Net Generation Nonsense – Mark Bullen Discusses Teaching and Learning
On Monday, we began looking at one of the major assumptions fueling educational reform, the belief that the current generation of learners is so unique that fundamental changes to our educational institutions are necessary.
This unique generation, collectively dubbed “digital natives” or the “net generation,” has been the first to grow up with extensive access to technology. That access has led to the general belief that today’s youngsters are multitasking wizards and technology experts. In fact, many insist that the technology skills of our youngsters far exceed the technology skill set of the average adult including the one in charge of the classroom, the teacher.
However, over the past year that general belief has seen a growing number of skeptics. We noted three articles in our post on Monday that challenge that ongoing sentiment:
- Generational Myth, Not All Young People Are Tech-savvy
- Information Behaviour of the Researcher of the Future
A Cautionary Voice
Today we turn our attention to another cautionary voice, Mark Bullen, the Associate Dean of the Learning & Teaching Centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Bullen has numerous responsibilities, many that have him working with some of the so-called net generation in the college classroom.
He also happens to be the main writer for a new blog Net Gen NonSense, a web site “dedicated to debunking the myth of the net generation, particularly as it relates to learning, teaching and the use of technology.” On the blog, colleague Iain Doherty from New Zealand, recently published the basic results of an informal survey done with more than 400 students at the University of Auckland.
Doherty did find that students were using technologies for specific purposes in their daily lives, with texting being one of the most common tech applications. Doherty also found that students were using additional technologies to make basic aspects of their lives easier, particularly booking travel; internet banking; and shopping online.
But he also found that not all were social networking with other students. In fact, some students deemed the practice a waste of their time leading Doherty to suspect a touch of contempt for the social networking scene by some students.
As for being experts on Web 2.0 tools, Doherty found that nothing could have been further from the truth. Not only were many students not making use of the web 2.0 tools in any great way in their personal lives, some displayed an incredible lack of awareness about some of the tools with one student asking, “What’s a Wiki?”
Lastly, students did not seem interested in mixing their personal tech uses with that of education. In one of later conversations with Bullen he noted that students didn’t like the idea of using instant messaging with their instructors, preferring in person visits or e-mail.
Looking for Insight
With more and more folks raising their eyebrows about the assumptions related to the “net generation” and the group’s respective uniqueness, we decided it was time to chat directly with someone who also has raised his eyebrow. We were interested in answers to a couple of key questions:
Is this generation of learners truly that unique or are we exaggerating that notion? And is all of the hullabaloo regarding teaching the net generation simply much ado about nothing?
To get to some answers, we posed a series of questions to Dean Bullen.
Can you give our readers a brief summary of your background including your teaching responsibilities and research focus? What has been the catalyst for your interest in teaching and learning as it relates to the net generation, the so-called group of digital natives?
I have spent the last 25 years working in post secondary education as an instructional designer, researcher, faculty member and manager. My professional roots are in the field of distance education and I spent nearly 20 years working at the distance education department at the University of British Columbia, most recently as Director of the Centre Managing and Planning E-learning. In 2005 I accepted the position of Associate Dean of the Learning & Teaching Centre at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. The LTC provides instructor and curriculum development support for the institute and conducts applied educational research. I teach in the Master of Educational Technology program at the University of British Columbia and the Master of Distance Education program at Athabasca University.
My interest in the digital natives debate stems from my interest in teaching and learning and from the fact that I have responsibility for a department that teaches instructors how to teach. I also have two daughters who are in that generation (26 and 21) and I noticed that neither of them matched the characteristics that are most often mentioned for this generation.
So I guess my professional background, combined with what I saw in my daughters and my natural skepticism, caused me to begin to investigate this issue more deeply. I was quite surprised by what I discovered.
What was the impetus for your most recent blog, NetGenNonSense? How did the idea come about and what is the basic relationship of the four of you that are listed on the site as contributors?
The Netgen Nonsense blog was a spur of the moment decision that came about at the most recent conference of the Canadian Network for Innovation in Education (CNIE) in Banff, Alberta last May. My colleagues (Adnan Qayyum, Karen Belfer and Tannis Morgan) and I were presenting a paper on this issue. I attended another session with a similar theme by Christina Rogoza and then met Iain Doherty who told me how his university in New Zealand was set to make some critical IT decisions based on the belief that all its students fit these characteristics. I realized then that presenting papers at conferences was not going to have enough of an impact on this discourse so I created the blog as I was listening to a presentation at the conference.
My original intention was not for it to be my personal soapbox but to make it a collaborative effort. However, that has not really happened which is probably due to the nature of blogs which tend to be used to present views of one person and also perhaps because I have a keener interest in this topic. There are some posts by my colleagues but most of them are from me.
The stated goal of Net Gen NonSense is to debunk some of the myths of the net generation. Can you give our readers a sense of what you believe to be two or three of the greatest misconceptions (perhaps relating the basic findings from your recent survey that you posted on the site)?
Well, my basic point is that the claims about this generation are not based on research. They are speculations that emerge from anecdotal observations and from a techno-utopic view of the world and a fascination with technology. I don’t dispute that this generation is different than previous generations. Every generation differs from the previous in some way. The social, political and technological context changes so this is bound to have an impact on the people growing up at that time. But before we start making radical changes to the way to do things in education we need some evidence. And don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that we have to conduct exhaustive studies before we make change. Clearly, we have to be more responsive than that. The kind of evidence I’m talking about is not hard to collect. It involves surveying students, talking to students, and observing students and doing it in a way that will allow us to make generalizations. Very little of that has been done and certainly none of the claims about this generation is based on that kind of research (or at least I have not been able to find any). That is the kind of study we are conducting at BCIT.
The other point to make about the claims is that there is an assumption that because this generation is much more immersed in digital technologies for primarily social and recreational purposes that they a) want to use them for educational purposes and b) will be skilled at using these technologies for educational purposes. I have yet to see any evidence to support these assumptions.
Also, some of the claims are the same or very similar to claims that have been made about every generation of young people: impatient, social, prefer to learn by doing, and goal oriented.
On one of your university sites you have linked to the videos of Michael Wesch, the Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University. What were your thoughts as a university professor, particularly as it relates to teaching and learning, when viewing the videos, “The Machine Is Using Us” and “A Vision of Students Today?”
I must say I found these two videos very provocative and interesting. However, I’m not entirely sure what the point of “A Vision of Students Today” is. It seems to be making several points that are not necessarily related. The relevance of education has been source of debate for as long as I have been in education. I remember, as a student, participating in a “walk-out” from my high school in 1970 over the perceived irrelevance of our education. So this is not new. The idea that students are overworked and deeply in debt is not new. Nor is the complaint about large, impersonal classes. This is an issue distance educators have pointed to for years when critics question the quality of distance education. The technological theme is even murkier. What is the relevance of the fact that students spend more time online than reading books? The same comparison used to be made with television. And that they buy textbooks that they never read? I remember doing that in my undergraduate education in 1970s and 1980s. What is the relevance of comparing reading books with reading e-mails and Facebook profiles?
I strongly agree with critics of traditional higher education that is organized around a content-transmission, teacher-centered model. But progressive educational thinkers like John Dewy have been critical of this since the 1920s. And yes, we need to harness the technologies where appropriate but the most important requirement for success in today’s world is the ability to think critically and manage information. You don’t acquire those skills by reading Facebook profiles, web pages and e-mails.
We did a recent post on a summary that David Wiley gave to the the Panel on Innovative Teaching and Learning Strategies for the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2006. We called the post, “Higher Education, Dangerously Close to Irrelevant” because of his strong opinion that higher education is simply not keeping up with the business world described by Thomas Friedman in “The World is Flat.” What are your thoughts on Wiley’s expressed concerns and do you see higher ed as it is currently constructed perilously close to irrelevance?
Well, much of what I said in answer to the previous question applies here. I share many of David Wiley’s concerns about ensuring the relevance of higher education. But, again, this is not a new issue. It is a recurring theme. Applied educational institutions like the one I work in have an easier time maintaining relevance because our programs are driven by specific business and industry demands.
I do, however, think that some of David Wiley’s notions about openness and sharing are somewhat idealistic given the proprietary mindset of many (most?) faculty members at North American universities. When I was at the University of British Columbia, the Faculty Association challenged the university’s attempts to retain ownership of the online courses in its Master of Educational Technology. Instead of taking an enlightened position that might have forced the university to share these resources in an open courseware type of initiative they used the case to reinforce traditional notions of intellectual property ownership that worked against sharing and openness. So, in my view, a huge cultural change will be needed in North American universities before the ideal of open educational resources becomes a reality.
It is our sense that you would not necessarily concur with the notion that educational pedagogy must change to meet the academic needs of this new group of digital natives. Can you describe for readers your position on this notion and the rationale for that position?
I believe that educators should be constantly reevaluating what they do, how they teach and how they engage students. All good educators do that. But we need to do that based on the real needs of our learners not based on speculation and hype. The fact the students in my class may be spending a lot of time reading Facebook profiles is not, in itself, a good reason to change the way I teach.
Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?
Just that they take a much more critical stance towards what has been written about the net generation. The most distressing thing about this issue is how educators, who should know better, have accepted the claims at face value and then used them to further their own arguments for change. What began as speculation has become “fact” through repetition. But if we scratch the surface we find there is not much there.
Editor’s note: Next, given the recent literature and the demand for a more extensive review of assumptions about the “net generation,” we present our recommendations for teachers.
Flickr photo courtesy of Colin Rhinesmith.