Professor: Digital natives are not 'a new species'

'Technology has not reshaped the basic ways in which our brains process information'

The presence of "digital natives" in the classroom does not mean that instructors need to completely overhaul their course design or approach to teaching, writes Michelle Miller in The Conversation.

In her article, the director of University College's First Year Learning Initiative and professor at Northern Arizona University examines recent research and argues that attention and memory remain "deeply intertwined."

Attention not only focuses the mind's resources on the most important factors but also processes peripheral information that may be useful.

For about 15% of students, media multitasking may boost efficiency

"It's unlikely that video games or online media damage kids' ability to pay attention," she says. Some technology, such as playing video games or consuming multiple types of media, may even improve concentration skills.

Comparative studies focusing on students from low- and high-tech societies found neither group is better than the other at processing information, but they may learn differently. "High-tech kids," for example, are less likely to learn by sitting and watching something for a long time.

Yet, even this does not mean instructors must rethink their entire approach to teaching.

"Technology has not reshaped the basic ways in which our brains process information," writes Miller. All it has really done is "tinker around the edges of our mental systems."

The effects of technology on our brains remain subtle, according to cognitive psychologist Daniel Willingham. A more significant change would require an evolutionary step in the species, he says. Personal experience does not carry the same kind of impact.

Additionally, research has shown that nearly 60% of "digital natives" lack basic digital skills. While they may be naturals at using social media—this does not translate to navigating easily through course management systems.

Not every student prefers to learn via digital tools either. Many continue to opt for paper instead of a screen.

"Educational technology can be highly effective, but only when it is tightly coupled to the teacher's goals," says Miller. "The effects of technology on cognition are intriguing, but they don't justify teaching millennials as if they were a new species" (Miller, The Conversation, 6/26).

Thoughts on the story? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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