Are Digital Natives a myth or a reality? University student’s use of digital technologies.

Margaryan, A., Littlejohn, A., Vojt, G. (2011). Are Digital Natives a myth or a reality? University student’s use of digital technologies.. Computers & Education. 56 (e.g. 2), pp.429-440


Technolgy use by students in education is complex, and driven by nuanced factors. The primary driver is not digital nativeness, or migrancy, but lecturer use of technology and institutional use of technolgy. Technical students may be more likely to use technology tools, but may also be more likely to be required to use a VLE more intensively.

Students expressed fairly conventional attitudes towards teaching, and were content with conventional minimal VLE use – as a content repository –  evinced zero evidence of having developed new learning styles, and were limited in ability to suggest new uses of technology in their education.

Staff are both negative about, and inexperienced with emergent technologies.

Students expressed desires for teachers to show them how and why to use technology contextually.

Staff suggest a lack of time os the key obstacle to them experiementing.

The Paper

The paper points out Oblinger and Prensky’s idea that the generation born in the eighties has a radically new relationship top technology, and new cognitive capacities and styles, pointing out that the adherents to this idea feel current and conventional educational settings are ill equipped to swerve these radically new student types, arguing that universities need to make significant invesiments in catering to this new native population to gain competitive edge.

As the paper notes “Although these arguments have been well-publicised and uncritically accepted by some, there is no empirical basis to them.” There has been a recent countermove, and a necessity has arisen to provide a robust empirical basis to the debate.

Insights into the how and who, why and where of technology use will give us a nuanced insight into the extent and nature if tech use by students. The paper argues that pedagogy and “educational purposes must provide the lead “.

The paper aims to provide empirical evidence for the nature, contexts and type of technology use by students, and motivations for it’s adoption.

The lit review in terms of data is limited to 2005, due to the rapidly changing nature of the subject area. It’s focus on university students, and is balanced across several countries.
The study itself is conducted across two UK uni’s a post and pre 92 university, the post 92 admitting significantly more entrants from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and focus on teaching and applied disciplines rather than research and fundamental disciplines.

It’s a mixed method paper, with quant and qual given equal weight. Studets were engineering or social work students, and male students were more likely to be engineers, female social workers. The sample size of 160 gives a solid statistical basis, but as it’s a snapshot from one lecture, it may not be a comprehensive picture og both institutions.

Most participants owned a range of tools. (rounded down) Mobiles -99 %, pc, 79%, media player 69, laptop 66, digital camera 57, games consoles 53.


Even looking at this list, it already feels dated. Who has a portable media player or a digital camera anymore? This is not a criticism, merely an observation. Education technology surveys date quickly.
Engineers tended to translate informal use of tech into formal learning use more than social work students.
Formal learning tools: the most popular were websites, Google, Course websites, and sms. The findings here feel…dated. Informal tools reflected this, but with mobile phones.
There’s an important proviso here. The study is from 2010 I think, so smartphone use, and it’s impact had yet to be felt fully.

Large numbers of students (over 80% in each case) never used blogs, podasts or chat in formal or informal learning. Many tools were never used formally by over half the students.

Digital Natives used tools more in formal learning, informal learning, and socialising. Engineering students were more likely to be Natives than Social Work students, and this is reflected in the tool usage assessed by discipline.

Engineering students tend to make more use of tech tools generally, and the results suggest they transfer their tech use across contexts. Incresased social use amongst engineers correlated with increased educational use of tools, and this was not observed among social work students, indicating that there may be cleaer boundaries between social and educational use. The stiudy is not equipped to determine the nature opf such boundaries.

Digital natives who were students from a technical background tended to use tools more than digital natives from non technical backgrounds and digital immigrants, both formally and informally.

This may be mediated, in part, by the more intensive requirements on students in technical disciplines to use a VLE.
VLE use and attitudes

Qualitative aspect

Social worker students (8 respondents – so there’s a statistical caveat here, it’s a very small size) all stated their VLE was used as a content repository, which was viewed positively in terms of convenience, however inconsistency across lecturers use posed challenges, perceived by students as a function of differeing skill levels, or preferences.
Staff respondents displayed varying levels of comfort with VLEs. Engineering staff appeared more comforatable than Social Work staff (is this a possible influence on students use of tech?).

Student use of other techs was varied, and far from uniform. Photo sharing, gaming, social media use, blog reading, and contribnuting to youtube were all low.
“Students did not appear to understand the potential of technology to support learning. Instead they looked to their lecturers for ideas on technology enhanced learning: “If [lecturers] found a way for everyone to use these [tools] then it would be quite good”(Alen,Eng) “If they taught us a bit about it before just saying ‘go and do it’”(Gordon,Eng).”
This is a key finding. Students are looking for their tutors to show them how, and why, and do so contextually (mirrored in the ECAR report)
Students, when questioned , had few ideas for technology implementation, and had fairly conventional expectations of how they should be taught.
Staff had little experience of many technologies, and generally negative opinions about social media, texting, IM, and mobile use in education. Lack of time to experiment were pointed to by staff as key obstacles to tech integration.
The study argues that the relationship between student technology use is a complex relationship between age, subject studied, the extent of their own tech use, and the universities promotion of tech in it’s courses. In short, it’s not a straight shot relationship between nativeness and migrant status.
The study finds no evidence of an age determined relationship to ;learning styles., exhibition of new forms of literacy, sophisticated use of digital technologies. The key driver seemed to be the lecturer’s use of technology., which shaped students attitudes and practices. Students have not been demanding that lecturers change their pedagogies, but have been happy to conform to traditional modes, and it seems that most lecturers didn’t have an understanding on how new technologies might impact learning.
Prior learning experiences on formal settings appear to be more important than personal tech use in determining attitudes to teaching and learning amongst students.

To Read
Littlejohn Margaryan and Vojt, Exploring student’;s use of ICT
Harris Warren Leigh and Ashleigh, small steps across the chasm

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