Back in 2007, when the OECD work on the New Millennium Learners (NML) started, there was a sense that the increasing levels of technology attachment of young people, their familiarity with digital media and the fact that they are always connected, had to have, sooner or later, an impact on education. This was the intuition that led the OECD Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI) to tackle the issue from an evidence-based perspective. As the ongoing discussions about the New Millennium Learners tend to be pervaded by previous assumptions about learning, on the one hand, and technology, on the other, it was felt that an evidence-based perspective is the only one that can bring answers to the many issues prompted, paving the way for appropriate policy responses.
In all OECD countries digital media and connectedness are integral to the lives of today’s learners. Indeed, it is often claimed that today’s students are "New Millennium Learners or "Digital Natives" and have different expectations about education than previous generations. In many OECD countries this is not so surprising as it applies also to a growing percentage of the adult population.
Introduction - Why connectedness matters
Today’s discussions about the impact of technology on the economy and society have to take into account the growing importance of connectivity. Connectedness, which is the capacity to benefit from connectivity for personal, social, work or economic purposes, is having an impact on all spheres of human activity. Therefore, devices and gadgets are less important than the ability to be connected and seizing the opportunities that connectedness offers. This introduction defines what connectedness is, and explains why today’s policy discussions about the knowledge economy and society must shift from purely technology-related issues to the opportunities brought about by connectedness and digital media.
How connectedness is shaping the economy and society
Technology and connectivity are having an important effect on contemporary life. This chapter provides the evidence of such an effect. To begin with, technology is fuelling economic growth. New business opportunities emerge thanks to technology. The adoption of technology changes not only the way in which work is organised but also the nature of work and the skills required. Secondly, the way in which people access services or goods, both public and private, is also permeated by technology and connectivity. Last but not least, social relationships are also affected by new technology developments. Yet, the impressive effects of technology and connectivity do not immediately translate into connectedness as a public good. There are clear indications that important divides persist, particularly drawing on gender, age and socio-economic status.
How relevant connectedness is for young people
Young people’s attachment to digital media and connectivity will shortly reach a level of almost universal saturation in OECD countries. In the Nordic countries, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and Austria, more than 95% of 15-year-olds use a computer connected to the Internet daily while at home. On average, two hours per day are devoted to a number of ICT activities, mostly related to social interactions and the consumption of digital content, sometimes in connection with schoolrelated tasks. However, despite these impressive developments the use of a general stereotype, such as the New Millennium Learners, may be inappropriate when it comes to understanding the complexity of the implications that digital media and connectivity can have on the lives on young people. Only a higher level of granularity can unveil important differences among learners that often translate into alternative profiles, needs and expectations in relation to both technology and learning.
Contrasting views about the digital generation
Doubts emerge around the issue of whether the high level of attachment to digital media and connectivity that can be found among the younger generations is bound to have only positive implications for education, and, consequently, whether schools should follow learners in this respect or, rather contrarily, help them to resist what could be construed as the trivialisation of culture and social interactions. Three main views can be said to dominate the scene: evangelists (or messianists), who promote the idea of a digital generation of learners that will constantly challenge educators; catastrophists, who support the idea that technology attachment is making young people dumb, inattentive, confused and violent; and sceptics, who criticise both evangelists and catastrophists, arguing in the absence of sound evidence the two groups make an ideological option and then present only the evidence that supports their own views. What all this shows is that a solid evidence base is either missing or not widely known.
What are the effects of attachment to digital media and connectivity?
This section presents and discusses the main research findings in controversial areas such as the effects of digital technologies and connectivity on cognitive skills development and social values and lifestyles. The results of empirical research, particularly when considering meta-analyses, give the impression of a very scattered field, with only a few efforts made to accumulate knowledge in a way that becomes useful information for parents, educators and policy makers. In addition, the available yet scarce research evidence does not always present a coherent picture, with results from some studies disagreeing with those of others. It may well be that, on the whole, digital technologies are too recent, and their effects on learners too multi-faceted and interrelated – and hence difficult to untangle – to allow the research community to provide a coherent knowledge base to the stakeholders concerned.
Are learners' expectations changing?
The argument of dramatic changes in students’ learning expectations as a result of their being New Millennium Learners is quite often mentioned as one of the most powerful drivers for change in education. However, this proposition can hardly be backed with evidence. Contrary to what many voices have suggested, students cannot be said to have dramatically changed their expectations about teaching, learning and technology: although they value the convenience and the benefits that they get with technology, their preferences are still for traditional face-to-face teaching where technology improves current practices and results in higher engagement, a more efficient resolution of learning tasks and increased outcomes. If those gains do not become apparent to students, then reluctance emerges. The reasons for such reluctance might be related to the uncertainty, disruptiveness and discomfort that discrete technology-based innovations not clearly leading to learning improvements may cause to them. Therefore, the idea that students would be the strongest supporters of radical transformations in education, as attractive as it may seem, is not yet supported by research evidence. But this might be changing as the more rewarding experiences students get, the more likely they are to become supportive of technology-based innovations. A clear implication is that teachers will have to lead the way.
Emerging issues for education
The empowerment of children and young people through digital media and connectivity has resulted in a number of new challenges to education. Very little is known about the effects of becoming a content producer with a potentially unlimited audience at a very early age. Even less about the impact of creating and nurturing virtual social networks which are, in many ways, free from any adult supervision. These emerging issues in relation to how young people use digital media and connectivity can be mapped out in five different domains: entertainment, information, knowledge and learning, social and psychological. Although the resulting issues can be seen as sources of concern, they can also be regarded in most cases as opportunities for engaging in an educational dialogue with learners.
There is evidence to support the notion that in OECD countries a large majority of young people, starting at an increasingly earlier age, already benefit from connectedness, that is, that they are able to use the opportunities offered by digital media and connectivity to their own advantage. Yet, when it comes to young people’s expectations about technology use in learning, the resulting picture is complex. The evidence shows that young people’s expectations and behaviours as learners in relation to technology use or connectivity in formal education are not changing dramatically. The vast literature defending the idea that formal education should radically change in order to cope with the expectations of young people is not supported by the facts. Empirical research has demonstrated that learners are not always comfortable with innovative uses of technology in formal education despite their social practices outside of the boundaries of educational institutions.
Implications for educational policy, research and practice
The main findings of the OECD’s project on the New Millennium Learners suggest that there is a need for identifying which policies and practices will best suit the objective of providing all students with a rich learning environment based on their particular profiles and needs, while improving their satisfaction and boosting learning gains. To do so, more must be done to improve the knowledge base about technology use in education so as to inform these debates. This requires not only more experimental research but also increased efforts to better disseminate existing findings and avoid reinventing the wheel. Activities intended to train and support teachers for course adoption of technology should be based on validated effective practices and take into account students’ alternative profiles, needs and expectations.
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