Research shows that the existence of a generation of ‘digital natives’ and the ability of this generation to multi-task are in fact two harmful myths — myths that lead to erroneous assumptions about learning and work efficiency.
The digital native is a myth, according to an extensive review of the research by by Paul Kirschner of Open University of the Netherlands and Pedro de Bruyckere of Artevelde University in Ghent, Belgium. Writing in Teaching and Teacher Education journal, Kirschner and Bruyckere argue that multiple academic studies in multiple countries show repeatedly that those born after 1984 or 1980 — two years commonly cited as the year in which digital natives were born — are no more digitally savvy than those born before these dates.
The fact that young people grew up in a world in which they were surrounded by digital tools, such as the Internet, does not mean that they use these tools any more effectively than those who remember the pre-Internet age. In fact, the opposite seems to be true. The research shows that young people credited with being digital natives have a shallow knowledge of technology, mainly focused on basic office skills, email, texting, posting on Facebook and surfing the Internet.
This research has implications for teaching and teacher education, implications that can then be expanded to business. In the education field, this research dispels the notion that students have superior digital skills and competencies that, in fact, they do not have. It also dispels the idea that teachers are technologically challenged ‘digital immigrants’.
Dispelling the myth of the digital native also implies that digital literacy is an important subject to be taught to present students and future teachers — as well as to current teachers.
One important conclusion from these studies is that when digital nativism is used to explain certain behaviour, the actual source may be elsewhere. For example, instead of blaming this generation’s lack of interest in school on its so-called digital nativism, look to reasons such as young people’s inability to concentrate and to ignore irrelevant stimuli, which leads to constant multi-tasking.
Multi-tasking proficiency is, in fact, a second fundamental myth related to today’s generation of learners. Related information-processing, the term ‘multi-tasking’ is in fact a misnomer, since it implies that the brain is consciously doing two thinking tasks at the same time. Neurologically, this is impossible. At best, the brain can switch back-and-forth between tasks (a process known as threaded cognition), giving the appearance of multi-tasking when it is actually never engaged with more than one task at a time.
Research has shown, however, that this constant, rapid task-switching is less efficient that staying focused on one task. The brain is being asked to juggle tasks; this juggling process drains cognitive resources and time from the core tasks, leading not only to lost time but also to cognitive mistakes.
In the teaching contexts, the research confirms the implications of this juggling act: students who are multi-tasking take more time to learn something and will not learn it as well.
One interesting study revealed that frequent multi-taskers were less proficient at switching tasks because they were unable to separate irrelevant stimuli from relevant stimuli. Instead of being a deliberate productivity tool, this and other studies reveal that multi-tasking results from the weakness of individuals who are incapable of ignoring off-task distractions.
In an educational setting, the results of these studies lead to two fundamental lessons. First, students need to learn the negative learning effects of multi-tasking. Second, teachers should limit access to technology that enables multi-tasking. For example, access to laptops should be limited to times when online research is required. Technology is a valuable tool in learning, as long as both teacher and student understand when it is appropriate to use it, and when it is a bad idea.
In sum, students and teachers did grow up in different worlds with different technologies. However, it should not be assumed that these generational differences lead to greater learning proficiency and effectiveness for one, and learning or teaching disadvantages for the other. Instead education must take into account the baggage (both positive and negative) related to these different backgrounds.
Although Kirschner and de Bruyckere were writing in the context of education, the lessons of this research can be applied directly to the business context.
Companies and leaders should not make assumptions about the knowledge or skills of their employees (and lack of knowledge and skills of older managers), nor about the ability of younger employees to multi-task.
There are fundamental generational differences that present a variety of challenges to companies dealing with today’s multi-generational workforce. Addressing those challenges begins by separating myth from fact; otherwise companies will be seeking to resolve problems that don’t exist (e.g. the inability of managers to master digital technologies) while ignoring problems that do exist (lack of digital proficiency in younger employees and the deleterious effects of multi-tasking).
The bottom line: In our digital age, technology is an effective tool that opens avenues of resources for learning and work, but it can also be a distraction. The key to success is managing access to technology appropriately.
The myths of the digital native and the multitasker. Paul A. Kirschner & Pedro De Bruyckere. Teaching and Teacher Education (October 2017).
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