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Growing up Gen Y: The Impact of Being Immersed in Technology

July 30, 2012
Related Topics: Talent Management, Generations At Work
KEYWORDS ask a gen y

Generational stereotypes are slowly being debunked, but still anecdotal evidence continues to be bantered around the Internet, and used to make decisions on how to manage and train Gen Y. Luckily, others are on the crusade to clear away the nonsense. There is more research to discredit the theory that Gen Y has grown up immersed in technology, and therefore, thinks and acts differently.

Overview of the Research Project

New evidence has been published by Mark Bullen, Tannis Morgan and Adnan Qayyum, in their multi-year, multi-phase research project, "Digital Learners in Higher Education: Implications for Teaching, Learning & Technology," that explores the validity of many generational claims. The key difference between the outputs of this research project, and much of the other literature advertised on the Internet, is that that this study utilized valid, reliable research methodologies, and published scholarly, peer-reviewed findings, rather than anecdotal evidence.

One of the project’s latest publications, "Digital Learners in Higher Education: Looking Beyond Stereotypes," explains the project’s strategy and the methodologies used for each part of the study. It consists of two phases:

  • Phase 1: A three-year literature review and a study at a Canadian post-secondary technical institute on the link between generations and the use of technology. The study was composed of interviews across generations, programs and genders, as well as a survey that was validated, peer-reviewed for clarity and relevance, and pilot-tested. Then, T-tests and Mann Whitney tests were completed to test for significance of generational differences in behavior.

  • Phase 2: A three-year literature review of third-generation activity theory (AT) and case studies at three educational institutions. The focus on AT provides a theoretical framework to further investigate the nature of technology use in social and educational settings, and the subsequent pedagogical implications (Engestrom, 1987).

Key Findings of the Research Project

The first phase of the project was completed in 2009, while the second phase is still under way. Consistent with several other research findings (see reference list below), phase 1 conclusions included:

  • There is no empirically sound evidence that supports most of the claims that have been made about Gen Y; and,
  • There are no meaningful differences between students in Gen Y and older generations (at the Canadian institution) in the way they use technology, behave or prefer to learn.

More specifically, the research team concluded that there were three common categories of generational claims, described below.

Claim Findings
1. Information and communication technologies tend to be used more by Gen Y.

  • The use of technology is ubiquitous in all aspects of life.
  • Younger generations tend to use technology more often, but the number of people in older generations using technology is increasing.

2. The increased immersion in technology has influenced the way Gen Y learns and behaves, specifically by changing the physical structure of the generation’s brain, allowing them to multitask effectively (amongst other things).

  • The few studies that back this claim are flawed because they lack a thorough explanation of the methodologies used to choose and study samples, had a biased research sample, lack empirical support and lack an explanation of the connection between data collected and hypothesis suggested.
  • At least two credible studies contradict these claims and indicate the unsophisticated information-searching techniques used by Gen Y (i.e., lack of ability to critically evaluate the information they retrieved).

3. The increased use of technology has created distinct characteristics amongst Gen Y and resulted in distinct learning preferences, especially for immediate feedback and experiential learning.

  • The few studies that support this claim are speculation and anecdotal reports, and lack explanation of the methodologies used to select, distribute and collect data (often as a result of being privately funded).


Data interpretations from the phase 1 study were even more interesting. The interview portion of the study revealed that students:

  • Have a limited set of tools available to them, and familiarity with certain tools drives their use in the academic setting (e.g., it is easier to use Facebook to facilitate group work because it is self-organizing, rather than an institute-specific tool that would require approval, setup, etc.);
  • Choose to use tools based on context (i.e., what is most appropriate for a given situation); and,
  • Did not identify specific technology-related needs. Instead indicated barriers  within their physical environments (e.g., need longer lab hours or better lighting in the classrooms).

The survey portion of the study revealed that, overall, there were no meaningful differences amongst Gen Y and non-Gen Y in the perceived generational characteristics. There is no evidence to support claims that digital literacy, connectedness, a need for immediacy and a preference for experiential learning were characteristics of a particular generation of learners. Interestingly, the study indicated that all generations prefer face-to-face communication over using technology to communicate. A key recommendation that resulted from these findings was to make technology decisions based on specific needs at the program level and avoid making institution-wide decisions that might not be appropriate for all programs.

The preliminary findings from the second phase of the project were consistent with those from the first phase.


Although this research effort is focused on higher education, there are some applicable takeaways for corporate workplace learning and performance practitioners and leaders. These key points include the need to:

  • Investigate the source of claims made about Gen Y that are used to make key business decisions - i.e., look beyond the data presented and examine how it was obtained. Is the sample pool biased? Is the data collection methodology reliable and valid? Was the methodology validated by scholarly peers? Was the effort privately funded?
  • Uncover and distinguish unique needs about user groups, and not age groups, before making technology decisions - i.e., an institution-wide technology platform may not meet the needs of your diverse audiences within your organization.

References from the Research Project

Bennett, S., Maton, K. & Kervin, L. (2008). The 'digital natives’ debate: A critical review of the evidence. British Journal of Educational Technology 39 (5), 775-786.

Engeström, Y. (1987). Learning by expanding: an activity-theoretical approach to developmental research. Helsinki: Orienta-Konsultit.

Guo, R.X., Dobson, T., and Petrina, S. (2008). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants: An Analysis of ICT Competence in Teacher Education. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 38(3), 235-254.

Jones, C. and Cross, S. (2009). Is There a Net Generation Coming to University? In ALT-C 2009 ”In dreams begins responsibility”: Choice, evidence and change, 8-10 September 2009, Manchester, UK.

Kennedy, G., Dalgarnot, B., Gray, K., Judd, T., Waycott, J., Bennett, S., Maton, K., Krause, K., Bishop, A., Chang, R. & Churchward, R. (2007). The net generation are not big users of Web 2.0 technologies: Preliminary findings. Paper presented at the ASCILITE conference, Singapore.

Kvavik, R.B. (2005). Convenience, Communications, and Control: How Students Use Technology. In D.G. Oblinger & J.L Oblinger (Eds.) Educating the Net Generation, pp. 7.1-7-20. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE.

Margaryan, A.  and Littlejohn, A. (2008). Are digital natives a myth or reality?: Students’ use of technologies for learning. Unpublished paper.

Pedró, F. (2009). New Millennium Learners in Higher Education: Evidence and Policy Implications. Paris: OECD-CERI.

Reeves, T. and Oh, E. (2007).  Generational Differences. In J.M. Spector, M.D. Merrill, J. van Merrienboer, and M.P. Driscoll (Eds.) Handbook of Research on Educational Communications and Technology, 295-303.

Selwyn, N. (2009). The Digital Native: Myth and Reality. Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives, 61(4), 364-379.

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