Recently I have been working on articles about ‘web 2.0′ technologies and practices in relation to education and also been engaging in discussions of youth and their use of ICT (where terms such as the Net Generation, Digital Natives, The New Millennium Learners, Power Users etc. are prevalent in the debate).
In relation to the latter, I have just read the article “The ‘digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence” by Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin (which I would recommend). The authors criticise the ideas of stark generational discontinuities between a group of IT-savvy, young ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ who lack the technological fluency of the ‘digital natives’. The distinction has been heralded by e.g. Mark Prensky who has argued that the ‘language’ and cultural gap between the two generations is one of the biggest challenges the educational sector faces to today:
“[...] the single biggest problem facing education today is that our Digital Immigrant instructors, who speak an outdated language (that of the pre-digital age), are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language.” (Prensky, 2001, p. 2)
Similar claims have been made in relation to some of the other broad generational labels mentioned above and Bennett, Maton & Kervin elegantly summarise these claims:
“1. Young people of the digital native generation possess sophisticated knowledge of and skills with information technologies.
2. As a result of their upbringing and experiences with technology, digital natives have particular learning preferences or styles that differ from earlier generations of students.”
In general they argue that the claims and assumptions are based on ‘limited empirical evidence‘ and basically ‘supported by anecdotes and appeals to common-sense beliefs‘. On basis of a review of existing research on youth and their use of technology they conclude:
“[...] we have examined the key assumptions underlying the claim that the generation of young people born between 1980 and 1994 are ‘digital natives’. It is apparent that there is scant evidence to support this idea, and that emerging research challenges notions of a homogenous generation with technical expertise and a distinctive learning style. Instead, it suggests variations and differences within this population, which may be more significant to educators than similarities.” (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008, Distinctive digital native learning styles and preferences Section, para 6)
Their main argument is that the generational label is misleading and although a proportion of youth are highly adept with technologies, information search, online communication or use of advanced tools, there is also a high proportion of the supposedly ‘digital native generation’ who are not. These observations have actually been pointed out by several other authors e.g. (Facer et al., 2003; Livingstone, 2002) – and in chapter 11 of my dissertation I also discuss these issues in more length (drawing on e.g. Facer et al. & Livingstone) – However, Bennett, Maton & Kervin do not only discuss, whether there is a generation of digital natives or not, they advance the debate by discussing why such grand claims resting on weak empirical evidence, anecdotes and appeals to common-sense beliefs can gain as much currency as they have.
Here, which I think is very interesting, they introduce the notion of an ‘academic moral panic’ and describe it in the following way:
“In many ways, much of the current debate about digital natives represents an academic form of moral panic. Arguments are often couched in dramatic language, proclaim a profound change in the world, and pronounce stark generational differences [...] Such claims coupled with appeals to common sense and recognisable anecdotes are used to declare an emergency situation, and call for urgent and fundamental change.” (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008, Discussion Section, para 3 & 5)
And they conclude:
“Neither dismissive scepticism nor uncritical advocacy enable understanding of whether the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and in what ways education might need to change to accommodate it. [...] Close scrutiny of the assumptions underlying the digital natives notion reveals avenues of inquiry that will inform the debate. Such understanding and evidence are necessary precursors to change.” (Bennett, Maton & Kervin, 2008, Discussion Section, para 9)
Although, I agree that careful research and evidence are important precursors to change, I think we should not dismiss hype, over-enthusiasm, grand claims, and Utopian visions or view it as unproductive or counter-productive; rather we might view these as first steps in collective, grand-scale learning processes. Here, I think that Gartner’s Hype Cycle could be interesting to draw into the debate:
In short, the model illustrates how a certain technology trigger hype and over-enthusiasm eventually leading to disillusion when it becomes apparent that the hyped and over-blown expectations cannot be realised. However, this also leads to a gradually more realistic phase of experimentation to understand the benefits and practical application of the technology (which I would compare with the careful research and scrutiny of assumptions). This in turn leads to changes that may not reach ‘the promised land’, but are innovative and productive.
I think we genuinely need such phases of over-enthusiasm, grand-claims and hype as they generate a lot of activity, interest, attention and a lot of (crazy) experimentation. It creates passionate debates between skeptics and proponents and space for fiery souls to engage in all kinds of activities and changes e.g. in their ways of teaching and interacting with students. All the experiments might not work, but some of them might fuel the steep ride up the slope of enlightenment (and we equally learn from what did not work!).
Bennett, Maton & Kervin argue that we now need some more distanced, disinterested and dispassionate examinations of the phenomenon – which I think is absolutely true – but would we have come to this without the over-enthusiasm and over-blown rhetoric; would school teachers, the media, politicians, business leaders or educators in general be equally interested in engaging with the subject of youth and ICT had it not been for the phase of hype and the grand claims of epic proportions? Would it have generated sufficient interest had they been given the message ‘Yeah, there might possibly be a certain potential in thinking about how young people’s use of technology could maybe inform future education…but you know…it is quite complex and we need to think it over, do some experiments and discuss it for a few years before we might come to the conclusion that it is indeed more complex than we had first anticipated’. This is certainly not to make a mockery of research, rather it reflects that making good pedagogical or educational use of technologies and understanding relations between youth, learning and technology is far more complex than hyped distinctions, technological-optimism and utopian visions suggest. However, I think we should also recognise that these phases can be highly productive and serve as arenas for experimentation, play and creative use of technologies in relation to learning. This might bring about new and fruitful perspectives on our existing ways of doing things. Here, I think the epilogue from Engeström’s book ‘learning by expanding’ has an interesting point:
“It is the nature of theoretical research that the categories found do not corroborate, verify or falsify themselves. This kind of research resembles an expedition. When Columbus returned from his expedition, he claimed he had found India. The categorical content of this claim was erroneous, yet his findings initiated an unforeseen expansive cycle of practical and conceptual development. ” (Engeström, 1987)
Analogously, even though we might find that the claims being part of such ‘peaks of inflated expectations’ are erroneous or vastly overstated, they might still have initiated unforeseen cycles of development and innovation.
Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding – an activity theoretical approach to developmental research. Retrieved 060803, 2003, from http://communication.ucsd.edu/MCA/Paper/Engestrom/expanding/toc.htm
Facer, K., Furlong, J., Furlong, R., & Sutherland, R. (2003). Screenplay: Children and computing in the home. London; New York: RoutledgeFalmer.
Livingstone, S. (2002). Young people and new media: Childhood and the changing media environment. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE.