There is a theory that people born since the advent of home computers use and interact with digital technologies in a substantially different manner to their predecessors. The argument was made popular in the 1990s by a number of influential books, including "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," by Marc Prensky and "Net Generation" by Don Tapscott.
More recently, it has been co-opted by various technology providers as a business case for investing in the very latest end-user technology. These digital natives, the argument runs, will turn their nose up at potential employers if they do not have an internal social network or free tablets for all staff.
However, a new study by the Open University has found that while there were differences in the technology usage habits of the young and the old, there was scant evidence for a watershed at around the age of 30.
The study was lead by the Open University’s professor of student learning and assessment, John Richardson. It quizzed over 4,000 of the university’s students, whose ages ranged from 21 up to 70 and above, about their attitudes towards various technologies and how they use them in study.
Some results were predictable. For instance, younger students were more likely to use all the features of their mobile phones – camera, texting, mobile Internet, etc. – while the older students tended to use calling alone.
But others confounded the stereotypes. The survey itself was available to complete online or on paper; surprisingly, the older students were more likely to use the digital option.
Most importantly, "we found no evidence for any discontinuity in technology use around the age of 30, as would be predicted by the Net Generation and Digital Natives hypotheses", the authors wrote.
Meanwhile, a separate study by the Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries (ERIAL) into the research skills of undergraduate students found that they were not all as “tech savvy” as expected.
Unsurprisingly, when asked about their research methods, a group of thirty students mentioned ‘Google’ 115 times. However, only seven students were able to "[conduct] what a librarian might consider a reasonably well-executed search," the ERIAL report said.
Most students had no idea how to use Google’s more advanced services such as Google Scholar and Google Book, or more search terms such "related:" (which finds similar sites), "site:" (which searches within the defined domain) and *[word]”(which allows Google to substitute synonyms for a given word in a search string).
Both studies found that when it came to being ‘tech savvy’ consumers of information, engagement with the subject and motivation to succeed were more important than youth.