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Accuracy • Independence • Integrity

September 22, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

News

Millennials fall short in meeting expectations as “digital natives”

Facebook is a navigable tool for the average internet user, but Dennis Charsky, communication, management and design program director at Ithaca College, said some of his students attempt to utilize it beyond social purposes.

“I have had students that have tried to do their group work in Facebook, and it doesn’t work at all,” he said.

Despite spending many hours on the social media site, Charsky said, students end up finding that it is more trouble than convenient to mix academic and social avenues.

“Twenty-year-olds in general think that it’s easy to blur the lines between work and social … but as they quickly find, they get exhausted,” he said.

At the turn of the millennium, Marc Prensky, American writer and education speaker, famously hailed the youngest generation as “digital natives” with a natural sense for technological tools and an entirely different way of thinking.

More than a decade later, the term might be more or less obsolete, with modern studies and professors contesting whether the innate technological abilities attributed to the millennial generation extend into academia.

Charsky said there is a perception of the millennial generation that exalts them as technological gurus, which is mainly indicated by the increase in social uses of technology.

“I understand the perception and the strong desire to pigeonhole millennials into this newness — they’ve grown up with cellphones, they know nothing but the Internet and so on,” he said. “For me, the big difference is you know how to use them for social purposes, and that does not translate well into academic learning purposes … or useful purposes for the world of work.”

Prensky first coined the term in his 2001 essay called “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants,” in which he wrote that these students “are all ‘native speakers’ of the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet.”

The British Journal of Educational Technology in 2013 challenged this notion that millennials have a natural comfort with more forms of digital technologies than previous generations. In an article titled “Digital competence: Is it an innate talent of the new generation or an ability that must be developed?,” the journal asserts that this comfort level lies with personal, consumer technology, and not with educational, classroom tools.

The perception gap becomes evident in a study conducted by Cengage and Eduventures, which reported while 65 percent of instructors believe students are naturally apt with digital classroom tools, just 42 percent of students feel professors provide enough assistance with these tools.

However, when it is assumed that students learn best through certain kinds of technology, what results is an ineffective allocation of resources, Siva Vaidhyanathan, chair of the media-studies department at the University of Virginia, said.

“College students are human beings from a wide variety of backgrounds and a wide variety of interests, and therefore, a wide variety of skills,” he said. “The moment we fail to recognize that and we think of students as being part of some mythical generations that have some attributions that we’re making up out of thin air, we’re gonna make mistakes.”

Brian Saunders, Ithaca College’s humanities librarian, said he can see the perception gap at work when professors themselves find they learn new information when they take their freshman classes to information sessions about LexisNexis and other databases at the library. He said the idea that digital natives have an innate knowledge of these systems would ease the teaching burden on professors.

“That’s a very tempting belief for the faculty to fall into because if they assume digital natives already know everything they need to know, then they feel perhaps less responsible for addressing that in class,” Saunders said.

Vaidhyanathan said educational product companies benefit most from the myth that students learn best with only certain technologies, such as iPads, based on attributes marketing corporations have assigned to this generation.

Lisabeth Chabot, college librarian, said the the college library spends 39 percent of its materials budget on books, media, scores and print journals, and 61 percent on electronic databases and serials.

The college’s Interlibrary Loan system can retrieve articles from other libraries sometimes within the hour, Laura Kuo, health sciences librarian, said. John Henderson, social sciences librarian, said this satisfies a need specific to digital natives: instant media gratification.

For example, Henderson said, students will choose the information they use based on the ease of access. That is, they are more likely to use a PDF source than a source through ILL, regardless of the subject’s value, he said.

Matthew Klemm, interim chair of the history department, said he can call on any student to help with technological snags, such as getting videos to work in class. However, he said these innate skills are not the kind that would aid students in research in his field, which is medieval and ancient history.

“I feel like a lot of the technological skill that people have, it’s all rather superficial,” he said. “It’s good for just kind of navigating things rather than the kind of deeper research methods that still have to be done in each particular area, in each particular class. It’s hard for me to imagine … their innate skills helping a whole lot with that.”

Sophomore Sara Yagan, who is on the pre-med track, said she has had to utilize Microsoft programs in her medical technology class to create information graphics. In terms of research, she said she does not opt for databases or library resources.

“I Google anything and everything,” she said.

Sophomore Maxwell Barnett said he generally uses Google and sees it as a resource to find other primary sources, which he said is something not many professors may initially see the value in.

“There really is a fundamental gap between the professors’ and the students’ understanding of technology,” he said. “A lot of the times, professors will want you to use resources available to you in a different way than you’re used to.”

He said, however, for more intense research, he sees the value in the sources the library has to offer.

“People at the library can help you narrow down [research] in ways you sometimes can’t do by yourself,” he said.

Vaidhyanathan said there is always a small percentage of students who are comfortable with the intricacies of computer technology, but for the vast percentage of students, the ability to work a smartphone does not aid in their skills with classroom and digital media technology.

“You can do so much now without knowing anything that I think we often equate the time that young people spend engaging with an interface with facility or skill in digital media, and they’re two very different things,” he said. “Just because someone watches hours and hours of television, that doesn’t make her a television producer.”

Kurt Komaromi, assistant professor of marketing and law, said the college does not spend enough time helping students attain familiarity with technologies like Sakai and TaskStream, so he dedicates a class period to going through TaskStream with his freshman seminar.

“I do think as a general rule that we often overestimate students’ innate ability to just connect and understand a new technology — that I’ve definitely seen,” he said.

Junior Lauren Bristow, a music major, said it took her a few months to get accustomed to Sakai, and the inconsistency with how professors used the site left her confused with regard to its functions, but she would not be opposed to learning more about it.

“I would love to learn more about … how Sakai really functions and certain things in it that could be really useful for not just me but for students in general,” she said. “We kind of just got thrown in … No one really talked about it.”

Whether or not the term digital natives and all it connotates is warranted, Charsky said he thinks one thing remains the same: Generations will always find reasons to criticize those that come after them.

“I think a lot of the differences we’re seeing in millennials is just differences because they’re just younger,” he said. “If you look back through the ages, there has always been some bashing of the younger generation.”

Kayla Dwyer can be reached at kdwyer1@ithaca.edu or via Twitter: @kayla_dwyer17