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Do ‘digital natives’ learn online differently than ‘digital migrants’?

Published on 20 February 2012
Updated on 05 April 2024

A recent study at the Open University of Catalonia (UOC) challenges the view that members of the so-called ‘net generation’ share certain characteristics, as often claimed, such as the ability to adapt quickly and efficient to technological revolutions. This generation (sometimes called ‘digital natives,’ as opposed to ‘digital migrants’) includes people who have grown up surrounded by media and computing; roughly, those born after 1980. Studies suggest common features: ‘being digitally literate, continuously connected, showing a need for immediacy in receiving information, preference for social activities, being active experiential learners, showing a capacity to carry out several tasks simultaneously and being involved to the community.’ However, a number of recent studies cast doubt on the claim that this generation shares certain features.

The UOC teaches online using an Internet-based learning environment. The study surveyed over 1000 students across different study programmes; 26% were classified as net generation, while the rest were older. The survey looked at study habits and use of communication tools with peers and instructors, and perceptions of time needed for online study. In almost all areas, the survey found no significant difference between responses of net generation and older learners. The only area where a small difference appeared was that the net generation group agreed more strongly that studying online requires more time than studying face-to-face. The study concluded that there is no relationship between generation and study and communication habits among students at UOC: ‘Older learners at UOC feel as confident with the use of ICT as the younger learners, they are capable of carrying out different activities simultaneously…’

This study is particularly interesting because the students surveyed were all online learners. It suggests that there is no significant difference between the way ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital migrants’ study online. This is an important finding at a time when online learning is increasingly used, both for mature learners (in the trend towards life-long learning) and for net generation learners, within traditional university programmes.

While this is an important finding, I don’t think it provides us with enough information. We need to ask – and try to answer – other questions, such as:

  • This study was conducted within a pool of students who chose to study online; perhaps it’s safe to assume that they felt some level of confidence with technology before starting. Would a survey of a representative sample of the wider population have the same results?
  • This study was done in Europe. If there is a ‘net generation’, can this be found outside of western, developed countries? What about in the developing world, where technology has often arrived later, but sometimes ‘leapfrogged’ earlier stages to go directly to the latest innovations?
  • When it comes to online studies, what are the factors that actually lead to success? How important is level of comfort with technology, compared to other factors like motivation, time management, experience in communicating and working with others, and topic-relevant work experience, all of which are often stronger in mature students?
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