The Future Part 7b: Is there such a thing as a Digital Native?

November 29, 2014

This post is the second part of a series of posts about Digital Natives which are in turn part of a series of posts about The Future.

The actual arguments for the claims about Digital Natives (described in my last post) are incredibly weak and are not supported by the research evidence. There is no good reason to accept the premise of a discontinuity between the generations with regard to the use of technology. According to Kirshner et al (2013) who reviewed a number of studies of generational difference in IT use, particularly with regard to learning:

The first question is, Does such an information technology savvy generation actually exist? Margaryan, Littlejohn, and Vojt (2011) reported that university students (i.e., members of the Net generation) use a limited range of technologies for learning and socialization: “The tools these students used were largely established technologies, in particular mobile phones, media player, Google, Wikipedia. The use of handheld computers as well as gaming, social networking sites, blogs and other emergent social technologies was very low” (p. 38). A number of research studies (Bullen, Morgan, Belfer, & Qayyum, 2008; Ebner, Schiefner, & Nagler, 2008; Kennedy et al., 2007; Kvavik, 2005) in different countries (e.g., Austria, Australia, Canada, Switzerland, the United States) question whether the Homo Zappiens and/or Digital Native really exists. These researchers found that university students do not really have deep knowledge of technology, and what knowledge they do have is often limited to basic office suite skills, e-mailing, text messaging, Facebook, and surfing the Internet. According to Bullen et al. (2008), “it appears they [university students] do not recognize the enhanced functionality of the applications they own and use” (p. 7.7) and that significant further training in how technology can be used for learning and problem solving is needed. When used for learning, this was mostly for passive consumption of information (e.g., Wikipedia) or for downloading lecture notes. A report commissioned by the British library and JISC (P. Williams & Rowlands, 2007) also overturns the common assumption that the Google generation is the most web literate. Rowlands et al. (2008) concluded “that much professional commentary, popular writing and PowerPoint presentations overestimates the impact of ICTs on the young, and that the ubiquitous presence of technology in their lives has not resulted in improved information retrieval, information seeking or evaluation skills” (p. 308)

The Digital Natives essays make much reference to the plasticity of the brain and the malleability of thought processes is described in detail. However, the fact the brain can change, and naturally does change due to changes in behaviour, does not actually give grounds for believing there is a discontinuity. Far from it, it suggests that changes in the brain have always followed changes in behaviour and that there is nothing particularly pressing or dramatic about this one. I would interpret what we know of the malleability of the brain as indicating that, as long as students behave in school much as previous generations did, their brains can adapt to work in the same way as previous generations did.

A further theme in the Digital Natives essays is the advantages of games in learning. While there may be educational games that are effective, the idea that they are only effective for Digital Natives is not established. In fact one might end up wondering if the entire concept has been dreamt up in order to promote educational games, a point I will return to next time.

It is also claimed in the essays that attention spans have reduced but only for “the old ways of learning”. No actual solid research evidence is given for this just an opinion from a retired professor of biochemistry. No thought is actually given to the possibility that students can be encouraged to improve their ability to pay attention to traditional teaching. Similarly, it is claimed that Digital Natives “like to parallel process and multi-task”. Again this is assumed to be something that should be simply accepted. Kirschner et al also examined multi-tasking when critiquing the idea of a digital native.

 With the term multitasking, people mean the simultaneous and/or concurrent performance of two or more tasks requiring cognition or information processing (e.g., attending to the road while driving and simultaneously talking on a cell phone). The problem here is that human cognitive architecture and brain functioning only allows for switching between different tasks (i.e., performing a number of different tasks or partial tasks in quick succession) rather than the simultaneous performance of tasks, even though the performance seems subjectively to occur simultaneously. Human beings can do more than one thing at any one time only when what they are doing is fully automated (e.g., walking and talking at the same time though even this can lead to falls and other accidents; Herman, Mirelman, Giladi, Schweiger, & Hausdorff, 2011). When thinking or conscious information processing plays a role, people are not capable of multitasking and can, at best, switch quickly from one activity to another. When task switching, first the individual shifts the goal and thus makes a “decision” to divert attention from one task to another, and then the individual activates a rule so instructions for executing one task are switched off, and those for executing the other are switched on. This so-called multitasking involves dividing one’s attention between the tasks, and because each task competes for a limited amount of cognitive resources, the performance of one interferes with that of the other. This interference has been shown at the cognitive, information-processing level in many empirical studies by Brumby and colleagues across a time span of 10 years on the intersection of human–computer interaction and cognitive science (e.g., Brumby & Salvucci, 2006; Brumby, Salvucci, & Howes, 2009; Janssen, Brumby, Dowell, & Chater, 2010).

After considering the research on how people behave when multi-tasking in some detail they concluded “there is strong evidence that multitasking and task switching impair performance and learning, and there is no reason to expect positive effects of educational methods that require multitasking”. Some similar points were expressed in this article  and also by Dan Willingham in the video below:

Even if we were to accept that inability to pay attention and a preference for multi-tasking were an inevitable feature of those who have grown up with modern techonolgy, there are good reasons to discourage it, as explained by technology guru Joe Kraus below:

I see no reason to doubt the conclusion of Kirschner et al that digital natives:

…are not capable of doing that with modern technologies which is ascribed to their repertoire (i.e., the digital native may live in a digital age and world but cannot properly navigate that world for learning) and that they actually may “suffer” if teaching and education tries to play into these so-called abilities to relate to, work with, and control their own learning in multimedia and digitally pervasive environments.

Next time I will look at the ideological background to the idea of the Digital Native.


  1. Ok, so we know digital natives is a misleading term, so let’s look at a more interesting question.

    Does the rapid development of digital communications technologies have implications for learning and if so what are they?

    • Great question Ian…Much more relevant and interesting!

    • No.

      • Do you mean no it’s less relevant or no as in a vested interest in the status quo and so don’t want to produce any analysis? If the way we teach is not affected by technology, it’s probably the only social interaction that isn’t. From a simple scientific perspective that seems very unlikely.

  2. Reblogged this on DigitalClassroom Blog and commented:
    Excellent post!

  3. No such thing as a “digital native” …never has been!

    • So social media might trigger the next stage in human evolution ;-). Maybe we should be teaching more about it and adapting the ways we teach with it, it’s not going to go away.

  4. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.

  5. […] Teaching in British schools « The Future Part 7b: Is there such a thing as a Digital Native? […]

  6. Whilst I agree with the argument being advanced I’m going to be really pedantic and point out that switching rapidly between tasks is “multi tasking” in the computing sense; your PC switches between tasks so rapidly it appears that multiple tasks are proceeding simultaneously. Of course most people have multi-core processors now but the number of ‘simultaneous’ processes running at anytime on your PC will far exceed the number of processor cores. By contrast I would say the human brain does parallel processing very well. Walking, talking and interpreting vision etc. may not require much conscious effort but the processing still needs to occur and getting a machine to reproduce the feat is extremely difficult. But I do get your point/Kirschner’s, the phrase ‘digital natives’ winds me up.

    • An interesting point, the brain has evolved for multi-tasking and uses comparatively very slow clock speeds but much greater parallel processing than a computer. Probably the limiting factor though is relatively limited working memory and so cognitive tasks that require working memory are competing for “bandwidth”. This would explain why focus is important to learn new and difficult concepts – but I think that is pretty intuitive to most decent teachers in any case. For things that are adding small nuances to already secure knowledge, “eclectic multitasking” might well work best. That would explain why skimming many sources can have a place in learning as well as focused concentration. As usual, it depends on what you are trying to do.

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