Linda Price

  • Learners in the 21st Century: are they any different?

    Linda Price and Adrian Kirkwood, The Open University, UK

    Conceptual paper

    Themes: teaching methods, course and programme design, skills development and lifelong learning, graduate outcomes, supporting learners

    Tuesday 8 September 2009, 09.00 - 10.00 in room 119

    There has been considerable debate about the new generation of learners entering higher education institutions (Frand, 2000; Prensky, 2001a; Prensky, 2001b). It has been argued that students of the 21st century are qualitatively different from previous cohorts because their childhood development is intertwined with technology; that they are the ‘net generation’ (Tapscott, 1998 and 2008). Prensky (2001) refers to these students as ‘digital natives’ and argues that they are “physically different” as the way they think has altered in response to the digital world in which they are growing-up. This stance underpins a further contention: that education is lagging behind societal changes in its use of technology and is disaffecting students by failing to integrate technology into mainstream educational provision (Levin and Arafeh, 2002, Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005, Prensky, 2001a, Prensky, 2001b, Tapscott, 2008).

    But in what ways are this new generation of learners different from previous generations? Where is the evidence - and what does it show? Can behavioural differences in young people be related to their achieving the expected outcomes of higher education, i.e. the development of appropriate conceptual understanding, cognitive skills and attitudes? Many of the assertions about the new generation of learners are eclipsed by a lack of empirical evidence and the questionable validity of assumptions about them constituting a homogeneous group (Bennett et al., 2008; Kennedy et al., 2008).  Advocates of the ‘Net Generation’ focus upon young people’s access to and familiarity with digital technologies, without any consideration of exactly how technologies might be exploited for purposeful educational development (Kirkwood and Price, 2005). While students use the Internet to find information, they may search ineffectively and be ill-prepared to determine the relevance, authority, authenticity and integrity of sources (CIBER/UCL, 2008; Lorenzo and Dziuban, 2006). Equally, familiarity with email and social software does not mean those students will be skilled at conducting rigorous and sophisticated educational discussions online.

    We argue that an examination of 21st century learners requires greater sophistication than it has currently received. Practices and behaviours aimed at acquiring resources and developing outputs may have changed, but are these associated with fundamental changes in students’ attitudes, beliefs, motivations and values? What impact, if any, do these behaviours have upon their conceptions of learning (Marton, Dall'Alba and Beaty, 1993; Säljö, 1979), approaches to studying (Marton and Säljö, 2005) and their orientation to learning?

    Before universities start radically changing curricula and methods a more complete picture is required of the student population and its characteristics. We argue that an empirically driven and theoretically underpinned approach is required. We propose that further investigations should consider values and beliefs as well as learners’ practices. It must also build upon what is currently established in the literature.

    The session will present some features and attributes that might provide a useful means of examining whether this generation of learners are different and the ways in which they might differ. These will be explored in discussion and will help draw together an agenda for examining these issues in the future.