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The "Digital Generation", Technology, and Educational Change: An Uncommon Vision

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The "Digital Generation", Technology, and
Educational Change: An Uncommon Vision
Sharn Donnison
Griffith University
ustralia is in a period of fundamental social and cultural reorganisation where individuals
and institutions are coming to terms with the effects of rapid and widespread social
change. This paper explores how a group of young, aspiring, primary school teachers, of a
generation stereotypically identified as the "Digital Generation", understand technological aspects
of this unique period. It emanates from a larger study where 70 young adults aged 15 – 24
engaged in a scenario planning exercise to ascertain their understanding of the future and how
this might impact on their chosen profession. These aspiring teachers will be moving into an
education system which is underpinned by a futures premise based upon the belief that education
should prepare students for new workplaces, new technologies, and new cultures. The paper
shows that while the participants exhibit many of the characteristics of the "Digital Generation",
particularly in relation to their confident use of technology, paradoxically they do not align the
changing nature of technology with changes in education. This is problematic if, as claimed,
educational change comes about when individuals and institutions share a common vision and
has ramifications for future educational reforms that depend upon the cooperation and
collaboration of the classroom teacher.
The "Digital Generation"
This paper is about young adults and their relationship to information and
communication technologies (ICTs). These young adults are members of the "Digital
Generation", (Websters Online Dictionary, 2004) reside in the South East region of
Queensland, Australia, and have expressed an interest in becoming a teaching
professional. This paper derives from a larger study where 70 aspiring primary school
teachers aged 15 – 24 engaged in scenario planning workshops, focus group interviews,
and a telephone survey to determine their Discoursesi of the future. While there were a
number of evident Discourses such as Discourses of education, youth, science fiction,
and multiculturalism, this paper is particularly concerned with examining their
Discourses of technologies and what these might mean for their future teaching careers.
Initially, this paper describes the "Digital Generation" and then briefly outlines the study
prior to examining and discussing the findings. This discussion centres on the
respondents' technologies Discourse and what this might mean for current and future
educational reforms.
There is some disparity on the age parameters for the "Digital Generation".
Consequently, their estimated numbers differ. However, what is undisputed is that they
are prolific (Shepherdson, 2000). Their numbers are estimated to be larger than their
A
The "Digital Generation", Technology, and Educational Change
23
"Baby Boomer" parents and will thus constitute the next "great" generation in the history
of Western civilisation (Strauss & Howe, 1997).
This generation is often defined by their relationship to technology. While they have
numerous descriptors such as the "Echo Boomers", "NeXters", "Bittersweet
Generation", "Millennials", and "Generation Y2K" they are most commonly referred to
as the "Digital Generation", "e-generation", "Generation Dotcom", "Cyber Generation",
and the "Net Generation"(Websters Online Dictionary, 2004). Much has been written
about this generation often with a view to determining marketing strategies and future
strategic goal setting. Some authors (Little, 2000; Mackay, 1997) have written about them
simply with a view to understanding their cultural characteristics and motivations.
Inevitably, in any description, authors will note their intimate relationship to ICTs. For
instance Gaylor (2002) argues that they are the first generation who has been weaned on
computers and who have not only embraced technology but actually celebrate it.
The "Digital Generation's" propensity towards ICTs is not disputed. They have a
particular affinity for the Internet and use it for a multitude of purposes. This generation
find it indispensable for entertainment, shopping on line, homework and studies,
banking, paying bills, communicating with peers, and developing community.
Furthermore, it is employed by members of this generation at a very basic level to craft
their personalities. Mcgregor (2001) and Shepherson (2000) note how the "Digital
Generation" use technologies to create unique and pastiched identities that are cut and
pasted from cultural and historical sources.
Undoubtedly, the "Digital Generation's" character has been partially informed by
their proclivity towards ICTs. Gaylor (2002) says of them that them that they are techno-
savvy, image driven, develop graphicy skills before literacy skills, do not think in a linear
fashion but rather think non-linear, loopy, in hyperlink, hopscotch fashion. Time, for
them, is measured in microseconds, and survival is of the fastest not the fittest. They
have a strong sense of immediacy, a desire for instant gratification, and a low boredom
threshold. They are success oriented and believe change can occur overnight in an
"anything can happen and probably will world". They learn by interaction and doing rather
than sitting and listening and prefer to experience and feel rather than think and analyse.
The study
The study employed 70 subjects who resided in the South-East Queensland region and
who were currently enrolled in, or were intending to enrol in a teacher-training program
of study. There were 14 males and 56 females involved in the study. The mean age of the
participants was 18.5 years. The study used a multi-method approach that included
scenario planning workshops, focus group interviews, and a telephone survey. The
initial stage of the study involved six scenario planning workshops where 23 young
adults (4 males and 19 females) were guided in creating four scenarios of the future
based on current trends in society and social and cultural uncertainties.
The scenario-planning data was organised by a process of coding and grouping the
data to form thematically linked categories (Kirby & McKenna, 1989). These categories
constituted what Gee (1996) would regard as a Discourse. The most frequent Discourse
was that of technologies. This Discourse with its associated concepts and predictions was
Educating: Weaving Research into Practice
24
presented to the 13 focus groups for their consideration. Seven males and 40 females
were involved in analysing and extrapolating the findings from the scenario planning
workshops. Two years after the initial data were collected; a telephone survey was
conducted of the original focus group participants. The questions in the survey were
based on the analysis of the data. This survey data indicated that there had been little
movement or change in the respondents' technologies Discourse. This is discussed in the
following section.
The findings
Like other members of the "Digital Generation" the cultural landscape for the young
adults in this study has been one of increasing technological complexity. Some (Goff,
1999; Shepherdson, 2000) would argue that this should foster a sense of comfort with
and ability to adapt to constantly evolving and novel technologies. While the data
suggests that this attitude is apparent it also indicates an additional and alternative
attitude. These members of the "Digital Generation" are a paradox. Their technologies
Discourse reveals that they are ambivalent about technologies. While they demonstrated
a "C effect"ii reaction to technologies, they also expressed a "B effect" or negative
reaction.
The young adults in this study were technologically literate. All owned or had access
to computers and the Internet and had incorporated these technologies extensively into
their lifeworlds. Indeed, both their actions and their discourse indicated the extent to
which they had engaged with information and communication technologies so that when
explicating a point members of the group often supported their case by referring to these
technologies. For example, individuals in the focus groups spoke of relationships and
communication in terms of Internet chat programs such as ICQ and Powwow and
instant messaging programs such as MSN and sms messaging. Charlene in the following
example is representative where in response to a question about relationships, she
responds from her technologies Discourse:
Also, um, people can lie on the Internet. You really don't know them. No matter how much
you talk to them, or you think you know them you really don't. Yeah, and it's impersonal,
and yeah, I think it causes relationship problems. . . . Cos, I know one of my friends, she's
met three guys off the Internet, and they've all just been jerks to her when they've seen her.
Charlene's response indicates the extent to which the group have appropriated
technologies as part of their repertoires of practice (Gutiérrez & Rogoff, 2003). Kasha's
response to a question on the future of education is also an example of their technologies
Discourse, when she notes that school work will be downloaded rather than hand
written, "You'd be downloading, and downloading, and downloading".
It is their constant references to ICTs in explication of their beliefs, their current
interactions with them, and their future predictions that they will continue to depend on
technologies which signals their positive or "C effect" reaction to technologies. Their
reality is one where ICTs are part of their lived experiences and integral to their
understandings and practices. However, paradoxically when these members of the
"Digital Generation" specifically speak about technologies, they express a "B effect"
The "Digital Generation", Technology, and Educational Change
25
reaction where technologies are described as malevolent and controlling. This reaction is
evident in Charlene's comment where she explained that:
Technology, it can be a good thing, but I'm probably leaning towards more of a negative
thing. I mean um, it just changes everything, and it'll impact on everybody in every level.
Like everything will change. And I think um, it'll change relationships, it'll change everything.
Although these young adults extensively employ technologies and accept it as integral
to their cultural landscape, they also distrust technologies and those who master and
control technologies. Their fears of technologies are similar to fears expressed by youth
in the 1980s where technologies and those who manufactured them were seen as sinister,
uncontrollable, and intent on destroying the world. Youth at that time were fearful of
technologies and expressed a Discourse of powerlessness that manifested as a belief that
nuclear war would decimate the world (Wilson, 1985). Although the respondents in this
study did not hold such a dystopian view of ICTs they did express some concern about
the extent to which technologies affected society. These concerns specifically focused on
the power that technologies have to instigate change and the inability of society to
control technological change.
The respondents "B effect" reaction to technologies suggests some unease with
aspects of change in a postmodern culture rather than unease with technologies per se.
The current postmodern culture is epitomised by constant and rhizomic change
(Bauman, 1998) and is especially identified with technologies and their ability to
restructure and reorganise the social space (Noble, 1977). It is no surprise that the
respondents in this study had pinned their anxieties about social and cultural change on
the most obvious organising tool of the late 20th century – ICTs. These anxieties
manifested as a lack of trust in technologies and centred around issues to do with
privacy, surveillance, destruction of family and social relationships, crime, materialism,
and social inequities. This reaction reverberates with youth's dire predictions of the
future in the 1980s, which also stemmed from an inability to negotiate the then current
cultural climate of rapid change and increasing globalisation, escalating racial tensions, and
perceived social threats such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic (Eckersley, 1998; Mackay, 1986).
Although the groups' "B effect" reaction could be a reaction to the seemingly
uncontrollable pace and direction of change in society (Eckersley, 1998), its does feed
into and help maintain their technologies Discourse. The respondents' negative and
positive reactions to technologies have produced a situation where the majority perceived
technology as a negative force; yet incorporated it unquestionably into every aspect of
their lives. These two reactions represent two different aspects of their cultural model
(Gee, 1999) and seem to harmoniously co-exist.
Another interesting aspect of their technologies Discourse was their reticence to
export their current proficiency with technologies into their predictions for the future of
education and themselves as teaching professionals. Anna notes this in her comments:
Well I'd like to think we will [still have classrooms]. Like I'd like to think that we still will be
a teacher in the person. Like sure, computers can be teaching you, but you need human
contact. I think. Otherwise, I don't know, it's just unnatural to me. It seems unnatural.
Educating: Weaving Research into Practice
26
Although the respondents' lived experience was one that evidenced technological
literacy and competence, their future predictions of themselves as teaching professionals
suggested limited technological engagement. Technology was predicted to be at the
periphery of education and was mostly seen as a future subject area rather than as an
integral part of teaching and learning. Essentially, its future role in the classroom mimics
the present situation.
Discussion
Although the respondents' predictions for technologies in the classroom appears dismal,
it is undeniable that the technologies revolution has impacted and will continue to impact
the teaching profession. These changes are specifically seen in how the profession is
constructed so that the new workplace is about "new kinds of people engaged in new
social practices" (Gee, Hull, & Lankshear, 1996, p. xvii). Teachers are now expected to
be technologically literate and able to negotiate and manage the complexities of a
constantly changing, technology and knowledge-rich society (Australian Council of
Deans of Education, 2001). This means embracing flexibility, being creative and
innovative in content delivery, curriculum design, use of resources, and meeting students'
needs. It also means being self-transforming, committed, self-supervising, self-satisfied,
self-assessing of one's skills and performances, and cognisant of one's failings and
limitations (Sachs, 2003).
Education Queensland (2000) expects teachers to be new kinds of people engaged in
new social practices and have developed curriculum reforms (The "New Basics
Framework") that presuppose teachers' ability to do so. This reform is based on five
educational premises: the pedagogy premise; the futures premise; the equity premise; the
research premise; and the professional learning community premise (Education
Queensland, 2000, p. 6). The futures premise is of particular interest and is based upon
the belief that education should prepare students for new workplaces, new technologies,
and new cultures. If, as this futures imperative states, that the business of schools is to
prepare students for a changing future world of work then the teacher's own ability to
negotiate the new workplace with its new technologies is integral and will determine the
success of this curricular reform (Slaughter, 1999). Indeed, Education Queensland (2000)
has stated that their reforms are dependent on teachers to have competency with print
and electronic media, to be critical thinkers and self analytical, able to cope with complex
community changes and uncertainty and finally, to be educable for retraining across the
lifespan through a range of media.
However, the literature on teachers and change is not encouraging. That teachers and
educational institutions are resistant to change is well documented (Andrews, 1996;
Fullan, 1993). It has been proposed that reform is hampered, among other factors, by a
failure to understand the various cultures inherent in the institution, a failure to respond
to the power relationships embedded therein (Hargreaves, 1996; Sarason, 1990), and by a
failure to understand the nature of teachers' work and their emotional orientation
towards their students (Hargreaves, 1996a). Lortie (1975) argues that the very nature of
the teaching profession precludes it from attracting change agents. Teaching is a
conservative occupation and tends to attract a similar sort of individual into its ranks. It
The "Digital Generation", Technology, and Educational Change
27
attracts people who approve and support existing practices in education rather than are
critical of it. The following extract supports this.
Researcher: Pretend you've come back here and you're talking to me now, and you're
telling me what it [school] looks like. Would I recognise it? If I go there I'd say
"oh yeah, same as always"?
Rex: I think so. . . Schools haven't changed much over the last two hundred years.
It's still school. It might be shinier, more flashing lights, but I think it'll be
basically the same.
Researcher: Still run the same? You know, morning recess, lunch, that kinda stuff?
Rex: I'd say so.
Kiama: Yeah.
Researcher: So pretty much the same routines as the way it's been running? Is that gonna
be good?
Kiama: I think so. Worked when I was there.
Midori: Yeah I think it'll be good. It worked when I was there as well so ((Laughs)).
Researcher: If it's not broke don't fix it, or something like that?
Kiama: Yeah something like that.
It is argued (Sarason, 1990, p. 101) that to be successful, proposed changes need to
alter teachers' perceptions and practices and support them in a process of "unlearning".
Failure to do so, may result in teacher scepticism of proposed changes, a tendency for
them to focus on the increased burden, a sense of lacking ownership, feelings of being
unsupported, and a failure to see the benefits of the proposed changes. Consequently,
they may subvert mandated change and justify it in terms of the reformers' ignorance of
the reality of the classroom (Louden, 1991; Sarason, 1990).
Although much of the literature on teachers and change has tended to focus on the
generations preceding the "Digital Generation" it warrants examination in terms of its
currency for this new generation of teachers. Education Queensland reforms are first and
foremost about change and assume that those entering the profession either have a
similar vision or are prepared to adopt their vision. If successful change, as Fullan (1993)
argues, occurs when individuals and institutions work towards a similar vision and goal
then the success of the "New Basics Framework" is heavily dependent on teachers
contravening their historical negative attitudes and beliefs about change and developing
an altered mindset that welcome change and risk taking. The "Digital Generation" is said
to be significantly different in attitudes and values than their elder siblings or parents
(Mackay, 1997; Strauss & Howe, 1997) and express a far more optimistic, flexible, and
confident outlook on life. Indeed they are claimed to welcome change and incorporate
constant change into their actions and thinking (Mackay, 1997).
The future vision currently being espoused by Education Queensland (2000) and
other academic bodies (Australian Council for the Deans of Education, 2000) is one that
predicts, among other things, "newness" and novelty. It is a vision of new industries, new
work practices, new economies, new skills, and new knowledges. It is also one where
institutional structures and social dislocations will evidence new forms. However, future
"Digital Generation" teachers espouse a contrary vision in terms of education. Theirs is
Educating: Weaving Research into Practice
28
one that does not predict new work practices or require new skills or new knowledges.
Their future workplace is based on the replication of historical educational models.
Arguably, the group's predictions of a technologically barren classroom of the future and
limited teacher engagement with technologies has stemmed from their previous context
of twelve years of classroom participation and observation rather than from their current
lived experiences. These twelve years of apprenticeship (Britzman, 2003) have been
characterised by very limited application of technologies by either teacher or student.
This presents a paradox. While on the one hand they certainly have personally
complied with the requirements for the future teaching professional in terms of their
technological literacy and their ability to encompass novelty and newness, they have not
drawn upon these cultural resources and repertoires of practice to formulate their future
careers. A "fish and water" response would have assumed that their future predictions
for schooling would presuppose more technologies in the classroom and more teacher
engagement with technologies as both a tool and tutor. However, this is not the case.
Rather, their narratives of teaching, which reflect their past experiences in schools, seem
to have more currency in terms of their predictions than their lived experiences. This
becomes problematic in terms of neophyte teachers moving into the teaching profession
and adopting Educational reforms.
In this instance, these future teachers maintain a narrative of teaching that no longer
has currency for the future teaching professional. As they move into the profession,
these narratives will be compounded by a culture of teaching that tends to apprentice
teachers into conservative, risk free, and retrospective behaviours and thinking
(Andrews, 1996; Smith, 1999). Given their inclination towards reproducing the status
quo and their experiences in schools, that reinforce conservative practices, then it hardly
seems probable that they will fulfill Sachs' (2003) requirements for an activist
professional, educational innovator, and pioneer. These "Digital Generation" teachers
will be no more inclined towards incorporating technological newness and novelty into
their teaching than their currently practicing peers. Educational reforms under these
circumstances seem doomed to fail.
However, there is no doubt that activist teaching professionals are preferred and it
behoves both the Education department and institutions of teacher training to take up
the challenge. It was noted earlier that teachers need training and support to change their
perceptions and practices (Sarason, 1990). These measures should ideally begin in teacher
training institutions. It is essential that teacher training institutions and Education
Queensland are collaboratively involved in creating a similar vision and goal for
education. Teacher training institutions are well placed to promote and foster this vision
in their pre-service teachers and can do this through better preparing students with the
skills, knowledges, and attitudes needed to be responsible, reflective, and proactive future
educators. This preparation could include developing courses and programs that are
futures oriented. Futures Studies are integral to understanding where society is and
should be heading and the place of the 21st century teacher in that society (Dator, 1993).
Unfortunately, Futures Studies is given lip service in the majority of Queensland Teacher
Education degrees. A few curriculum courses such as "Studies of Society and
Environment" and foundational courses that address social and cultural perspectives may
The "Digital Generation", Technology, and Educational Change
29
address aspects of Futures Studies but it is often very nominal. A course specifically
targeting this important yet underdeveloped discipline is imperative if young adults of
today and our future teachers of tomorrow are going to stay relevant to tomorrow's
society.
Futures Studies promotes the central idea that young adults of today are the vanguard
of the future and have a responsibility to ensue preferable and sustainable futures. It
advocates a socially critical perspective where practices, beliefs, and behaviours are
critiqued for their future currency. In terms of pre-service teachers this would involve
taking a critical look at schools, teachers, and educational processes and practices, to
determine how appropriate these might be for the future. Currently, introductory courses
to education deconstruct education and the processes of schooling but this is often of an
historical and passive nature and does not link to a futures perspective or future action.
For example, very little is taught about how to be an activist professional and resist the
stultifying effects of teacher enculturation.
The "Digital Generation" is idealistic, flexible, confident, and optimistic (Howe &
Strauss, 2001). They see themselves as heroes who want to make a difference and change
the world (Gaylor, 2002). Teacher education institutions would be wise to consider these
qualities and use them to their advantage in creating the activist teaching professional of
tomorrow. They would also be wise to consider them in terms of redesigning themselves
for soothe they too become outmoded and on the periphery of the educational arena.
Conclusion
This paper has reported on the technologies Discourse of a cohort of 70 aspiring
primary-school teachers in South-East Queensland. These young adults are
technologically literate but paradoxically do not draw on this cultural resource when
envisaging their future careers. Their imagined future teaching careers are ones which are
informed by historical teaching practices and educational models. This places them at
odd with Education Queensland reforms that presuppose new types of teachers engaging
in new practices, new thinking, and new workplaces. This paper argues that teacher
education intuitions are best placed to develop the activist teaching professional of the
future and that Futures Studies courses are a vehicle in which to achieve this.
i This paper adopts a similar definition of discourse as that of Gee (1996) where Discourse with a capital D is
taken to mean language plus actions, artefacts, ways of behaving, modes of thinking, and so on. That is,
Discourse is the language one uses and all the "other stuff" which identifies a person as belonging to a
particular group or scene. Alternatively, little d discourse is what one says, the words one uses in order to make
meaning.
ii Based on Zurbrugg (1993), "B effect", or negative, thinking is named in honour of crisis proponents such as
Barthes, Baudrillard, and Bourdieu. Alternatively, "C effect", or positive, thinking is named in honour of John
Cage, eternal optimist, composer, lecturer, and philosopher.
Educating: Weaving Research into Practice
30
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... The young adults in this study are members of Gen Y and reside in the South-East region of Queensland, Australia. This paper is drawn from a study where 70 aspiring primary school teachers engaged in semi-structured interviews, scenario planning workshops, focus group interviews, and/or a telephone survey to determine their cultural models and Discourses about the future (Donnison, 2004(Donnison, , 2004a(Donnison, , 2005(Donnison, , 2007(Donnison, , 2007a. This paper draws on Gee's (1992) account of Discourse with a capital D to refer to language plus actions, artefacts, ways of behaving and modes of thinking. ...
... There is an expectation that they have an active commitment to lifelong learning by engaging in continual formal or professional development, informal and self directed learning (Couchenour & Dimino, 2001;Doring, 2002). Not surprisingly, the literature on teachers and teacher education also emphasises the relationship between ICTs and teachers as change agents (Donnison, 2004(Donnison, , 2005(Donnison, , 2007aLankshear et al, 2000;Selwyn, Gorard, & Furlong, 2006;Stokes, 2002). This relationship is predicated on teachers incorporating and accommodating novel and rapidly changing technologies into best practice, through constant learning, experimentation, adaptation and risk taking. ...
... This paper focuses on one aspect of a study which investigated the cultural models and subsequent Discourses that 16 senior high school students and 54 pre-service teachers used to explain their future careers and lives (Donnison, 2004(Donnison, , 2005(Donnison, , 2007(Donnison, , 2007a. The study employed a mixed method approach that included semi-structured interviews, scenario planning workshops, and focus group interviews. ...
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blockquote>This paper analyses Gen Y pre-service primary school teachers' conceptualisations of lifelong learning. It is situated within a context of improving the provision and delivery of pre-service teacher education. This paper argues that Gen Y's understanding of lifelong learning has been influenced by their engagements with digital technologies and that while they may have appropriated the Discourse of change in this context, it does not necessarily indicate an overall capacity for change agency. This is a concern for programs of teacher education whose mission, arguably, is to prepare future activist teaching professionals. This paper argues that higher education and teacher education programs of study need to consider the relationship between Gen Y, lifelong learning and change agency when aligning pedagogy and curriculum with the new generation of students. </p
... Sachs (2003), for example, argues that the teachers of the MilGen should be activist professionals, educational innovators, and pioneers. Yet, as Donnison (2004) found in her investigation of the first wave of Y Generation members preparing to enter the teaching workforce, it appears they are more inclined to maintain the status quo, their imagined futures as educators being informed by historical practices and teaching models typical ...
... If the word 'graphicy' (see e.g. Donnison, 2004) has been introduced as opposed to literacy and numeracy to define the ability to master graphic and pictorial resources, I would argue for the need to conceptualize the notion of 'modacy', intended as the ability to master multiple modal resources, which has become crucial with the advent of new and converging technologies. ...
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