Gerald Haigh visits his alma mater to learn that a good attitude to technology correlates with good learning habits

Girl drawing on touchscreenA new research project by the Open University explores the much-debated concept of “the digital native”. The university does this by making full use of the rich resource which is its own highly diverse student body.

It concludes that while there are clear differences between older people and younger in their use of technology, there’s no evidence of a clear break between two separate populations.

Is there really a distinct group of younger people who are not only easy with technology because they’ve grown up with it, but actually think and learn differently as a result? The idea gained quite a bit of traction after Marc Prensky wrote about the idea ten years ago in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,  with other writers weighing in, such as Bradley Jorgensen with Generation X and Generation Y.

Since then, the concept has often been questioned, and even Prensky’s own ideas have changed somewhat. The notion persists in the public imagination though. After all, it seems to bear the fatal hallmark of “common sense”. On one side of the divide is the young person who uses technology like she drives her car, without the need for conscious attention to the process. On the other side sits a grizzled and mature individual, maybe a would-be ‘silver surfer’, frowning impotently at a keyboard and calling for his granddaughter.

This isn’t, though, just a saloon bar debating point, or material for yet another Grumpy Old Men TV programme. If there really is a clear generational separation of brain process, then we need to know more about it because there are important implications for learning.

The OU research involved more than 4,000 students aged from 20 to 60

Research, in fact, is called for, and who better to undertake it than the Open University? After all, you can enrol as a student at the Open University at any adult age, with no upper limit.  And in order to do a degree, or any other qualification at the OU, you need a computer and internet access. Putting those two conditions together seems to create the ideal conditions within which to examine the reality of the inter-generational divide.

So, the University’s Institute of Educational Technology set about the task by putting together an age-stratified, gender-balanced cohort of 7,000 students aged between 21 and 100 . There were 2,000 between ages 60 and 69, 1,000 aged 70 and over, and, for comparison, four groups, 1,000 in each, from students respectively in their twenties, thirties, forties and fifties. All were surveyed by detailed and carefully constructed questionnaires.

These began by asking for information about access to technology, including mobile phone features. The questions then moved to exploring levels of confidence and frequency of use across 13 different computer tasks. And finally, students were given nine statements about their attitudes to technology and 18 statements intended to explore their approaches to studying – whether their approach was “deep” or “surface” for example. They were given the choice of responding online or by post.

A total of 4,066 students responded to the questionnaire – 58.1 per cent, which is regarded as a good response rate. The age distribution, though, was remarkably uneven. 81.2 per cent of the over-seventies responded, but only 30.8 per cent of those in their twenties. Perhaps that’s understandable. What’s rather more counter-intuitive is that while over 60 per cent of the over-sixties chose to respond online rather than by post, only 46.4 per cent of those in their twenties did so.

Other results are, at first sight, relatively predictable. Younger students are more likely to have worked on a wide range of computing tasks, and to have used technology over longer periods. Older students are more likely to have access to a desktop computer, where younger ones more frequently have laptops and handheld devices – phones, music and games players. And there’s a group in the middle years who are doggedly sticking to their palmtops.

Almost all the respondents use the internet – not surprisingly, given its importance in OU courses. More of the younger users than the older ones, though, are likely to have access beyond the home computer – at work, at a public facility, or anytime, anywhere with a mobile device.

When it comes to mobile phones, the differences are again in line with common perception – older users are just as likely as younger ones to make calls, but are less likely to use all the other features – text, camera, music, internet, wi-fi.

So Prensky was right first time? 'No, certainly not'

Across all of these comparisons, incidentally, the gender balance remains more more less even. Again, perhaps in line with expectation, actual attitudes to technology differ across generations, with younger participants more positive. At the same time though, attitudes at all ages fall at the positive end of the scale.

So there are generational differences, then? Certainly there are. Nobody’s arguing about that.

So Prensky was right the first time – there really is digital native generation? No, certainly not – and that’s what’s important about this study. It shows that while those differences exist, they are not lined up on each side of any kind of well-defined discontinuity. The change is gradual, age group to age group. The researchers regard their results as confirming those who have doubted the existence of a coherent ‘net generation’.

“We found no evidence for any discontinuity in technology use around the age of 30 as would be predicted by the Net Generation and Digital Natives hypothesis," says the report. What the reseachers do find interesting and worthy of further study is the correlation – which is independent of age -- between attitudes to technology and approaches to studying. In short, students who more readily use technology for their studies are more likely than others to be deeply engaged with their work.

“Those students who had more positive attitudes to technology were more likely to adopt a deep approach to studying, more likely to adopt a strategic approach to studying and less likely to adopt a surface approach to studying.”

So, in conclusion, first, there’s no evidence of a clear-cut digital divide. Use of technology varies with age, but it does so predictably, over the whole age span. And secondly, although younger people are more likely to be positive about technology, there is evidence that a good attitude to technology, at any age, correlates with good study habits.

More information

The research is presented in a paper currently under review, “Older Students’ use of Digital Technologies in Distance Education”, by Chetz Colwell, Anne Jelfs and John T E Richardson
Chetz Colwell is a project officer, Anne Jelfs is the learning and teaching development manager, and John T E Richardson is the professor of student learning and assessment in the Institute of Educational Technology at the UK Open University.

Gerald HaighGerald Haigh is a freelance journalist and the author of Inspirational – and Cautionary – Tales for Would be School Leaders (Routledge) and Jobs and Interviews Pocketbook (Teachers' Pocketbooks). You can follow him on Twitter.
His regular column, "Five Things To Think About", will appear shortly on Agent4change.net.

Photograph (above) shows young learner using interactive touchscreen at Woodlawn Special School, North Tyneside


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