Digital Natives – Can digital be innate to humans?

There is an assumption that a new generation of people is developing whose pattern of thinking and feeling is fundamentally differentiated and separated from those who grew up differently due to the intimate interweaving of digital media with life. If this assumption is correct, then the question arises as to what new demands will be placed on the designers of learning opportunities and of workplaces or working environments.

Based on my experience as management coach and professor, I find that the judgments are too black and white, but that there is a shift in weight in learning and work processes, evident in the structuring of the process and the loosening of the form.
In my day-to-day lectures at the university level and in my research and coaching activities, I am concerned with finding out which tasks, which approach and which design is appropriate for the learning types and learning skills of my students and clients or partners. In doing so, I am noticing a shift.
Digital natives are best observed in my role as a professor. And there especially in the learning modules that accommodate the special abilities of digital natives. I am in a predestined vantage point for the transformation of the learning and working worlds by digital natives and their learning behaviour.
The first exciting experience with the students is confronting their utilitarianism on a minute-by-minute basis. At first, they still ask questions about the design of the exam and then soon about its content. They now articulate their first sweeping rhyme, “Is that relevant to the exam?” much more frequently.  Ideas without exam relevance, knowledge without immediate applicability, skills without apparent added value are ballast for students and are quickly discarded.
Today, to even encounter the unexpected, one must explicitly bypass Google. The students do not only reflect this experience in the assumption that their present interest will remain stable, but they also exclude developments with their counterparts and judge without tolerating contradiction. They scour the Web for information, social contacts, and entertainment. In doing so, as Nicholas Carr explains in one of his latest works, they “put a great deal of their mental and cognitive energy into the actual mastery of the medium itself and seem to -literally- not give a damn about the content”. All these individual observations lead me to the conclusion that Nicola Carr’s question “Does Google make us stupid?” is more than justified today. I also agree with Carr’s thesis – which, by the way, he confirms several times by means of an extensive literature analysis – that the Web has now led to us reading more superficially, learning less effectively and remembering less than ever. Instead of serendipity, young people face permanent distractibility: Youtube video clips not only fill the breaks, but also always catch the greatest attention during lectures. Facebook and Instagram, the other main distractors, function as a kind of Tamagochi. It “nags” and requires permanent maintenance. Context switches are a major cause of reduced receptivity. A recent study in the USA shows that the young generation, on average, changes media every two minutes over the waking hours and calls for a context switch every few minutes.
How long will it be before universities categorically deny students access to the Web during lectures? If we observe students carefully, we notice that they have mutated into so-called “simultaneous” or “multitaskers.” They check the statuses of their numerous virtual friends, read and write emails, skim blog posts, watch video streams, download music, and probably feel that anything could happen at any minute that requires them to influence or give feedback. In short, they’re already tweeting, blogging, texting, and tagging almost simultaneously. One can’t shake the feeling that this new-age mode of existence, as Frank Schirrmacher also addresses in his preface to Carr’s aforementioned contribution, “destroys thoughtfulness, reflection, even deforms actual thinking altogether.”
Digital natives’ focus on their own subject matter and familiarity with modern digital media sometimes challenge professors to make difficult decisions. Dexterous use of Internet searching is impressive, but without routine use of the more traditional tools of librarianship, it is unlikely to become scholarly work. In the end, the ability to use digital media to communicate quickly with one another does not automatically lead to greater social competence. That still wants to be practiced face-to-face. But this is precisely what students often devalue: many avoid being present and role-playing, and stay away from events that focus on developing social and personal skills. Where they are physically present, they are often not cognitively engaged, but rather virtually active in a different context. There is a blurring of the terms “physically present and also involved.” In other words, they are cognitively uninvolved physically present and physically absent cognitively involved.
If the terms are unclear, then all structuring becomes difficult. I often encounter the phenomenon that students write their papers in a way that resembles a wanderer’s foray into a foreign territory without a plan or a map: The theoretical paths and conceptual plants are gradually discovered, but not presented and certainly not introduced as a means to a specific end. In addition to the instruments of a theory, the transfer into an application is also missing and they act in the same way in the teaching context, where the transfer must be explicitly initiated and outlined: structure is desired to an extraordinary extent – because the students seem to lack it. This can be seen from time to time in the texts that students deliver.  A rough structural template is not adapted to the specific topic, but misused as a filler for content that is not intellectually penetrated, let alone structured. These texts often refer to large collections of web links and small collections of literature:  What the web doesn’t offer immediately, it should just keep for itself. Students haggle a lot and with love over organisational details, but then gladly exercise the right to voluntary participation in the form of abstinence.
Also, anonymity has become a central element of the new digitised forms of conversation: In lectures, few express themselves directly and concretely, asking questions or making comments about the structure or forms of learning. In the anonymous feedback at the end of the semester. Overall, it is a devaluing of conversation and exchange in favor of uncommented judgment of the sort familiar from customer feedback in web stores.  The right to anonymity, openly adopted by the university and by students, is almost abused as a right to judge without justification. An unculture that illustrates the loss of dialogue in the institutions concerned as well as the entry of non-commitment into interpersonal relationships.
Especially in the application of case studies, where students sometimes read extensive texts alone, but mostly in small groups as a first step, I observe that they often find it very difficult to immerse themselves in a longer article. If I compare with my own experiences during my study time, I miss this spirit that bit into the context of a text and held on until the end. How often have I observed, especially during the solution finding of case studies, that the majority of students digress mentally after only one page read; even become restless and give the impression that they are looking for something else to do. I often compare this to scrolling and skimming text on websites, where people jump from hyperlink to hyperlink in search of the right information.
If we take the current scientific findings from neuropsychology and neurobiology seriously, we can assume that this change in the way students absorb information alters the plasticity of their brains in such a way that their brains develop completely new kinds of abilities “and actually lose others”. As a professor and coach, I often wonder whether me myself am not able to cope with this interconnectedness because I am subconsciously clinging to my learned linear thought processes, and I often wonder whether this behaviour on the part of students is normal. If I relate their modern behaviour to my own abilities and preferences, the answer would probably be “no”. However, if we go back a few thousand years in the evolutionary history of homo sapiens, we can imagine behavioural patterns similar to those of animals in the wild. This prevailing pronounced focusing of the beings on possible dangers and potential chances, was essential for survival. As soon as something in the immediate environment changed, this had to be registered immediately as chance or danger, so that appropriate decision processes could run off (escape, attack, etc.). By such a consideration alone it could already be concluded that during the whole history of mankind our thinking and acting was probably everything else than linear and this gift of the reflex-like change of focus has probably secured our existence even until today.
If students are now required to immerse themselves in a case text, this is – under today’s multimedia conditions – also associated with training their brains to ignore everything that is happening in their environment; in other words, to resist the natural urge to let their attention wander from one sensory stimulus to the next. “The ability to concentrate as uninterruptedly as possible on a single task represents a curious anomaly in the history of our psychological development,” writes Vaughan Bell, a psychologist.
Organisations today must therefore create appropriate ideal conditions to accompany learners through their learning time. I am observing various trends in this regard, which do not require less but rather tend to require more coaching of the younger population. A good example is the provision of scholarly monographs and journals in purely electronic format by university libraries. As a family father of school children, I notice that students are increasingly confronted, even at elementary schools, with the need to obtain appropriate literature “online” instead of browsing through classic books from bookshelves. The analog way, respectively the analog library in the classical sense, seems to become the discontinued model of the modern age. Where yesterday you had to get a seat early in order to be able to study in peace with the almost meditative rustling of paper, today you find rooms full of screens where the clatter of keyboards is reminiscent of the advent of the first industrial typewriters in the business world of the sixties and seventies.

There’s one thing we can all agree on by now: digital development can no longer be stopped, or has already arrived – even if in many places through the back door. If, for example, we consider the current social status of an e-book, i.e. a purely electronic version of a book, to be rather modest and reserved, we will see the blossoming of V-books many years before we retire. These will offer a highly integrated network of information of different dimensions, such as static images, moving videos, sound reproduction, linking of terms, communication and exchange services and further possibilities, which can hardly be imagined today. Today, hardly anyone doubts that all of this will have an influence on the entire (higher) education landscape and private or public organisations that should not be underestimated. In higher education, for example, new didactic models, skills and systems will have to be developed and tested by lecturers; on the entrepreneurial side, in particular, completely new forms of e-work will have to be introduced. As Kurt Lewin explained it already in the late fifties by combining insights from topology (lifespace), psychology (aspiration) and sociology (force-fields, group-pressures), the individual behaviour of individuals emerges from an arrangement of psychologically relevant forces (vector forces). The theory is based on the recognition that within a group there is a force field that can be identified from the (in our context cognitive) interactions between the individual participants.
There are a number of assumptions about how digital natives will fit into the work process. A paper published by IBM and Stanford entitled: Virtual Worlds, Real Leaders, predicts that the values and behaviours formed in Massive Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) will become the norm in the workplace. This research was conducted as part of the Global Innovation Outlook.   The study asserts that as the work process changes and becomes more like games in its communication structures, the same rules will prevail:

  • Leadership changes rapidly. It is episodic/situational rather than structural.
  • Leadership must be acquired by convincing the other players. It thus becomes cooperative and relationship-oriented.
  • The capabilities of teammates are made maximally transparent. Leadership can therefore easily delegate tasks.
  • Leadership communicates with an equally open incentive and reward system.
  • The willingness to take risks and make mistakes is as high as the willingness to learn.
  • A variety of channels are used for communication.

Has this change possibly already made much more progress than we perceive? Unified Communication and Collaboration (UCC) has, to a certain extent, brought the leisure environment of the digital natives into the working world. All the services of our working world are available to us almost indefinitely, whether we are in the office, at home with the customer or on the road: UCC is the Facebook of managers – with the same consequences. Demarcation becomes difficult, and without a clear policy on how and where to draw the lines, the degrees of freedom gained in terms of work location and working hours become hostage. A second domestication process is taking hold of our lives, the control mechanisms of which intervene much more deeply in our private lives than we were willing to consider possible, let alone permissible, fifteen years ago. With the blending of the two spheres to a new extent, multitasking is moving into our private lives and butler lies are moving into our professional lives, which we use to try to protect our privacy in case of emergency.
Those who feel called to teach digital natives will often have an affinity, or at least a sympathy, for their worldview. This is also true for me. And this sympathy is outwardly manifested first in the choice of work devices. The professors use the same smart phones and the same tablets, and the fact that e-mails are written at all hours of the day hardly surprises anyone these days. In many respects, the way professors work is also similar to that of students.
The organisation into working groups is the most likely to show an influence of digital natives on professors. It is quite common that only time and topic are clear until shortly before a meeting, but the location is only roughly defined and in which building and room one finally meets is only negotiated at the last moment by text message, just as one is familiar with young people in the evening. One can therefore conclude that professors are just as reluctant to part with their cell phones and PCs as the younger generation.  But even if professors use the same information channels, they do not work in the same way. Mixed use can be observed more often. Because universities stand for open scientific dialog in a wide range of areas and want to be public and accessible, applications are used relatively casually that private-sector companies would hardly tolerate for security reasons: Zoom sessions from the office and with students or external partners are common. Preparatory work and creative sessions are more often done with web-based mind mapping software, and sharing of rapidly changing documents is done via Cloud storage solutions during intensive phases.  These applications are not used as stand-alone applications, but in conjunction with more traditional tools. However, universities are often not very quick to provide the latest and newest on their campus computers, and in the interim and long transition periods, professors develop workarounds that try to combine the values of both worlds. This is best illustrated by the process of literature search. One thing that professors often find fault with students’ working style is the restriction in the literature to articles that can be searched for via Google and also read immediately.  And what you can’t read right away is immediately excluded from further work, at least at the beginning. The professors face the same problem. The search with the library-internal search systems is also burdensome for them, because the search often has to be done with other systems depending on the origin, it is also the closest for them to search with Google and access with the university libraries.
The constant reflection on this issues, which have become very topical in the last 10 years, tells me day by day that teaching and learning processes must be designed together. Experienced participants bring in their expertise in this regard. Inexperienced participants define the context in which the experience gained is to be applied in order to ultimately arrive at new insights. The journey continues …..