A few notes on yesterday’s symposium, Networked Generation: a Critical and International Perspective, convened at the OU by Chris Jones, principal investigator of an ongoing UK project on the net generation. The day was organised around discussion of a series of international research projects. Presenters used their empirical research as a basis for dialogue and critical examination of the so-called digital divide between higher education educators and students (e.g. Prensky), Starting from the basis that there is ‘no sound evidence’ for such claims as a platform for all-out utopian or dystopian viewpoints, Jones and others noted the way in which the ‘generational metaphor’ has gained currency, been used as a convenient ‘handle’, for example, by advertisers in selling games as ‘edutainment’ and by policy makers and other stakeholders in persuading teachers and educators that they need to catch up with their use of technology. The symposium was all about breaking down the ‘myth’. I was sure they were right that this needed doing but hadn’t realised just how complex research suggests it all is.
For sure, according to many international studies (some very large, eg. ECAR) a more multi-dimensional reality emerges. Studies have identified that there are certain age-related trends, but also that there are intra-generational variances in usage and attitudes towards technologies: for example, with gender, as well as a range of complex interrelated ‘other’ factors, which are currently being explored. So far the research seems to confirm that students’ capability, use and confidence with technologies is greatly influenced by their ability to tap into family and ‘informal’ networks of friends. Where this source of support and know-how is not available, skills are more likely to come though ‘formal’ education and training.
It seems that for people who have easy access to technologies/Internet the variation in usage often comes down to choices, interests and preferences for personal context – different technologies being more appropriate for specific purposes. The availability of the choices and interests option can be perhaps taken for granted. Taking an international perspective clearly broadens the range and spread of different socio-economic groups. One interesting report was on a study in South Africa (Laura Czerniewicz and Cheryl Brown), where levels of access and technology use is extremely diverse, with the main access to ‘computers’ for many students being through their university. Some students reported sharing computers and mobile phones, but owning one or several Sim cards that they use for different needs. Mobile phones were valued more than laptops – in fact, this was reported across many of the international presentations (Sue Bennet and Gregor Kennedy).
As Richard has highlighted in recent posts, digital inclusion/exclusion, skills and literacies has implications for much broader issues of civic engagement and social inclusion – not only internationally, but in the UK also. This was highlighted in the presentation by Rebecca Eynon of the Oxford Internet Institute. According to the recent Oxford Internet Survey, in the UK (England, Scotland, Wales) “One in 10 of the population (9%), amounting to four million people, suffer ‘deep’ social exclusion and have no meaningful engagement with Internet based services.”(p39)..And this is only one part of a complex mix of different variables around choice, availability, inclusion and exclusion. Exposing the myth in the ‘generational metaphor’ showed how issues in higher education inform and are embedded in these broader social issues. You can access related resources at the The Net Generation Encountering eLearing at University.project webpage.