Millenial Students – Is there a difference in their learning?

As part of my EdTech blogging course, our professor offered the following prompt

“Earlier this summer semester, you read:

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants – Part II: Do they really think differently? On the Horizon, 9(6). Retrieved from,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf

McKenzie, J. (2007). Digital nativism: Digital delusions and digital deprivation. From Now On, 17(2). Retrieved from

Reeves, T.C. (2008). Do generational differences matter in instructional design? Online discussion presentation to Instructional Technology Forum from January 22-25, 2008 at

The main take aways from these readings included:

  • while the theory of generational differences exists and is a valid theory, there is no research at present that indicates instructional designers should modify instruction or instructional strategies to accommodate today’s generation of students
  • there is no reliable and valid research to support the belief that technology has somehow changed today’s generation of students
  • further to the fact that Prensky’s notion of digital natives isn’t based on research, McKenzie does a convincing job of illustrating how Prensky even misused the anecdotal “evidence” that he presents to support is beliefs
  • the only thing that can be said about today’s student, based upon reliable and valid research, is that they are more narcissistic than any previous generation

However, even faced with these realities in almost every semester where I use these three readings there are multiple students – often the majority of students – who still believe that the students they teach are fundamentally influenced by digital technology and it has changed the way that they learn in the classroom.

As educational technologists, what did you take away from these generational differences readings? How would you handle a colleague who bought into the notion of digital natives?

While I am a strong proponent of sociology and anthropology and their use in classrooms, I know these are generalizations, like the findings of most any study. We, as teachers, see children every day who do not fit into the molds set forth about them based on their gender, age, race, sexuality, level of intelligence, area of town, standardized test scores, course levels, and more. We know that differentiation matters because all children are different, so I appreciate information like this for basic information’s sake but not for the be all, end all. It is not the final word. Instead, I base my teaching on what I see of my own students and what’s best for them more than what a study of other students says.

So here’s what I see:

My students love their cell phones but don’t do much more than surface-level activity on them. They play games that require very little in-depth thinking, things that last maybe 60-90 second bursts at a time and often times are rapid paced. In addition to game playing, they check Twitter and love Instagram and Tumblr. They’re becoming increasingly more visual and less textual. Like the games, they want surface level and quick. Their love of visual is moving into text messaging too, and they’re moving away from public displays of information – Tumblr isn’t as public and does not allow true comments the way most other social networking does. They don’t communicate with Twitter as much, and instead, they spend much more time talking to friends with Snapchat, an app that allows them to send private messages to friends that are usually pictures or video and might have limited text too. Its appeal rests in the fact that the message disappears (or supposedly does) as soon as its read, so they like its anonymity (though it can be saved, screen-shotted, etc.). 

To me, the way this informs my classroom is that my students need a break from their phones most days. I spend a lot of time telling them at the beginning of the year that it’s okay to put them away, take a break, not respond just because it vibrates. They are not Pavlov’s dog. They do not HAVE to respond. When they do get to use their phone in my class, I’m trying to show them the more in-depth versions of what it can do and then move that in-depth work into the classroom work. My students need to be more patient and need to “drill down” as some of my colleagues say. They want to stay on the surface and go quick, quick, quick. So I need to help them take more time, dig deeper into text, and see other ways to use technology beyond socializing. 

I don’t know if all of this means that students are fundamentally influenced by technology. I know that these aforementioned readings, at the youngest, are still six years old and in terms of technology, that’s significant. Most teachers I talk to, who have been in the classroom much longer than me, say they do see a difference in the students overall with this idea of taking less time with their work and digging less into it. With five years under my belt, I have not seen enough to tell them they’re wrong. And the articles aren’t modern enough for me to use them to support my argument either, since most of their research would have happened before their publication, making them even older. All I know is what I see, and I know what I need to do to help my students prepare for life after high school. 

As for my colleagues believing in the idea of the digital native, I don’t think anyone I work with believes they cannot learn because of their age or that they are somehow fundamentally less capable because they were not raised with technology. Yes, it’s harder to learn when you’re older, and there’s lots of research that reinforces that idea. But it doesn’t pertain to only technology but learning in general. However, I know all of my colleagues work their behinds off to keep up with the changing times and changing technology, trying to know what their students know in order to keep their techniques relevant and keep their students engaged. While the basic skills of literature haven’t changed too much, how we go about teaching it and engaging students in it have, and that’s where technology comes into play. If I were to come across anyone in my department who believes in the idea of the digital native, I would merely offer up what I said previously – all learning is harder when you don’t grow up with it, not just technology, but we must keep up with the times and with our students in order to be most effective. I know no teacher who would disagree with that. 


10 thoughts on “Millenial Students – Is there a difference in their learning?

  1. I find your comment very thought provoking, that teachers are working their tales off to keep up with changing times. I imagine that teachers in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s also saw these changes with the invention of the film strip projector and television when they began to be utilized in education. I hadn’t really reflected on that idea till now. I think the times are always changing but maybe just a little faster today. I have also noticed with my own two teenagers that their use of technology is much like that you described. But with all the technology available today, I have seriously considered getting a language arts endorsement because I think it would be an exciting subject to teach! Guess I am a bit envious of your position Rachel.

    • Aww thank you! I appreciate your kind words and would welcome you with open arms to the subject area. Just don’t forget about the papers and paper and papers. Those are what never occurred to me when I dreamed of being an English teacher. 🙂 Just the same, I love your point about the teachers of previous generations with every incoming technology; I would imagine you’re absolutely correct. I think the amazing thing about being a teacher is we’re on the forefront of technology many times. We see things and deal with things that will trickle into adulthood and older generations, sometimes, but we see the technologies and websites and apps earlier because of the age group with whom we work. I’m excited for the coming times when I no longer even need a laptop and just have either a projection as the computer or a tablet that I can go from room to room with, that connects to an interactive projector, with no need for a screen or pen. Just my tablet and my finger! But I know, even with this technology, the basics with remain. Another blogger pointed this out too – we need to find the balance, as teachers, between the new things and the basics. The basic skills don’t stop being important. We just add to them or they shift a bit!

  2. I am currently struggling with the need to respond instantly, as I see this everywhere I go and in my own family. My husband has alerts on his phone for every text, phone call, and email. It the alert goes off, he instantly has to check. It truly has turned into an automatic response! We have had to have conversations about putting our phones in a place where we only check them a few times a day. I am not sure how this impacts the learning of students – do you think that this instant need to respond takes away their ability to engage in reading or text for long periods of time? How would constant interruptions impact comprehension?

    I also strongly agree with your discussion about the surface level skills of students. More than half of the students that I teach know how to use particular programs on the surface level and that is it. They do not know how to problem solve or take initiative in figuring out new or in depth technologies. I see this as an important role of the educator to help guide and prepare them for these settings.

    • I think about the same thing with my husband – the idea of putting our phones somewhere when get home! It’s even worse with us too because we’re both attached to our computers as well. We’re even sitting on our couch right now, next to each out thankfully, but still both on our computers – with our phones next to us – on different websites, watching TV, and periodically looking at our phones. It’s definitely a problem. Sometimes I get so frustrated I turn off everything. I have friends who have even started “black out nights” where they turn off and unplug all major technology (TV, cell phones, computers) and the only thing they allow is music. Then, they challenge themselves to do things together – read, go for a walk, dance, exercise, etc. I keep thinking I would like to do that, but I haven’t done it yet. It sure is difficult, and I grew up with out any of this stuff (except TV). So I can’t even imagine how difficult it is for our students.

      As for difficulty with prolonged reading, I would say so. They appear to have shorter attention spans, but I don’t think it’s something permanent. I don’t believe, or at least hope (and I feel like that’s what our professor is getting at), that there is true neurological differences in their brains as a result of this technology. However, that isn’t to say that their habits aren’t different. And I think one of their habits is rapid responses and rapid reading – once overs and short texts. Longer texts and deeper conversations are difficult but not impossible. I definitely see the more I push the students toward understanding (I teach 17 year olds, so they get it) the need for a mental break from that technology, the more they can read for longer periods of time, the more they don’t automatically reach for their phones. I think it’s just a matter of allowing time and space for different habits to form. It doesn’t mean those habits from my room will last past the door, but I don’t think they’re lost as a result of this technology. I just think it’s a new thing we have to contend with and work against, without question. And I think admitting that we too struggle with it will help them feel less like we’re lecturing them on what’s “right” and more like we’re working with them on how to become “better” together.

      • I liked your idea for taking a break from technology. I am definitely going to try that this week! I think you make a great point about needing a “mental break”. My job involves being on a computer for the majority of the time and often times I just need to step away and stop looking at the screen. I agree that it is important to discuss this concept with students and work with them to set up and establish a healthy balance of using technology for personal and educational use.

      • Yes definitely – I think it’s all about balance. I’m not about “no technology” and not about “all technology.” It’s finding the space in between, the right moments and the right activities. Plus, I don’t like feeling so attached to something!! Once I have a free moment, I feel compelled to look at my phone! So that’s something even for me that I want to work on. Sheesh!!

  3. Rachel,

    I got a chuckle out of your Pavlov reference! I usually tell my student something to the same effect about the bells. I have been teaching for going on 23 years, and would be one of those who think students are “taking less time with their work and digging less into it.” I don’t think it is because they are digital natives, as students are only using technology at a surface level and in short bursts. Overall, people are getting used to things being quick and easy (comparatively speaking). What I am seeing in the classroom is more students who don’t seem to have developed the stamina or a sense for the level of “effective effort” required for in depth projects. I think the real trick is to teach students to delve deeper into the content while they use technology to enhance their learning, not try to replace the content with tech apps.

    • YES!! I was at an AP convention a week or so ago, and once of the women I listened to was speaking about “digging deep” into the material versus giving it the “royal skim,” as she called it. I definitely agree – students don’t stay long enough with a text to dig into it, and I would imagine that’s true of any content area. I can definitely see there being an issue with stamina as a result of the technology; I still don’t see it fundamentally changing out brain chemistry though (and I don’t believe you’re implying that), so I think it has to be taught explicitly more than it was before.

  4. Hi Rachel:
    I enjoyed what you said here: “To me, the way this informs my classroom is that my students need a break from their phones most days. I spend a lot of time telling them at the beginning of the year that it’s okay to put them away, take a break, not respond just because it vibrates. They are not Pavlov’s dog. They do not HAVE to respond.” Very nicely stated!! In fact, I think I will use it myself. On vacations I really need to step away from the phone and just enjoy myself. It has become such a habit for most people to constantly carry their phone and to constantly check it. I however, set my phone down when I get home and keep it packed away when I am working and it drives people crazy. Many people argue that I do not respond fast enough! Apparently no one remembers the day of no immediate communication methods and answering machines…that’s right I remember when we got our first answering machine when I was a kid!!
    Taking a break is okay and all kids need to hear this.
    Thanks, Angie

    • Angie – that’s wonderful that you do that. I’m pretty attached to my screens (cellphone, laptop, or iPad). My friends joke about it, that I’m tech savvy, though I make a concerted effort to stay off of all of them when we’re socializing. However, just the same, they’re all around my living room, so it’s obvious that I spend my time that way when they aren’t around. Plus, when I travel, they come with me. So my family jokes the same way about it! So it’s definitely an issue, even if no one is feeling ignored from it. But I’m thinking when we have children one day (I’m 30 so not too far off potentially), I don’t want them to learn that attachment from me. So I try to echo it in my classroom, but I certainly have to practice at my home so my children don’t learn from my behavior! I was reading this article yesterday that made me think even more about it. Some food for thought!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s