A Digital Generation?

The first of the IT Sligo/NDLR Teaching and Learning Webinars of 2011 was yesterday’s Separating Fact from Fiction in the Digital Generation Discourse by Dr. Mark Bullen. Based at the British Columbia Institute of Technology in Vancouver, Mark Bullen writes the NetGenSkeptic blog.

Bullen summarised the Digital Generation discourse, based originally on Marc Prensky’s (2001) Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (ideas later updated in his Digital Wisdom paper, 2009). The prevailing discourse holds that young people generally have a different understanding of technology and consequently have different expectations of education. Bullen’s research challenges this. He believes that “using age or generation as a variable isn’t useful”, as it hides intra-generational differences and ignores second level digital divides. Because of these weaknesses, Bullen believes that the Digital Generation discourse should not be used by schools and higher education institutions as it has been — to inform educational policy.

Bullen did not directly challenge Prensky (whom he considers a “futurist”) but did challenge many researchers who have published work which supports the Digital Generation discourse. Bullen’s own research has not found significant differences between young and older respondents in terms of technology use, proficiency, or learning preferences. During the webinar, he cited the work of other researchers who have challenged the Digital Generation discourse including Bennett, et al (2008 & 2010), Ipsos Reid (2007), and Margaryan & Littlejohn (2008). Bullen particularly commended David White’s Digital Visitors and Digital Residents principle, formulated as a critique of the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant dichotomy, which defines a continuum from Digital Visitors (who use the web as a tool) to Digital Residents (who have an online persona which is a crucial part of their identity).

This was an engaging webinar and made me reflect on a couple of important questions: the persistence of the Digital Generation discourse and definitions of digital literacy.

While supporting Bullen’s (and others’) challenges to the Digital Generation discourse, I’ve found that many people find resonance in Prensky’s original metaphor. I’ve used Prensky’s article as a discussion starter when teaching in a variety of contexts (never fails!). In Internet Awareness & Safety workshops for parents, for example, I’ve presented the Digital Native/Digital Immigrant concept. Despite explaining that the idea is hotly contested, I’ve seen faces light up with recognition: “Ah, it’s not just me!”. The ensuing discussion can acknowledge this, while steering away from essentialist assumptions about learning and ability. Rather than age being the defining factor, perhaps it is simply opportunities for informal learning. Many young people have both the opportunities and motivation to learn about ICTs: social networking, gaming, access to music and videos, etc. Not all young people have these, of course — and this is one of the main arguments against the Digital Generation discourse. Yet even in 2011, there are still many adults who have not had the opportunities to develop a proficiency with ICTs. For these adults, the Digital Generation metaphor can be initally reassuring — they see themselves as one of many in the same boat. From that place of reassurance, a renewed motivation to learn and develop their ICT skills can arise.

Brian Mulligan, in introducing Mark Bullen yesterday, said he was attracted to Bullen’s NetGenSkeptic blog because he could not resolve the lack of digital literacy he observed in the 3rd level classroom with the prevalent Digital Generation discourse. In the first phase of Bullen’s research, the majority of respondents described themselves as having “high” digital literacy. There was no significant difference between the responses of young and older respondents. The definition of digital literacy is crucial here. Many people who might describe themselves as highly digitally literate may actually demonstrate poor literacy in the form of weak information search skills, poor critical analysis of online media, etc. I think it’s important to unpick “digital literacy” as a concept, and explore the specific differences among and between learners so that we as educators can address these.

At the end of the webinar, Mark Bullen explained that his latest work on Digital Learners is moving beyond a  critique of the Digital Generation discourse, towards exploring the relationship between social and educational uses of ICTs among post-secondary students. This sounds intriguing and valuable — I will stay tuned!

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