Digital Natives and the Snark Syndrome
Presented at: Bridging the Gap, Yokohama International School, Yokohama, Japan.
November 19-21, 2009
Table of Contents
Digital Natives and the Snark Syndrome.....................................................1
Why is this an issue?.......................................................................................2
Some of the evidence.......................................................................................3
So where does this leave us?.............................................................................6
'Just the place for a Snark!' the Bellman cried,
As he landed his crew with care;
Supporting each man on the top of the tide
By a finger entwined in his hair.
'Just the place for a Snark! I have said it twice:
That alone should encourage the crew.
Just the place for a Snark! I have said thrice:
What I tell you three times is true.'
In 1993 Eileen Byrne published an influential book discussing women in
science (Byrne, 1993). She used the term ‘Snark Syndrome’ to describe
‘received wisdom… based on assumption, belief or prejudice’. This refers to
Lewis Carroll’s famous nonsense poem quoted above and suggests that the
beliefs discussed had no basis in sound empirical research, but had simply
been repeated enough times until they were internalised by educators and
In a recent web posting, Mark Bullen resurrected the term to describe what he
saw as a similar effect in discussion about ‘the net generation’. Here he
questioned empirical research that supports the terms and concepts often
used in debate and called for a more evidence based approach to policy and
pratice in this area. (Bullen, 2009)
As an example, Bullen noted a piece in the New York Times (Lewin, 2009)
stating ““Kids are wired differently these days,” said Sheryl R. Abshire, chief
technology officer for the Calcasieu Parish school system in Lake Charles, La.
“They’re digitally nimble. They multitask, transpose and extrapolate. And they
think of knowledge as infinite.” In the article, these bold claims were used to
justify a future for education ““We’re still in a brick-and-mortar, 30-students-
to-1-teacher paradigm,” Mr. Habermehl said, “but we need to get out of that
framework to having 200 or 300 kids taking courses online, at night, 24/7,
whenever they want.”” We need to consider if this is where we think education
should go and if this is really what the evidence tells us works.
Heeding the call for a more evidence based approach, I would like to review
some issues that might arise from an uncritical adoption of the terms and
concepts and look at some sources of empirical evidence and the sorts of
questions that we should expect answers to from educational research.
Why is this an issue?
There are a lot of labels that have been used to characterise different
generations. One of the most powerful is the concept of a net generation
comprising digital natives, taught by a group of digital immigrants. Such labels
clearly resonate with us and may become the basis for teaching and policy
decisions. I would summarise the principal concerns with the uncritical
adoption of this characterisation as being:
It suggests that children are a homogenous group, all equipped with the same
set of technology skills and preferences. This suggests that all we need to do
is to let the children loose. In reality we see as big a range in skills and
preferences in children as in adults, leading to complex classrooms which
The image of ‘digital immigrant’ suggests that teachers are not suitably
qualified to teach with and about ICT use and that interventions by immigrants
will not be in the native language. In reality we see innovative design and
expert use frequently represented by supposed digital immigrants.
It also leads to the suggestion that technology preferences that have
developed in a social setting would also be the preferred (and best)
technology use in an educational setting. In research we can often see
different preferences for communication in different settings and concerns
exist about border crossings between the social and educational realms.
Some of the evidence
I would like to review a few sources in some detail that discuss these claims.
The first is a critical review published in the British Journal of Educational
Technology by a group of Australian academics (Bennett, Maton, & Kervin,
2008). This article notes that initial assertions related to digital immigrants ‘put
forward with limited empirical evidence or supported by anecdotes or appeals
to common-sense beliefs’ have been ‘ subsequently referenced, often
uncritically in a host of later publications’ (p. 777). They raise the concern that
generalisations on whole generation focuses ‘attention on technically adept
students. With this comes the danger that those less interested and less able
will be neglected.’ (p. 7)
On the notion that ‘young people think and process information fundamentally
differently from their predecessors’ (quoting Prensky, 2001), the authors note
that, even when there is evidence of people processing information differently
in a social setting, it is common not to see processing preferences as static
and certainly not generalisable across a whole generation. Research is cited
saying that ‘students change their approach to learning depending on their
perception of what a task requires’. Thus evidence of processing preferences
in a social setting does not provide evidence for preferences in an educational
The authors also note concern about the nature of the debate about the net
generation. They describe arguments couched in dramatic language,
declaring educational states of emergency. The authors characterise this
discourse as academic ‘moral panic’ – a term used in sociology to describe a
sensationalist form of public discourse. They note that strong boundary
divides are evoked and also note the creation of a divide between ‘those who
believe in the digital divide and those who don’t. Teachers who do not change
their practice are labelled as ‘lazy’ and ‘ineffective’ (citing Prensky). ‘Those
who refuse to recognise what is described as an inevitable change are said to
be in denial, resistant and out of touch and are portrayed as being without
legitimate concerns. Such devise language is seen to close down effective
debate and limit the possibility of understanding the phenomenon. As the
authors note ‘ neither dismissive skeptisism or uncritical advocacy enable
understanding of whether the phenomenon of digital natives is significant and
in what ways education needs to change to accommodate it.’ (p. 781)
The OECD’s Center for Education and Research Innovation have started an
extended research project on ‘New Millenium Learners’. Amongst the
documents and discussions produced is ‘The New Millenium Learners: Main
Findings’ (OECD, 2008). This report notes concern about a few important
Gender issues: The report notes wide disparities in ICT use between boys
and girls. ‘Boys use computers and the internet more than girls, have wider
computer experience, spend more time online, report greater interest in and
perceive more positive attitudes to computer-related activities. Boys also
appear to be more motivated to learn digital skills. Contrarily, girls seem to be
dominating in the communicative field of ICT, like word processing, text
messaging on cell phones as well as email and blogging’ (p. 6). This is
important as we should note that innovations are likely to favor a gender and
that a knowledge-based society would in the end become a male designed
model of society. Interestingly the authors note that the notion that girls are
falling behind would only be valid ‘if we consider boy’s use of technology the
norm and representative of the actual goals to reach’ (p. 6).
The Matthew effect: The term ‘Matthew effect’ derives from the gospel of
Matthew and the idea that the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. We
might assume that most of the students at our school come from advantaged
backgrounds and have ample access to ICT outside school. The report notes,
however, the emergence of an additional digital divide related to differences in
use. The report notes that home access to ICT is often a more significant
indicator of improved educational performance than school use. This again
challenges the notion that we have a homogenous generation of children and
suggests that educational practices and policies need to be sensitive to the
range of experiences and expectations that our children have. The report
notes a significant need for further research in this area.
The OECD/CERI report also reviews available evidence on the role of
technology in cognitive skills development. While noting that ‘(a)t least
potentially, digital media contain features which provide opporunities for
enhancing various cognitive skills’ (p. 8) it notes limited and inconclusive
research in this area. Issues that may be particularly important include the
transfer of skills to new contexts – how easy is it to apply skills learned or
developed using ICT to other contexts.
On a similar theme, Selwyn (2009) notes concerns about a possible
reduction in cognitive skills associated with net use, lamenting a generation of
‘intellectual kleptomaniacs de-powered and incapable of critical thought’. Here
we see that net use can lead to both empowerment and dis-empowerment.
Direction from teachers may be the critical factor here.
A further significant area noted in the report is the role of ICT in the
socialisation process and in social behavior. Stereotyping of women and the
enforcement of violence in video games have raised concern about the effects
on identity and social development. Also raised, but inconclusive, is the
question of impact of using digital media on young people’s skills for building
and maintaining social relationships. These are areas where further research
is needed as they are areas of great potential harm.
A major research project in Australia led to ‘Educating the Net generation: A
Handbook of Findings for Practice and Policy’. (Kennedy, 2009) Though
mainly targeted at higher education, it may be worth noting some of its main
findings as summarised here:
1. The rhetoric that university students are Digital Natives and university staff are Digital Immigrants
is not supported.
2. There is great diversity in students’ and staff experiences with technology, and their preferences for
the use of technology in higher education.
3. Emerging technologies afford a range of learning activities that can improve student learning
processes, outcomes, and assessment practices.
4. Managing and aligning pedagogical, technical and administrative issues is a necessary condition of
success when using emerging technologies for learning.
5. Innovation with learning technologies typically requires the development of new learning and
teaching and technology-based skills, which is effortful for both students and staff.
6. The use of emerging technologies for learning and teaching can challenge current university
policies in learning and teaching and IT.
I would particularly note the notion that innovation is effortful for both student
and teacher and the need to align ICT use with other approaches and that
even the supposed digital natives need guidance at incorporating their skills
and approaches into the educational setting.
So where does this leave us?
The above represents a selective review of a small part of the evidence that
would be associated with discussion about the influence of technology use on
the future of education. Both policy and practice need an evidence base and
at this stage that base seems to be inconclusive. In considering future policy
and practice the first step would likely be to consider what questions we would
want educational research to provide us with – here is where we Bridge the
In the meantime I think it is important to note that the introduction of ICT leads
to an additional dimension of complexity in the classroom to go with the
existing mess of strands – language, culture, aptitude and attitude to name a
few. It is important that we recognise this as ‘effortful’ from the outset to
weave this additional strand into the fabric of the classroom, to borrow an
image from a previous BtG presenter, Allan Luke. (Luke, 2004)
Bennett, S., Maton, K., & Kervin, L. (2008). The 'digital natives' debate: A
critical review. Brtitish Journal of Educational Technology , 39 (5), 775-786.
Bullen, M. (2009, July 29). The Snark Syndrome and the Net Gen Discourse.
Retrieved September 28, 2009, from Net Gen Skeptic:
Byrne, E. M. (1993). Women and science: The snark syndrome. Bristol, PA: Taylor
Kennedy, G. (2009). Educating the net generation: A handbook of findings for
practice and policy. Melbourne, Australia: Australian learning and teaching
Lewin, T. (2009, 8 9). New York Times. Retrieved 10 16, 2009, from: In the
future text books are history:
Luke, A. (2004, 10 04). New basics, pedagogy, futures. Singapore. Retrieved
10 15, 2009
Muller, J. (2008, 12). Three scenarios for the future – lessons from the sociology of
knowledge. Retrieved 10 29, 2009, from Beyond Current Horizons:
OECD. (2008). New millenium learners. Initial findings on the effects of digital
technologies on school-age learners. Learning in the 21st Century: Research,
Innovation and Policy. Paris: OECD/CERI.
Prensky, M. (2001). Digital natives, digital immigrants. On the Horizon , 9 (5),
Selwyn, N. (2009). The digital native - myth and reality. Aslib Proceedings , 61