Digital Natives: Urban Legends and Reality

Some time go, I got to read an article “Do Learners Really Know Best? Urban Legends in Education” by Dutch researchers Paul A. Kirschner & Jeroen J.G. van Merriënboer. Despite the fact that the paper was presented in Educational Psychologist journal, published on behalf of the American Psychological Association, back in 2013, there have been very few references to this publication, though it certainly deserves attention from the academic community.

The article is devoted to the critical analysis of the most popular myths or, as the authors say, urban legends on the nature of digital natives and the specifics of educating them. Kirschner and van Merriënboer referred to Mark Twain and his saying “In religion and politics people's beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second-hand, and without examination”, arguing that the same is true for education. They say that most statements on the need for fundamental changes in the modern society and the educational system according to the dramatic changes in the “natural” abilities of digital generations are based on beliefs, rather than on science. Such statements help reformers, designers of educational programs, politicians, and managers to keep their positions, as well as their image of innovators who can raise funds. 11.jpg

So, what are the beliefs, or urban legends, that are adopted by the educational and political systems and yet are so far from what the results of scientific research show, we are going to talk in this post about?

Legend 1: “Old” educational tools and methods do not work for modern students who are digital nomads by nature, which means they can only deal with new information and communication technologies.

Legend 2: Each student has a specific way to learn things that is why education must be customized, according to personal preferences of learner.

Legend 3: Students are capable of controlling their academic performance, therefore, they must be in charge of what and when to learn.

Kirschner and van Merriënboer point out that all these legends got spread so vastly in the 2000s that teachers are helpless in terms of confronting the consequences that were brought by them. The authors are focused on the goal that is to formulate the arguments, based on real field experiments that can stop us from believing in such nice-sounding myths.


ЗрителиThey started with unveiling legend number one. They wanted to figure out whether students are such qualified digital nomads that they can multitask, using various technologies. In their opinion, Mark Prensky, who coined the term “digital nomads” and described them as a cohort of people who are advantageously different from the previous generations, based his ideas not on accurate research, but on rational evaluation of what was going on in the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s. Here is an example. Whenever he saw kids who were using digital technologies he would assume that they were doing it 1) consciously and 2) effectively. That brought him to conclusion that the educational system should be designed the way that would let kids continue doing so. Later on, other American researchers decided to check the real digital competence of those who belong to the generation of digital natives. The results were presented in the article “Are digital natives a myth or reality? University students’ use of digital technologies”, published in Computers and Education journal in 2011.

As it turned out, university students do not have deep knowledge on how to use technologies. What they can do is using a regular office package, which includes email, message applications, social media, and Google searching engine. They passively consume information on the most popular and least trustworthy platforms, such as Wikipedia, and use “ready-to-go” texts for their assignments. As a rule, students do not use applications at full capacity, because such advanced approach would require special skills that must be mastered in certain trainings and workshops.  


Some other research that Kirschner and van Merriënboer referred to also deflates the hypothesis that the Google generation is good at using the internet and that technologies made it easier for them to look for information and to analyze it. Instead, we can witness so-called “butterfly defect”, which refers to constant shifting from one link to another, without remembering any of what has been seen. It leads to building a very fragile knowledge network.

Young teachers (age 24-25) do not meet expectations as well. They use very limited range of software and passively surf social networks in order to consume information, rather than to create content in collaboration with other users. 14.jpg

Multitasking is another aspect of the legend about incredible abilities of digital nomads. Of course, watching kids simultaneously doing their home assignment, exchanging messages, and doing someting on their computers, one may think of them as of successful multitaskers. This is so different from what other generations used to do that it brings us to the conclusion about irreversible changes in their brains. Many authors share this belief. For example, Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan, authors of iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. According to them, digital media reconstruct the neural structure of kid’s brain, making such skills as multitasking performance, complex thinking, and decision making better.

However, thanks to the discoveries, made by American neurophysiologies I mentioned in my last post, we are aware of the following fact. If some activity requires thinking and conscious data analysis, the structure of human brain lets us switch from one task to another but not do them simultaneously. As long as each task competes for a limited amount of cognitive resources, completing one of them interferes with completing the others. Kirschner and van Merriënboer refer to several research studies that are very convincing in showing how fast modern school and university students juggle with their tasks, which leads to inefficiency in completing each separate task. They make a lot of mistakes and it takes them more time to finish their work multitasking, rather than to go one task at a time. The authors prove that there are no grounds for expecting positive results of multitasking. 


The second legend has it that all learners, at least university students, know very well their own specific features that constitute their individual learning styles. In other words, each learner is aware of how he or she acquires and remembers information: in texts, images, motion pictures, or tables; as a whole or divided into portions; and so on. Teachers need to test them on the entrance and plan their work accordingly. As a result, maximum success can be achieved. Once again, it requires all managers, teachers, parents, and students themselves to believe in young people’s ability to control their own academic performance (to self-manage).

The Dutch agree that this idea of young people being able to take control over their education is very attractive and has legal potential. Thousands of books, hundreds of conferences on education, and hundreds of thousands of tools have been devoted to determining individual curriculums for school and university students. However, according to Dutch researchers, there are some fundamental issues with determining the styles of teaching and learning, as well as with combining these styles with the content and methods of teaching and learning.

Most educational styles are based on the type of students (auditory learners vs visual learners, reflective learners vs impulsive learners, and holistic learners vs analytics), which does not give any evaluation to the students, but classify them into separate groups (types). It brings to light, at least, three problems: 1) many learners do not belong to one particular type; 2) data that is used to determine a learning type is often inaccurate, as it is often provided by learners themselves as a result of their self-observation; and 3) there are so many individual styles (academic resources describe 71 styles and 271 combinations) that it is basically impossible to consider them all when designing the curriculum. Kirschner and van Merriënboer say: “people are different from each other on so many style dimensions, and for each dimension in so many degrees, that it becomes totally impractical to take these differences into account in instruction, even if the previous two problems did not exist!”

What do we do then with a widely spread idea that the learning instruction must be presented the way that matches the learner’s learning style? Dutch researchers argue that what learners prefer does not necessarily represent what he or she can use as the most productive learning tool. It is like feeding kids with nothing but candies just because they prefer that. There is another thing: the learning style which is preferable in one situation may be not advantageous in another because of the nature of skills that need to be taught. For example, it is impossible to prepare a doctor, using only one learning style. The combination of skills is too complicated for that. And this is true for all professions that require complicated combination of skills! 16.jpg

The third legend is that digital natives are capable of finding any information on the internet and using it for academic purposes. The idea of replacing learning with searching for information is based on belief that information becomes less and less valuable so fast that it makes any knowledge obsolete and useless. And as far as all this information is “out there” on the internet, there is no need to teach or learn anything. What must be done is just letting students search for new information because they are really good at it.


First, information and system knowledge are not the same things. Second, one must not ignore the fact that the internet is becoming a world-wide disposal field for information. Very often, it is impossible for a non-specialist to distinguish between the truths and false or propagandist information. It requires certain skills that are not natural even for digital natives. In order to be able to digest the information, it is necessary to have skills for searching, finding, evaluating, processing, organizing, and presenting it. Though modern students believe that they are digitally literate, in fact, it is not true. They have major problems with critical evaluation, as well as with finding the information needed. The way they do it is mostly determined by their existing knowledge. The Dutch researchers give interesting examples of how students deal with something they have never dealt before. Young people write “essays on Baconian science with texts about the 20th-century British artist Francis Bacon and on the problems that Martin Luther King had with Pope Leo X and Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. It also leads to prospective presidential candidates mistaking the birthplace of John Wayne (the actor) with John Wayne Gacy (the murderer convicted of killing more than 30 young men in the 1970s”.


All mentioned above call the ability of digital nomads to manage and control their own learning process in question. They often are mistaken in understanding the requirements of their assessments, as well as how these assessments may be useful for them personally. As a rule, students prefer doing something they are good at to anything new and unfamiliar. Kirschner and van Merriënboer have found the only solution to this problem: the process of education must be managed by both students and professors. First, a professor or a tutor chooses a number of tasks in accordance with a student’s level, and then a student chooses the most relevant one for him or her.

Conclusions, proposed by Kirschner and van Merriënboer:

Educational methods should be based on scientific theories supported by empirical findings, rather than on legends, hype, and non-scientific studies.

On the way from education based on legends to education based on scientific research, it is necessary to be ready for “academic moral panic”, which refers to strong resistance from the academic community, the members of which consider the urban legends to be part of their professional worldview.

At this point, it is important for our professors to think about the following question. What do they see as more relevant idea to their personal teaching experience: the description of digital natives proposed by Mark Prensky, or the way Dutch researchers describe them? It goes without saying, we need to study digital natives by ourselves as long as they still trust us with their education. It is necessary to design our own methods of teaching in schools and universities. TSU is ready to support and work together with colleagues from all over the world on long- and short-term studies in the area.

This time, I would like to focus on some preliminary results of the two-week progress in switching to the online format of work not only in Tomsk, but also in Russia.