April 24, 2014

A comprehensive review of the literature on digital natives

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Image retrieved from Hastac.org (Doug Beg's blog)

Image retrieved from Hastac.org (Stephen Berg’s blog)

Jones, C. and Shao, B. (2011) The Net Generation and Digital Natives: Implications for Higher Education Milton Keynes: Open University/Higher Education Academy

This paper is required reading for graduate students studying online learning or educational technology. The paper is little old (by Internet standards) but I just came across it looking for something else.

The discussion about ‘digital natives’ has gone quiet recently, and this paper might be one reason why. The authors have made a thorough review of the literature on this topic, with over 200 appropriate references, including surveys of relevant publications from countries in Europe, Asia, North America, Australia and South Africa. Here are some of their main conclusions, although the report is best read in full:

  • there is no evidence that there is a single new generation of young students entering Higher Education and the terms Net Generation and Digital Native do not capture the processes of change that are taking place;
  • demographic factors interact with age to pattern students’ responses to new technologies;
  • the gap between students and their teachers is not fixed, nor is the gulf so large that it cannot be bridged. In many ways the relationship is determined by the requirements teachers place upon their students to make use of new technologies and the way teachers integrate new technologies in their courses. There is little evidence that students enter university with demands for new technologies that teachers and universities cannot meet;
  • students do not naturally make extensive use of many of the most discussed new technologies such as Blogs, Wikis and 3D Virtual Worlds….Students who are required to use these technologies in their courses are unlikely to reject them and low use does not imply that they are inappropriate for educational use. The key point being made is that there is not a natural demand amongst students that teaching staff and universities should feel obliged to satisfy;
  • students will respond positively to changes in teaching and learning strategies that are well conceived, well explained and properly embedded in courses and degree programmes. However there is no evidence of a pent-up demand amongst students for changes in pedagogy or of a demand for greater collaboration;
  • the development of university infrastructures, such as new kinds of learning environments (for example Personal Learning Environments) should be choices about the kinds of provision that the university wishes to make and not a response to general statements about what a new generation of students are demanding; 
  • the evidence indicates that young students do not form a generational cohort and they do not express consistent or generationally organised demands. A key finding of this review is that political choices should be made explicit and not disguised by arguments about generational change.


This paper is a timely correction to the hype around digital natives, especially the claims made by Tapscott and Prensky. It is so easy to find a buzz-word or phrase and through constant repetition and media hype present a gross over-simplification of what are often subtle and complex changes.

It is also important to pay attention to what Jones and Shao are not saying. They are not saying that social media, personal learning environments, or collaborative learning are inappropriate, nor that the needs of students and the workforce are unchanging or unimportant, but the use of these tools or approaches should be driven by a holistic look at the needs of all students, the subject area and society, and not by an erroneous view of what a particular generation of students are demanding.



  1. Doug Holton says:

    Yeah, Mark Bullen has a whole blog devoted to the topic of debunking the “digital natives” idea: http://netgennonsense.blogspot.com/

    And if you google the phrase, you get my summary of several critiques of the notion:

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