership.
-      No evidence that multitasking or educational games are widely beneficial for education.

In short claims on the Net Generation appear to be an over-generalization and don’t account for the individual differences within the generation.  The perceived existence of a series of strong bounded divides, an emergency situation and calls for urgent and fundamental change do all fit well into the concept of a “moral panic”.  The authors don’t dismiss the rising importance of technology and the potential it offers to enhance education, but see it more as a gradual rather than a disruptive process.

There is no evidence of widespread and universal disaffection, or of a distinctly different learning style the like of which has never been seen before. We may live in a highly technologised world, but it is conceivable that it has become so through evolution, rather than revolution. Young people may do things differently, but there are no grounds to consider them alien to us. Education may be under challenge to change, but it is not clear that it is being rejected. (Bennett et al, 2008, p.783)
I found the concept of moral panic helpful.  It offers an explanation why the Digital Native story is so attractive.  The moral panic around a Net Generation could be compared with the discourse around immigration.  Also here, there is a group of people is perceived as a threat to societal norms, there is a sense of urgency and emergency and there is arguably a lack of empirical and theoretical research to back up the bold claims made.  It provides a useful counterweight to claims that the education system is 'broken' and 'not adapted to current needs.' 

The article reminded me of a talk that Neil Selwyn gave during the cck11 course, in which he stressed the non-neutrality of technology in education.  E-learning gurus have their own agenda and may gloss over academic standards for making their claims.

I agree with the authors that technology can and should be used to enhance education, although not from a deterministic view, but based on empirical data and pedagogical research.  
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