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It’s Not Your Parents’ Technology: Digital Learning and Your Generation


Does being part of a specific generation say something about how we learn? There are many variables to consider when studying how any one individual learns, including generation. Over time there has been a shift in terms of the volume of information that technology has made available, as well as how and when it can be accessed. There are differences in our expectations for how we will interact with all that is available and with each other via technology.

A look at the demographic data of online students reveals the range of ages and experiences that come together in the online classroom. A 2009 student satisfaction survey conducted by the Noel-Levitz higher education consulting group found that the age of online students responding represented a wide span with a majority, 58%, being between 25 and 44 years of age. Another 22% were 45 and over and the remaining 20% 24 and under. There is a potential for this diversity to impact the online learning experience and interaction within a course.

In 2001 Marc Prensky published Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants and sparked a debate that is still going on ten years later. Are younger people more technology savvy? Are they more adept at learning because of their use of technology? The research says, probably not. While Prensky has revised his approach, this initial report continues to attract attention both in popular culture and in academic research.

Defining Generations

As a society, we tend to assign certain attributes to generations, generalizing across large numbers of people based on one factor, age. Members of a generation do have a lot in common. They have experienced the same things at the same times in terms of national and global events, economic shifts, as well as life and family milestones. Members of a generation also share an identity as a group with shared values based on these experiences in the context of time. For example, the Silent Generation, born between 1928 and 1945 is often described as hard working and ambitious. These characteristics are often attributed to their experiences surrounding the Depression, World War II, and post-war society in 1950s America.

According to the Pew Research Center, the Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millenial generations are defined as follows. 

  • Baby Boomers – born 1946-1964
  • Generation X – born 1965-1980
  • Millenials – born after 1980

The Pew Research Center has published a series of reports on the Millenial Generation over the past couple of years, capturing a lot of demographic information and making comparisons to past generations. Millenials have also been referred to as the Net Generation and the Google Generation to describe their increased use of technology. Technology is one area in which these lines of generations and time are being drawn creating the possibility of perceived barriers where there may be none.

Digital Learning Analogies and Approaches

Natives and Immigrants

Prensky's Digital Natives and Immigrants approach suggests that those who have been using technology from a very young age, natives, are not only more adept with technology, but through its use have also developed different ways of thinking and learning. Immigrants have had to adjust to the use of technology on a broader scale and in the learning environment. These different experiences may have some impact on the interaction between students and teachers. This approach is seen by many as a division that has not been readily observed in practice or in research.

Neil Selwyn's report The Digital Native – myth and reality recommends that we focus our attention on how technology is used, not on amount or extent of use by various age groups. While younger generations are more frequently engaged in gaming, text messaging, and viewing multimedia online (e.g. YouTube), this use does not indicate any level of expertise with technology. There are additional factors to consider when assessing any individual or group's use of technology, to include geographic location, socio-economic status, education, work experience, and gender. Any of these variables could affect the choice and use of technology.

Visitors and Residents

David White suggests we look not at generations to define technology use but at whether or not we are Digital Visitors or Residents. This approach describes digital residents as those whose lives are more immersed in the use and function of technology and digital visitors as those who use technology for more limited purposes and for specific reasons. These descriptions are not age-bound definitions but ones that speak to familiarity, exposure, and comfort levels.

Network Sherpas

Your online courses will likely include students from a range of generations! Your instructor may be from a different generation – either older or younger. Alec Couros has discussed the concept of a Network Sherpa to guide a diverse group of students in a learning environment and to facilitate their interactions. In this model, the instructor serves as a guide over terrain that includes the use of technology and the need for digital literacy. This Sherpa may be able to address the needs of a class that includes students from a range of generations and with varying degrees of technical skill.

Digital Literacy

While younger generations may spend more time using technology, this doesn't necessarily translate into having advanced skills with technology or preferences for its use in learning situations. An EDUCAUSE report [PDF] found for example, that "Net Generation" students were not highly skilled in word processing, a required skill in most higher education courses. This report also reminds us that the younger generation's increased use of technology may be simply a result of exposure, having been around increasing kinds of technologies both at home and in school.

How familiar are you with technology? Your skills and approach to learning with technology can have a huge impact on your online learning experience. It is important to develop a familiarity with online resources, a knowledge of what is available and how to access, and a comfort level with online communication and interaction.

Test your digital literacy and readiness for online learning with one of the following online self-assessments.

Take advantage of online tutorials and help pages to become more familiar with the technologies that will be used in your online courses, as well as in your workplace after graduation.

The Learning Process Continues

Does your age make a difference in your ability to be a successful online student? Generational stereotypes can affect the way you think about your ability but anyone can learn to use technology successfully in an online course! Be prepared to interact with students who have different experiences and skills in technology use. Know your current abilities and seek out additional information and training when you need it. As new technologies rapidly emerge, educational researchers are studying ways in which they may be adapted for use in online learning. For online students and instructors, our digital literacy will continue to evolve as we learn new systems and ways to communicate.

May 11th, 2011 written by Staff Writers

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