Sidebar: Generational Differences in Education

For my EDTECH 537 class we read three papers about generational difference in education, with one arguing that “digital natives,” or people who were raised with technology, fundamentally think differently than other learners (Prensky, 2001). A second paper looked at Prensky’s arguments and described in turn why each were poorly researched (McKenzie, 2007). While some of his arguments weren’t entirely logical (e.g., some video games are violent, therefore no video game could be useful for education), his arguments were far more convincing and research-backed than Prensky’s. Finally, we read an article that found that while difference between generations existed and should be understood, they were not significant enough to warrant a change to the instructional design (Reeves, 2008).

As McKenzie points out, Prensky’s unsupported arguments are often repeated and have spread quite far. However, many of these comments and arguments sound like the comments and arguments that are always leveled at the next generation:

Simply put, people always see the next generation as having a short attention span, poor conversational skills, and a lack of drive. This has always been the case, and probably always will be.

Should a colleague of mine suggest changing our content to match a generational difference, I would first listen to what they would say. For example, younger students tend to need less in the way of explanations for how to use digital tools, and some analogies (e.g., referencing the maps that used to be in phone books) no longer make sense to younger students.

If instead they were to suggest a fundamental shift in the tools or methods of instruction based solely on a perceived generational divide, I would have to disagree. Simply telling a colleague that is rarely enough to make a difference, and it shouldn’t be. After all, just saying things it what got these ideas started. Instead, I would point them towards data-backed literature like Reeves & Oh. Once they are convinced that the differences between generations are not as substantive as they thought, I would help them choose the tools they wanted to use based on the subject matter or learning theory rather than as an attempt to appeal to  “digital natives” or “digital immigrants”.

After all, kids these days aren’t as unfocused as we give them credit for.

  • McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism, digital delusions, and digital deprivation. From Now On: The Educational Technology Journal, 17(2).
  • Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6.
  • Reeves, T. C., & Oh, E. J. (2008). Do generational differences matter in instructional design? In Instructional Technology Forum (Vol. 17, p. 2014). University of Georgia.

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6 thoughts on “Sidebar: Generational Differences in Education

  1. I absolutely love that XKCD comic and it’s very applicable to the subject! There is always a generational bias of the newer generations being less than or, as you said, less attentive to the world around them. I think you’re wise to still listen to adapting content to generational differences. This is definitely key to engagement, especially if students do not understand your references. But it definitely something to be careful of since not all students have the same levels or access to technology.


  2. A solid post, Garin! The illustration you included supports your position on the generational “blame game.” I agree with your stance after also reading the three articles. We discover who our learners are and address their needs through a variety of strategies and technology tools which will deepen their understanding and strengthen their skills. Thanks for sharing!


  3. This is a great post Garin! I think your comment about how everyone seems to criticize the generation before them is so true. My parents were fond of telling me how they had to walk to school in all kinds of weather and that I had it easy with all the snow days. In my job as a librarian, I often witness professors telling students about how easy they have it these days for doing research. They’ll go into these long, drawn out discussions about how difficult it was to use the card catalog and how much easier online databases are. But it’s definitely not that easy. Technology can only be helpful when you know how to use it to your advantage. Thanks for your sharing your thoughts!


    • I had an engineering class where the professor stood up at the front and said, “Just be glad that you don’t have to write these programs on punch cards like I did when I was in school!” And he was right, I was glad that I didn’t have to do that. But his comment also leaves out the much larger complexity that we had to deal with because we were using higher-order tools (multiple programming languages/versions, different compilers, different operating systems/editions, etc.). I think it’s important to remember that while the tools of today make some things easier, they also make other things more complex.

      Additionally, I worry about the effect of a comment like that on a struggling student. If the student is struggling, and you start telling them how easy it is and how they should just be happy that they don’t have to use the process you did, that only belittles their struggles. It’s probably best to save such when-I-was-a-lad/lass style comments for staff parties rather than student interactions.


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