Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Net Gen Myth

Responding to Norm Friesen, E-Learning Myth #1: The “Net Gen” Myth

The major case againt the 'Net Gen Myth' is stated in Livingstone, Bober & Helsper, 2005. However, while the authors (such as Tapscott) describe the 'Net Gen' in terms of behaviours (as you say, "personal, multifunctional, wireless, multimedia, [and] communication-centric") the Livingstone, Bober & Helsper study responds to skills or capacities. These are two very different things.

Additionally, the Livingstone, Bober & Helsper methodologically suspect, dividing internet skills into two categories, embracing 'opportunities' and avoiding 'risks'. It is not clear (and not argued) that the opportunities listed are in fact opportunities, nor is it clear that the dangers are dangers. The latter category, in fact, is made up exclusively of access to pornography, revealing information, and having friends.

This does not undermine the main argument of the section, which is to suggest that the net generation is not defined by age group alone. It is in fact defined by access, and hence, will not line up exactly with age.

But is this the myth, that the net generation is not defined exclusively by age? I cannot think of any proponent of the theory who would explicitly say so, nor certainly would they when pressed with questions about, say, net gen behaviours in the developing world.

That said, the definitions used in the Livingstone, Bober & Helsper study mask what constitutes net gen behaviour, even among those classified as being on the wrong side of the digital divide in this section. Access to mobil phones, for example, is near ubiquitous, even in the developing world, and therefore it is reasonable to suggest that associated net gen behaviours - such as 'thumbing' and 'txting' - would be found wouldwide, as would related attitudes - such as 'connectivity' and 'self organization'.

Does it therefore that the conusion is false, that we should not believe that "It is important to address significant inequalities in use, understanding, and facility associated with these new technologies, rather than simply painting all students with the same brush."

Of course not. This remains true. It has probably always been seen as true, save among the most pedagogically naive.

I would be more interested in seeing whether access to technology increases or decreases the differences between children of the privileged and children of the poor.

Compare, for example, the life of the child of a New York doctor with the life of, say, a Colombian orphan. If any such studies were conducted prior to the use of the internet, we can then compare those results with results from today, in the internet age (and for fun, with what the results look like when free interenet access is provided to both children).

My belief is that these children would be less dissimilar today, and that this dissimilarity can be traced to the permeation of 'net gen culture' into their two lives respectively.

1 comment:

  1. Stephen,

    Thanks so much for you thoughtful comments. My responses are below. (I discussion is always better than simply two contractory conclusions "myth" vs. "flawed" :-) I look forward to similar discussions with you as things develop!

    Because you voice a number of objections, I have taken the liberty of quoting and responding directly to each. YOur original comments are italicized.

    The major case against the 'Net Gen Myth' is stated in Livingstone, Bober & Helsper, 2005. However, while the authors (such as Tapscott) describe the 'Net Gen' in terms of behaviours (as you say, "personal, multifunctional, wireless, multimedia, [and] communication-centric") the Livingstone, Bober & Helsper study responds to skills or capacities. These are two very different things.

    I agree that behaviours and competencies are two different things, but they are very closely interrelated: Developed competencies, of course, allow for more sophisticated behaviour. This close interrelationship is reflected in both my description and in the “net gen” literature. The “behaviours” of the net gen are cited as multitasking, always-on communication and active engagement with multimedia. Tapscott’s description (and approach overall) places emphasis on competency “children are more comfortable, knowledgeable, and literate than their parents about an innovation central to their society.” Both latent ability and its realization in behaviour are central to claims about the net gen.

    Additionally, the Livingstone, Bober & Helsper methodologically suspect, dividing internet skills into two categories, embracing 'opportunities' and avoiding 'risks'. It is not clear (and not argued) that the opportunities listed are in fact opportunities, nor is it clear that the dangers are dangers. The latter category, in fact, is made up exclusively of access to pornography, revealing information, and having friends.

    Having issues with the use of the terms “opportunities” and “risks” does not render the empirically-based research you mention “methodologically suspect.” You can revise or reject the terms, and the research still has a great deal to say about important technical competencies. These researchers, especially Livingstone, has been deeply and methodologically involved with studying actual generational responses to new ICTs (please have a look at the research assembled at http://www.children-go-online.net/). It would be great to see more research like this used in “net gen” publications. For example, see Roberts’ assessment of net gen concerns in a recent Educause (based on conversations and unspecified interview methods; http://www.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101c.pdf), and compare it to Livingstone’s work, linked above.

    This does not undermine the main argument of the section, which is to suggest that the net generation is not defined by age group alone. It is in fact defined by access, and hence, will not line up exactly with age.

    But is this the myth, that the net generation is not defined exclusively by age? I cannot think of any proponent of the theory who would explicitly say so, nor certainly would they when pressed with questions about, say, net gen behaviours in the developing world.


    The term net generation is an inescapably age-bound category; it emphasizes age to the (tacit) exclusion of other ways of defining a population. Stephen, please show me examples of those who look for or emphasize other (demographic) ways of defining the “net gen.”

    That said, the definitions used in the Livingstone, Bober & Helsper study mask what constitutes net gen behaviour, even among those classified as being on the wrong side of the digital divide in this section. Access to mobil phones, for example, is near ubiquitous, even in the developing world, and therefore it is reasonable to suggest that associated net gen behaviours - such as 'thumbing' and 'txting' - would be found wouldwide, as would related attitudes - such as 'connectivity' and 'self organization'.

    This is an important point. I will be looking for research –both in net gen texts and in more general studies that discuss the empirical evidence related to these phenomena (it appears to be lacking in both). But researchers are generally rather slow to catch up on some of these more recent things.

    Does it therefore that the conusion is false, that we should not believe that "It is important to address significant inequalities in use, understanding, and facility associated with these new technologies, rather than simply painting all students with the same brush."

    Of course not. This remains true. It has probably always been seen as true, save among the most pedagogically naive.


    Imaging or speculating on what net gen proponents might think and say is fine, but what they actually write is always better. Again, I’m looking for places where they actually identify inequalities within the net gen, and where they emphasize the need for educators to address these. I wouldn’t want to call those who write about the net gen pedagogically naïve if they do not recognize inequalities, but I would want to be sure about what they (don’t) say about this stuff first. If they indeed fail to do this, I see this failure as part of a kind of de-politicization and technological hyperbole that is too prevalent in e-learning writing (this will come up in my conclusion to these “myths”).

    I would be more interested in seeing whether access to technology increases or decreases the differences between children of the privileged and children of the poor.

    Compare, for example, the life of the child of a New York doctor with the life of, say, a Colombian orphan. If any such studies were conducted prior to the use of the internet, we can then compare those results with results from today, in the internet age (and for fun, with what the results look like when free interenet access is provided to both children).

    My belief is that these children would be less dissimilar today, and that this dissimilarity can be traced to the permeation of 'net gen culture' into their two lives respectively.


    I agree! I would love to see or do the type of research you suggest here, too, Stephen. It is much needed. I’m not sure that only “permutations” in an otherwise coherent generational group would be discovered, but it would be fascinating nonetheless.


    -Norm

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