Introduction: who the New Millennium Learners are

Who exactly are the New Millennium Learners? Millennials is a term widely used to designate those generations born from the 1980s on and grown in a context where digital technologies form inextricably part of their daily lives. The term was first used by generational historians and sociologists Howe and Strauss (2000) in their essay Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation to describe what they thought to be a quite different generation from the previous one, the so-called Generation X. In short, Millennials are the first generation to grow up surrounded by digital media, and most of their activities dealing with peer-to-peer communication and knowledge management, in the broadest sense, are mediated by these technologies.

Accordingly, Millennials are thought to be adept with computers, creative with technology and, above all, highly skilled at multitasking in a world where ubiquitous connections are assumed. This is why they are also often referred to as the Net Generation (Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005; Tapscott, 1999), the IM Generation, which stands for Instant-Message Generation (Lenhart, Rainie, & Lewis, 2001), the Gamer Generation (Carstens & Beck, 2005) for the obvious reference to video games, or even the homo zappiens (Veen, 2003) for their ability to control simultaneously different sources of digital information.

Typically their everyday lives are characterized by immediate communication, via instant messenger, cellular conversations or text messaging. They cannot be said to be passive at all regarding their use of digital media, since for example over two million American children aged 6–17 already have their own web site (Grunwald, 2004). The changing ways that members of this generation can learn, communicate and entertain themselves are a primary reason behind the growing popularity of socially oriented technologies such as blogs, wikis, tagging and instant messaging. And this popularity can help to explain why today’s teenagers are increasingly spending more time using home digital media (computer, games, the Internet) than watching TV – the figures for US 13–17 year olds being 3.1 and 3.5 hours respectively (Grunwald, 2004). But it should not be forgotten that Millenials usually take for granted that multitasking is the normal approach to using digital media: being online while at the same time watching TV, talking on the phone, and doing homework. And no doubt, their recurrent activity with these technologies can be said to have fundamentally shaped their notions of communication, knowledge management, learning, and even their personal and social values, the same way as it is likely to happen also with adult individuals who are heavy users of ICT, be that because of professional need or personal taste.

On the other hand, although the stereotype suggests that Millennials are all teenagers, the fact is that children begin their exposure to ICT at very young ages. According to a recent US survey (V. J. Rideout, Vandewater, & Wartella, 2003), children six and under spend an average of two hours a day using screen media (1:58), about the same amount of time they spend playing outside (2:01), and well over the amount they spend reading or being read to (39 minutes). Half of the children in this age group have used a computer: among children aged 4 to 6, 27% spend over an hour a day at the keyboard. As stated in this report, “while earlier generations were introduced to information through print, this generation takes a digital path”.

Throughout this paper, the more specific reference to New Millennium Learners (NML) is intended to put the emphasis on the views, attitudes, expectations, and competences of Millennials in relation to learning and teaching, and, particularly, on the contradiction they can eventually perceive between what are their daily practices involving communication and knowledge management in and outside classrooms.

Some concerns

But as a matter of fact, there is little evidence supporting some commonly held beliefs, for instance that this is exclusively a generational phenomenon and that all teenagers are equally NML. As a result, irrespective of how attractive and fancy the concept of NML may seem to be, there is a need to better define it, exploring not only the most salient elements that are more appealing but drawing on what evidence is telling us.

To begin with, there seem to be some already well-established conceptions regarding the characteristics of the digital natives, but these are based more on theoretical assumptions than on empirical evidence. For example, although concepts like multitasking or non-linear approach to information are taken for granted in the case of digital natives, there is little known about their practical implications. The same applies to the spread of videogames and the nature of implicit learning that players can eventually acquire. If little is known about this, discussing the actual implications for education can be really inappropriate. Instead of this, more work should be done to validate the theoretical hypothesis about the crucial characteristics than could be said to shape NML.

This is even aggravated by the fact that, besides to eventual changes in the younger generations because of technologies, society as a whole seems to be in the beginning of a cycle of social change that could lead to a true networked society. Again, the practical implications of this evolution are easy to depict in theory, but more analytical work is required to really apprehend the relevance of this change in social and political terms, but also in education.

In all, empirical research, although still limited, points out that far from being a generation-wide phenomenon, NML has to be further investigated to uncover very different profiles. As some results underline, even in the same generation there are indications of the emergence of a second digital divide, which instead of being related to the access to technologies (first digital divide) is linked with the uses given to digital technologies and services. Since differences in use seem to be extremely correlated with socio-economic status and, at the same time, those differences can be expected to have an impact on such status, there is ground for political and educational concern: the lack of political action in this domain, using education as a change agent, can contribute to amplify not only the second digital divide but, what is even worse, the socio-economic differences which such a divide is already reflecting.

Besides socio-economic status, gender and age seem to have important implications in terms of generating different approaches to digital technologies and services, different levels of mastery of the required skills and, in the end, alternative uses. To sum up, the concept of NML may be useful just to refer to a generational phenomenon, but it does not carry per se enough analytical weight. The problem is far from being generational only: on the one hand, the effects of being surrounded by digital technologies and services also affect growing numbers of the adult population and, on the other, the effects are likely to be different according to age, but also according to socio-economic status and gender.

Comparative evidence

Therefore, it is worth looking at the available evidence to profile better the NML. A first question is whether NML are a generation-wide phenomenon, so the term can be applied to cover almost universally all members of the generation or not. A first indication can be seen in the percentage of young people currently using computers and connecting to the Internet. A report based on the PISA 2003 database (Wastlau-Schlüter, 2005)1 states that almost 100% of 15 year old pupils in European countries have already used a computer and half of them use it on a daily basis at home and only just a few times each week at school. Roughly, 80% say that they have a computer at home and 60% an Internet connection. The corresponding data for non-European OECD countries are, in some cases, even higher2. And obviously, even in those countries where the ratio of pupils per school computer is low, it is always higher than the equivalent at home. Therefore in most, if not all, OECD countries today teenagers can find more opportunities to access a computer and to connect to the Internet at home than at their own schools.

Moreover, at home the three main activities developed by teenagers are playing games, looking up information via the Internet, and electronic communications via e-mail and instant messaging. Although any comparison between home and school uses has not been carried out yet3, it seems to be that, leaving aside playing games, only the Internet search for information is a well integrated school practice (OECD, 2004) while electronic communications seem not to be recognised as a typical educational activity.

To complete this picture regarding the emergence of NML it would be necessary to supplement these data with evidence on the use of alternative ICT devices such as cellular phones, for instance, which is also growing very fast, and with more detailed information regarding time devoted to each activity. Again, data regarding cellular phone ownership among US high school pupils suggest a very fast yearly increase: from 2004 to 2005 the percentage owning a cellular rose from 51% to 62% (Horatio Alger Association, 2005)

Accordingly, at least preliminarily, it can be said that NML seem to be a generation-wide phenomenon, growing steadily and already having a universal character in some OECD countries. Just to provide an indication of the speed of growth, table 1 compares the proportion of French high school pupils who use instant messaging for chatting basis according to age (Pasquier, 2005). If instant messaging is considered to be a quite good indicator of the development of NML, then an age difference of just a couple of years seems to be extremely significant: the lower the age, the higher the use.

TotalAged 15–17Over 18
Never413851
Sometimes29,53022
Frequently 182016

Table 1. Differences regarding the use of instant messaging for chatting among French high school pupils according to age. Source: (Pasquier, 2005).

NML in OECD countries

There is scarce comparative evidence on the emergence of NML in different OECD countries, albeit some indications suggest that there could be vast differences among them. To begin with, although broadly speaking the NML generation is set to be born from 1980 on, it may well be that in different countries its emergence has occurred later. Partly this could be due to the various rhythms of ICT penetration in society, particularly as regards the digital devices and services mostly related to NML habits and practices, such as cellular phones or free instant messaging. Thus it may happen that in a given country NML are already attending university courses while in another they are just ending primary education. For example, back in 2002 one fifth of US college students began using computers between the ages of 5 and 8, which was certainly not the case for most students in OECD countries (Jones, 2002). And two years later 93% of US higher education students already owned a computer (Borreson Caruso, 2004).

Again, the only available comparative evidence comes from the PISA 2003 survey and thus refers to pupils aged 15. Figure 1 presents the country values of two variables that can be used as proxies for the measurement of the degree of maturity of the technological conditions most likely to be needed for the emergence of NML: the proportions of pupils having used a computer for the past five years and of those who have an Internet connection at home. Both values could be said to reflect the level of ICT penetration in the homes of 15 year old teens and thus provide an indirect indication of the level of technology availability at their hands.

The range of values depicts a case of extreme variability among OECD countries: depending on country, from 20% to 90% of pupils aged 15 have been using a computer for the past five years at least, and from 15% to 55% have an Internet connection at home. In general, it is clear that in OECD countries the higher the proportion of pupils having used computers for such a long period, the higher the proportion of them with home access to the Internet. This is likely to be extremely related with the variations in speed of general ICT development and accessibility in the OECD area. Although both values do not speak directly for themselves about the emergence of NML, the fact is that a similar level of variation can also be predicted to exist regarding the extension of the NML phenomenon.

Figure 2 completes this image of huge variations among OECD countries by providing data on the intensity of use of computers either at home or at school. These data refer to the percentage of 15 year old pupils who say they use a computer nearly daily either at home or at school. On the one hand, the graph is explicit about the differences in intensity of use in these two different settings: on average, the intensity of home use tends to be eight times that at school – with the exceptions of Denmark and Scotland where the differences are reduced respectively to three and two times only. Leaving aside the issue of whether school use is too moderate or home use too intense, or both, the point is that these differences show that the two environments are quite diverse as far as the infrastructural conditions and the level of personal engagement are concerned, both being extremely related to the preferential uses and activities mostly carried out in each setting.

On the other hand, again vast differences appear among OECD countries, which depending on country range from 25% to 70% of pupils aged 15 having nearly daily use of computers at home and only from 1% to 25% at school – the average values being 50% and 8%, respectively. And finally, it is also worth noting that no significant association can be established between the corresponding country values for each variable, a fact that points to the existence of quite different reasons for the explanation of the actual levels of use in each environment. At home, where teenagers themselves can be said to act to some extent as prescriptors for the acquisition of ICT devices and services, the levels of daily use of computers are extremely high if compared to those of the school. And it can be also inferred that the pace of growth of the percentage of teenagers who actually perform ICT-related activities at home is much faster than the rhythm of ICT adoption and use at schools4. Either because of the growing rate of home availability of ICT or of the contextual significance of the corresponding use, the conclusion is that in all OECD countries teenagers behave differently with ICT at home and at school.

What factors can explain the ample differences among countries? A number of reasons have to be explored. First of all, there is likely to be a connection between the emergence of NML and the degree of ease by which youngsters can access to a given ICT device or service. This degree, in turn, depends very much on the national context of the ICT market, including the prices of both devices and connection services, when these are required – such as in cellular telephony. Thus a first relationship could be established between the extension of NML and the level of ICT infrastructural development and markets at national level.

Secondly, on top of the availability of technological devices and services there is a societal attitude towards their use, which can be largely favourable or rather conservative. OECD countries vary greatly regarding the social predisposition and readiness to use ICT and it can be expected that this attitude has an influence on the one held by a majority of teenagers. The level of individual, corporative and governmental uses of ICT is indicative of this national attitudinal readiness to incorporate technological devices and services into daily life.

Thirdly, a closer look has to be paid to teenagers’ own attitudes, cultural patterns and lifestyles, which again can be expected to vary to a certain extent across OECD countries. Here the point is to what extent the prevailing values and social attitudes among teenagers can encourage them to make an intensive use of ICT devices and services or, rather, prevent them of doing so. Particular attention has to be paid to their cultural consumption habits and to their leisure patterns.

Finally, it can be expected that a certain level of association exists between classroom use of ICT and out-of-school practices by NML, both of them reinforcing each other. Lacking such an association in countries where NML appear to be a large phenomenon would clearly point to a divorce not only between NML and schools, as far as ICT uses are concerned, but between schools and society by large.?? Unfortunately, the available data5 seem to back this assumption and it may well be that in most OECD countries such a divorce is the prevailing situation.

Gender issues

Going deep into detail, when it comes to the degree of homogeneity inside the NML generation, i.e. to what extent all of its members show similar attitudes and behaviours regarding ICT use, the resulting analysis is likely to show a high degree of differentiation even in the context of commonly shared characteristics. For instance, it can be expected that the NML profile is connected with a combination of personal characteristics such as gender and socio-economic background. However, the existing evidences depict a rather confusing panorama.

On the one hand, it seems to be clear that boys and girls have different profiles of practices regarding the use of ICT and, at the same time, both show alternative preferences regarding the particular ICT devices they use more often. Why these differences occur, and whether they are common all over OECD countries or not, are two issues that remain to be explored. Figure 3 shows gender differences in profile regarding past experience, frequency of use and main activities carried out with computers and the Internet among 15 year old pupils. While country differences are also noteworthy, with just a very few showing no significant gender differences in some variables (like Ireland), overall it can be said that boys have significantly been using computers for a longer time than girls, that more boys than girls use computers nearly daily at home, and that boys use them primarily for playing games, while girls tend to do it basically for e-mail and chatting. Finally, both boys and girls show a similar level of use regarding the search for information.

Figure 4 supplements these data with the level of expertise in several ICT-related skills. It shows the proportion of boys and girls who say they perform very well6 a number of ICT-related activities. It is worth noting that there is only one domain in which girls outperform boys, and that is e-mail. Another activity domain where there are no significant differences is file use, involving very basic operations with files. In the rest of activities, including complex file management, playing games, downloading files, advanced communications (sending attached files, for example), and advanced applications (such as programming), boys declared performance appears to be higher than that of girls.

At least partly, gender differences seem to be based on different approaches to inter-personal communication. It has been widely documented that communicating at a distance, particularly using the phone, serves different purposes for boys and girls (Réseaux, 2000). The latter seem to count very much on phone calls and e-mails, for instance, to organise their sociability and keep affective links alive. Merely as an indication, table 2 presents data on gender differences among high school pupils in France regarding communication practices (Pasquier, 2005).

GirlsBoys
Use daily a cellular phone7059
Call friends daily4934.5
Keep phone links with friends don’t see anymore 7230
Keep e-mail links with friends don’t see anymore4741

Table 1. Gender differences in communication practices among French high school pupils. Source: (Pasquier, 2005).

By all means, girls outperform boys in the use of all available technological devices to communicate or even to express themselves – just as an indication, US girls aged 6 to 17 are more likely to have their own web site than boys (12.2% versus 8.6%) (Grunwald, 2004). Therefore, girls seem to pay more attention to the communication opportunities that cellular phones or e-mail can open up than to more technologically oriented activities such as playing games or sharing files. In other words, they rely more on the social uses of ICT as a means, than on ICT themselves as a source of activity or entertainment. Unfortunately, no equivalent data exist on gender differences among teenagers regarding knowledge management related activities.

The influence of socio-economic status

The rather reasonably expected association between ICT usage and socio-economic status – the higher the status, the more intense and varied the use – cannot be sustained by available evidence. More precisely, it seems to be that socio-economic status either reinforces a certain number of practices while avoiding some others, thus suggesting a diversity of NML profiles following diverse needs for peer-to-peer communication and knowledge management. Should this be confirmed, then a serious concern about the differential benefits of the knowledge society in relation to socio-economic status could be raised.

Just as an indication, table 3 provides the results of a survey of French high schools pupils on the socio-economic differences regarding the use of instant messaging for chatting (Pasquier, 2005). The relation that can be established between socio-economic background and instant messaging is rather the contrary to the one expected. Broadly speaking, the lower the socio-economic status, the higher the frequency of use. Thus, the reasonable assumptions relating socio-economic status and the millennial behaviour have to be contested. It can be argued that it is the status per se that imposes a given communication practice, and not the ability to buy more or less ICT devices or services.

TotalHigher SESMedium SESLower SES
Never41513930
Sometimes29,5312731
Frequently 1882227

Table 2. Socio-economic differences among French high school pupils regarding the use of instant messaging for chatting. Source: (Pasquier, 2005).

Table 4, coming from the same source, shows the results obtained on the percentage of high school pupils who communicate via the Internet with people they have not ever met. Interestingly enough, the higher the socio-economic status, the lower the likelihood to keep corresponding with unknown people. Again, the status seems to impose strong differences in practices. Thus there seems to be enough evidence to confirm that the behaviours generally attributed to NML vary in fact greatly according to personal and social differences.

TotalHigher SESMedium SESLower SES
37264149

Table 3. Socio-economic differences among French high school pupils regarding Internet-based communications with unknown people. Source: (Pasquier, 2005).

The educational challenges posed by NML

Is education challenged because of the emergence of NML? While some analysts would consider NML nothing but a manifestation of another vogue adopted by the youngest generation, they are likely to be a growing concern for educational institutions and policy makers in the years to come for three main reasons: the implications of NML’s intensive use of ICT over their intellectual and cognitive skills, the changes in cultural practices and lifestyles, and the eventual contradictions emerging from contrasting practices in and outside schools. Today’s pupils are no longer the people traditional educational systems were designed to teach.

The development of cognitive skills

NML continuous use of ICT is thought to have important implications on the development of their intellectual competences and cognitive skills, up to the extent that some analysts think that they do really think differently (Prensky, 2001b), although no empirical evidence has proved it yet. Most attention has been devoted so far to the analysis of how young people learn to use and use technologies, particularly outside schools and also with mobile devices. However, once again, little seems to be known about the effects of technologies on cognitive skills development. And this issue deserves far more attention.

Studies carried out with children age 3 to 10 seem to demonstrate that what really matters in the development of skills related to technologies are two factors: first, the impulse to experiment and discover, and the consequent lack of fear, that characterises the exploratory behaviour of children at a very young age; and second, the effects of their predisposition to emulate adults’ behaviour as well. The latter shows, once again, the importance of the gender issue and the relevance that the differences of use according to gender can have in education, both at home and in schools.

An issue often raised is the contrast between these somewhat natural behaviours and the ones imposed during formal schooling, where technologies seem to play a very marginal role at teachers’ discretion. Although there is no clear evidence for this, it is often suggested that such a contrast could contribute to explain, at later ages, the increasing feeling of disaffection towards schools.

School disaffection and pupils’ increasing lack of interest in school-based learning can eventually be related to the need for new teacher profiles, in the line of the New Millennium Teachers. In the light of this it is somewhat surprising to see that the issue of initial teacher training is far from being considered one of the most salient issues. Although some studies show that teachers are amongst the most skilled technology users, the fact is that they are unable to take benefit of this competence and to apply it to the way they teach. This can be partly the default of the current configuration of education systems, but also the lack of a clear vision of what teaching in the new millennium should look like and, accordingly, the absence of initial teacher training programs where such a vision is embodied.

What should teachers know about NML? To begin with, the truth is that their inevitably short attention spans are the reason Seymour Papert (1994) coined the term “grasshopper mind”, for the inclination to leap quickly from one topic to another, sometimes back and forth, instead of lingering over a subject. Such a repeated behaviour will result in NML being impatient if sources of information are not instantly at their fingertips, and rarely spend long hours thinking about the same thing. Besides changes in attention spans, the implications of an intensive use of ICT may also touch on a broad range of cognitive characteristics, from the need for instant responses to the habit of multitasking and the focus on multimedia content, just to mention a few. As a matter of fact, NML have grown up used to:

  1. accessing information mainly on non-printed, digital sources,

  2. giving priority to images, movement, and music over text,

  3. feeling at ease with multi-tasking processes, and

  4. gaining knowledge by processing discontinued, non-linear information.

On the whole it may be that the resulting changes seriously defy traditionally expected behaviours and supported practices by formal education institutions – longer attention spans, reflective activities, and focusing intensely only on one activity typically involving some form of properly written text. As Prensky (2001a) has suggested, NML can be said to be “digital native,” native speakers of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet, as opposed to their teachers who are mostly “digital immigrants” and have had to adapt to the new environment created by ICT. They have had to learn a new language and, because of this, their accents in speaking this digital language are still discernable.

For example, the enormous amount of time that NML seem to spend on video games – in the US 8–10 year olds spend more than an hour a day with video games (V. Rideout, Roberts, & Foehr, 2005) – raises concerns not only about the competences being developed but also about the kind of expectations regarding learning being generated. Video games are expected to give immediate positive feedback for every correct choice, prompting direct learning. And because the learning is fast, focused and repetitive, games cause a great degree of limited learning in little time and, in making the player to adopt a role which forces constant decision-making, embedded into a particularly well designed and exciting context, video games raise NML expectations about what is likely to happen when they are in front of a computer and, above all, transform them into real gourmand consumers of digital media. Nothing seems farther from this than their daily school experiences with ICT.

However, it seems to be that not enough research has been carried out to test empirically the effects of ICT on cognitive development. As stated in a recent report on research on the effects of digital media on infants, “research has not come close to keeping up with the pace of new media development. Infants, toddlers and preschoolers today are developing in an environment saturated with media, and unanswered questions abound concerning their use of electronic media” (Center on Media and Child Health. Children’s Hospital Boston, 2005).

Changes in cultural practices and social values

As usual with intergenerational change, NML can be expected to show different cultural patterns and lifestyles when compared with those of any other previous generation. However, what makes NML unique is to what extent their lifestyles are pervaded by digital devices and services. First, this is the first generation to have reduced the exposure time to television mainly due to the attention devoted to other digital media, particularly through the Internet.

Secondly, under actual conditions NML consumption of digital media can be said to be less controllable by adults, be those parents or teachers, since NML are totally in command of what they want to see, download or upload. Broadly speaking, under these new consumption patterns:

  1. physical isolation tends to be reinforced, even if cyberspaces for social relationship emerge as alternative exchange fora;

  2. digital-related activity is extended longer and tends to cover time spans previously devoted to rest;

  3. immediate responses and quick reaction speeds are seen as the norm in personal communication;

  4. multimedia content is considered to be, by its very nature, of higher value than mere text; and

  5. writing (although NML would probably say “talking” instead) becomes increasingly important due to the physical constraints imposed by the devices and services used, to the extent of generating new languages.

The last point is particularly challenging for school culture and practices. Box 1, for instance, offers an excerpt of an essay actually submitted by a pupil to her teacher in a British school, and the corresponding translation. Needless to say, teachers need to reflect to what extent what could become a universal way of spelling should or not be accepted in school settings. A quick negative answer probably would not take into account sufficiently that these communication practices are increasingly used in corporate environments due to their higher efficiency (less time, lower cost) if compared to traditional writing – the same reason that explains why NML use them.

Box 1. NML writing
My smmr hols wr CWOT. B4, we used 2go2 NY 2C my bro, his GF & thr 3 : kids FTF. ILNY, it’s a gr8 plc. Translation: My summer holidays were a complete waste of time. Before, we used to go to New York to see my brother, his girlfriend and their three screaming kids face to face. I love New York. It’s a great place.Taken from: Daily Telegraph, Sun Mar 2, 2003, British Girl Baffles Teacher with SMS Essay, as reprinted in (Veen, 2003)

But thirdly, and even most importantly, it might well be that a complete new set of social and personal values and attitudes appears to be linked to these emerging cultural practices, particularly when compared with immediate prior generations such as Baby Boomers or Generation X (Tapscott, 1999). According to some, besides being technology savvy, NML would be particularly hopeful, self-assured and determined, active even stressed, and close to their parents (Phalen, 2002). And following these values, their school performance would be increasingly improving when compared to previous generations. Nevertheless, there seems to be no empirical evidence yet to support this kind of considerations.

What it is really emerging from research carried so far is that there is a growing gap between school culture, and the values and lifestyles traditionally associated with it, and young people’s cultures. A number of factors can explain this gap, ranging from the evolution of family patterns to the emergence of specific cultural products for young people, increasingly associated with digital media, as well as the democratisation of schooling which contributes to the extension of young dependency on parents. The effects of this growing gap are the crisis of the vertical transmission of culture, as operated historically in schools, and the increase of horizontal socialization among young people.

Both of these result in the isolation of teachers who can hardly find their way in bridging the gap between school and home cultures and making them at least compatible. Moreover, teachers seem to be subjected to pressure to adopt always the latest technologies, which easily become intrusive, instead of being invited to ask for the kind of technologies they really need to facilitate learning. At least in some subject areas, like in civic education for instance, there is also the need to redefine teaching and learning in order to cope with new societal demands – and in this case, for instance, as a result of a reconsideration of the concept of citizenship in the networked society. So, it is not only about teaching methods, but even more about the goals of education.

It would be a mistake to consider that technologies bring with them a specific set of values or suggest a particular lifestyle. Once again one must keep in mind that technologies are just tools which can be used in a variety of ways, and the issue is that the appropriation of these new media is different according not only to socio-economic status but also to gender. There is enough evidence to support that different socio-economic statuses result in different uses of technologies and in different, so to say, architectures of knowledge, where, for instance, reading books may or may not be seen as an important source of knowledge and culture. Interestingly enough, girls are very much linked to old, traditional media such as books, and at the same time the uses they make of technologies are very focused on communication; so, in many respects, boys, as NML, pay a price.

Expectations regarding teaching and learning

It is also commonly stated that NML attitudes and expectations regarding learning, and teaching, have also evolved radically from previous generations. Some twenty years ago, when computers started to be seen as a tool that could potentially improve the quality of teaching, teachers began to experiment with the idea of supplementing traditional teaching and learning activities with educational applications and digital resources which later on, thanks to the Internet, became increasingly available. Up to then, teachers could be said to be in command of the opportunities for ICT-mediated educational innovations and for most pupils schools were the only place where they could access to a computer. But when both the computers and the Internet started to enter pupils’ homes and increasingly became a standard commodity for most families, pupils’ ICT-related competences grew exponentially, even by self-learning as the last PISA survey (2003) revealed, largely outperforming those of their teachers. Accordingly, it can be expected that a number of pupils’ expectations could have dramatically changed and become completely different from the ones held by their teachers, particularly regarding:

  1. the kind of ICT devices and services available at schools  7

;

      The issue of the implications of digital technologies on learning expectations and educational performance is extremely important but very difficult to approach. The importance lies particularly with the eventual implications that evidence on the positive links between technologies and education can have at both a political and a practical level. The difficulties arise from two different areas. On the one hand, it is a domain where simple causal models are not helpful at all, given the number of variables and contextual factors that intervene. On the other hand, the research done so far seems to be extremely influenced by the agenda of the researcher or of the agency funding the research. On this basis, it is not surprising that the results, as shown by a number of research reviews, if not contradictory, are at least inconclusive. This clearly points out the need for new models and research strategies, clearly considering that the impact of technologies on learning may need at least 4 or 5 years to become measurable.

      Just to give an indication of the growing competences of NML in relation to potentially relevant educational uses, a recent study from Pew Internet and American Life found that in the United States more than half of the 12 million teens online create original material for the web, whether it's through a blog or a home page, with original artwork, photos or video (Lenhart & Madden, 2005). It can be reasonably expected that NML are more willing to use ICT in learning activities than schools allow them to do. To what extent this contrasting situation makes them feel disappointed with school practices, or even increasingly disaffected from school life, has not been thoroughly investigated yet, but some indications exist pointing to a growing gap between pupils’ and teachers’ perceptions regarding the quality of the school experience (BellSouth Foundation, 2003).

      It is therefore appropriate to consider that the assessment of learning, especially in schools, should reflect the competences that seem to be linked to digital technologies. Accordingly, instead of focusing exclusively on what pupils and students learn in terms of contents or subject-based skills, assessment should also consider what the knowledge society identifies as critical competences, particularly those related to communication and knowledge management. Otherwise, the risk of widening the gap between educational institutions and life in the world outside could be inevitable.

      NML and the knowledge society: innovative responses and policy implications

      Are there any innovative responses to these educational challenges? ICT-based educational innovations are mainly the result of teachers’ initiatives to improve teaching processes. Their number has increased following the growing availability of ICT at schools and increasing teachers’ competence and confidence. But on the whole, these innovations in teaching processes and activities, although producing an impact on pupils’ learning, do not seem to take into account the changes operated in pupils’ views and expectations according to their increased dependence on ICT for their out-of-school daily activities. In short, not many educational innovations seem to have considered what would best suit NML characteristics, perhaps with the exception of a number of higher education institutions in some OECD countries.

      Educational innovations

      Therefore there is a need for finding and analysing innovative educational responses designed to better accommodate NML into educational settings, benefiting as much as possible from their enlarged ICT-related competences, taking into account the changes operated in their cognitive skills (from shorter attention spans to the need for immediate answers). In times when a lot of emphasis is put on the effectiveness of teaching, more attention should be devoted to the changes occurring in pupils as they increasingly become NML.

      However, even if it looks somewhat rhetorical at first sight, the need for a new kind of New Millennium Teachers can be also evoked. This is meant to suggest that one of the most outstanding problems related to the use of digital technologies in educational contexts is the fact that they are hardly put to use in teacher training institutions. Because of this, teachers lack a clear vision and the role models necessary for an effective use of technologies in teaching. Add to this the lack of incentives to actually use them, including also inconclusive evidence on their effects, and the result cannot be other than scattered experiences and innovations. Certainly, research can be extremely helpful in providing powerful reasons to reconsider the role and use of digital technologies in educational settings, particularly if it addresses the issue of value and real significance of technological skills in promoting economic growth, and what the actual demands of labour markets are in this area.

      The emergence of NML also calls for a re-consideration of ICT-based educational innovations putting pupils’ new attitudes and expectations, as well as transformed competences, at the very centre.

      It is likely that those innovative educational responses are going to be found around the following axes:

          Policy responses

          Nevertheless, the challenges posed by NML can be said to go further than this, by questioning the prevailing design of the knowledge society and, indeed, by already putting into practice an alternative one. The rise of NML can also be seen as the emergence of an alternative approach to the knowledge society to the one usually supported by formal educational institutions, which relies more on a progressive adaptation of the traditional approaches to communication and knowledge management than on the severe breakthrough that NML practices seem to announce. While the first is more suited to the life rhythms and pace of evolution of educational institutions, the second would represent a true revolution which, as a matter of fact, will seriously contrast with the knowledge society designed not by true digital natives, but by adults. The critical issue is whether educators and policy makers should be paying more attention to NML or it should be taken for granted that they do not represent a serious challenge for the future, but just the expression of another, rather post-modern, generational conflict.

          In short, what kind of knowledge society are schools currently preparing for? Up to now, broadly speaking (Eurydice, 2004; Plomp, Anderson, Law, & Quale, 2003), educational policies aimed at promoting the knowledge society have been mainly focused on:

          1. guaranteeing access to ICT in all educational institutions by, for instance, reducing students per computer ratios and providing schools with fast Internet connections;

          2. investing in in-service teacher training;

          3. promoting the use of digital media as educational resources; and

          4. setting incentives for fostering ICT-based educational innovations and experiments.

          All these policy strands concentrate exclusively on the supply side by creating the conditions for ICT incorporation into regular teaching practices. Overall, there seems to be a growing concern about the results of the investments following those lines. It appears that the promises of innovations which would radically improve both the quality and the results of school education, thanks to the availability of ICT coupled with well trained teachers, still remain to be realised (Cuban, 2001; Kozma, 2003; Oppenheimer, 2004). Under present circumstances it would be hard to say that education systems are really preparing for the knowledge society. Just to name but one aspect, social applications, which truly embody the concept of the network society, become increasingly important and gain users among young people. Educational institutions should therefore realize that most pupils already have the competence to deal with sophisticated learning environments where digital resources are an important asset. It is important for these institutions to figure out ways in which they can promote the convergence of all educational resources, traditional and digital.

          From the demand side, it is clear that NML are currently experiencing what it is to live in a networked society without necessarily realising the potential of a true knowledge society. But to some extent their experiences stop when they cross the walls of educational institutions. What would then be the more appropriate policy responses to the emergence of NML in the light of the requirements of the knowledge society? At this stage a number of policies could be said to be potentially relevant if aimed at least at:

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