Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation

Don Tapscott

Don Tapscott is Chair of the Alliance for Converging Technologies and author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation


Author's Note: The contents of this paper and other NetGeneration issues can be discussed on the interactive forums at


The Demographic Revolution Meets the Digital Revolution

For the past three decades the demographic majority of the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand has been the baby boom. Anyone born between 1946 and 1964 is considered a baby boomer. As they grew older, the baby boomers gained more and more influence over media, business, and government policy. But as they grew older, they did not grow up as quickly as previous generations. There was little reason for boomers who were not from working class or poor backgrounds to grow up. Being young was to be part of something big. In 1955 kids were everywhere. Almost 57 percent of families contained children under the age of 18 and, unlike now, there was a greater likelihood of there being more than one child under each roof.

As adults the majority of baby boom women put off having children until their 30s and 40s. Society has seen other periods of delayed parenting during periods of economic depression, war, and famine, but that wasn't the case with boomers.

There was another force at work when many boomers-specifically middle-and upper-class young people-delayed parenthood. They were prolonging youth. The experience of this generation's youth was one that saw, for the first time, a youth movement, a youth culture and concerns of youth become the dominant cultural, political, and economic force in their societies.

The demographic minorities born in the decades following the baby boom could not challenge the influence of baby boom culture. Theirs was a dominance that went unchallenged, until now.

The baby boom has an echo and it's even louder than the original. The Net Generation has arrived. These 88 million children in the US and Canada who are already combining demographic muscle with digital mastery to become a force for social transformation. This is a demographic wave of youth that is also hitting the shores of selected countries along the pacific rim and in Northern Europe. These children are at the heart of the new digital media culture. They are a new generation who, in profound and fundamental ways learn, work, play, communicate, shop, and create communities very differently than their parents.

This wave of youth coincides with the digital revolution which is transforming all facets of our society. Together these two factors are producing a generation which is not just a demographic bulge but a wave of social transformation.

Aged 0-20, N-Geners are embracing interactive media such as the Internet, CD-ROM and video games. The New Generation is exceptionally curious, self-reliant, contrarian, smart, focused, able to adapt, high in self-esteem, and has a global orientation. Not only are they, demographically speaking, the greatest challenge to the cultural supremacy of the baby boomers, but technologically speaking, there has been a change in the way children gather, accept and retain information.

Their Media Usage

This change stems from a fundamental preference for interactive media rather than broadcast media.

Nothing reflects this preference more than the decline in television viewing hours. Television audiences are becoming smaller and more discriminating. Today's young television audiences are more than just uppity - one might go so far to say that N-Geners are refusing to be reduced to spectator status. It is not television specifically that is coming under attack, but rather, the nature of broadcast culture itself.

Broadcast technology, like television, is hierarchal. It depends upon a top-down distribution system. Someone somewhere decides what will be broadcast and our role in this is limited to what we choose, or do not choose to watch. There is no different feedback from the viewer to the broadcaster. Nor is there any direct interaction between viewers unless they are sitting on a couch in the same living room. In TV culture, viewers have no real power, except to channel surf.

Where N-Geners do find power is on the Internet because it depends upon a distributed, or shared, delivery system rather than a hierarchal one. This distributed, or shared, power is at the heart of the culture of interaction.


From Broadcast Learning to Interactive Learning

The culture of interaction, if harnessed by schools can be a tremendous force in promoting learning. Computers are an integral part of the culture of integration. Unfortunately, as mentioned above, computers in the schools today are used primarily for teaching basic computer skills, for traditional drill and kill instruction, testing, and for record keeping.1 The N-Gen experience to date with the digital media points to a new paradigm in learning. The new media enables-and the N-Gen needs for learning demand-a shift from broadcast learning to what I call Interactive Learning.

The Technology of Interactive Learning

In the mid 1970s I was doing graduate work in educational psychology at the University of Alberta and found myself in one of the first classes to take an on-line course. We learned "multivariant" analysis (advanced statistical procedures) using a CAI (Computer Aided Instruction) package called Plato. This course was set up by a visionary in computer-mediated education named Dr. Steve Hunka. We sat down in front of a computer terminal which was connected to a computer-controlled slide display, all connected to a mini computer. (This was before PCs.) The course was fabulous. It took me step-by-step through the material but unlike traditional courses, I could stop and review something I didn't understand or fast forward through material I felt I grasped. I could test myself at various points and the system kept a record for me of how I was doing. Eventually, when I was ready, the system gave me a formal test. The final exam was also conducted on the computer. (And yes, I did actually get an A. In fact, I became so interested in this new technology that Professor Hunka became my thesis supervisor.)

However, because of the cost of such systems, the effort required to create the "courseware" the considerable expertise required to implement them and the huge cultural change in the teaching model, these CAI systems didn't really take off. Today the situation has changed dramatically. There are a wide range of tools and the Net itself, which creates a new paradigm in the delivery of learning.

Figure 1 shows the continuum in learning technologies from broadcast to interactive learning.

The Technologies of Learning-From Broadcast to Interactive

DATA: Alliance for Converging Technologies

Several of the analog technologies are shown. At one extreme is television over which the learner has little control. Watch the show when it's played, from beginning to end. An improvement was videotapes which could be viewed somewhat independent of time and location. For example, the African Virtual University, sponsored by the World Bank, is enabling engineering students to take courses in electrical engineering from a professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. The stateside course is videotaped and transmitted via satellite to participating institutions in Ethiopia, Ghana, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zimbabwe. The professor is available by telephone three times a week to answer questions that the on-site instructor can't answer, or for which clarification is needed. Eventually, the Virtual U will be available in more than forty countries on the African continent.

Books have a greater portability and interactivity than television. They can be scanned and, in the case of texts, you can jump ahead or back. Face-to-face lectures may also have a degree of interactivity as the lecturer can stop, take questions, or even hold a discussion. However, interactivity and discovery are limited because control rests with the presenter and the group rather than the individual learner.

When information becomes bits, the situation changes profoundly. Conventional CAI includes drill programs where the user is presented with facts and then asked to recall them or to perform some operation based on the facts. Tutorials are more elaborate and can cover a broader range of material, as in the case of my statistics course. Games, if appropriate, can provide the learner with a more flexible and creative environment for learning many things from visual-motor skills and rules to the nature of gravity.

CAI programs can improve learning performance by one third-the student gains one year for every three. This is with CAI software programs still being fairly primitive, usually only using text. As the software matures, CAI will become much more interactive and richer, using graphics, audio, and video.

A good example of an interactive text-based CAI program was set up by Ron Owston, professor of education at York University. He designed a hypermedia course for prospective teachers which has two dozen modules. Each module has a topic description and suggested readings with corresponding hot links to the original source. There are also electronic seminars available to each student where the professor participates on more of a peer basis than as the authority who owns all knowledge. Outside experts and facilitators are invited (I was one). There are various assignments, which the students submit on-line and also research tools to help them conduct in-depth investigations of topics and data. The environment also contains information regarding the process of the course, such as schedules, marking systems, etc.

Gabriela Parada, twenty-four, one of the 120 students in the course, raves about the system. "Ron has created an on-line environment which has forced many otherwise on-line-illiterate students to get on-line. I have observed a whole campus of students struggle with the initial technophobia of logging in or setting up connections from home and the significant anxiety that produced. Now these same students are in awe of the potential and powers of technology. Since all of Ron's readings for the course are on the Web, students have quickly learned to navigate so as to find the readings. In the on-line seminar groupings, students must take the knowledge they acquire from the readings on the World Wide Web and then comment and discuss. They are again forced to participate in a virtual community using a messaging system.

"Previous to this course, less than 5 percent of the students at my campus were Internet-literate. This course has opened up a window to the world of technology and many are rethinking its role for their future classrooms."

The new media has helped create a culture for learning, where the learner enjoys enhanced interactivity and connections with others (Papert, 1996). Rather than some professor regurgitating facts and theories to students, they discuss and learn from each other with the teacher as a participant. They construct narratives that make sense out of their own experiences. Various digital forums, such as the ones we organized to research this book, enable brainstorming, debate, the influencing of each other-in other words, social learning.

Initial research evidence strongly supports this view. For example, in the fall of 1996, thirty-three students in a social studies course at California State University in Northridge were randomly divided into two groups, one taught in a traditional classroom and the other taught virtually on the Web. The teaching model wasn't changed fundamentally-texts, lectures, and exams were standardized across the two groups. Despite this, the Web-based class scored, on average, 20 percent higher. The Web class had more contact with one another and were more interested in the class work. They also felt that they understood the material better and that they had greater flexibility in how they learned.Such communications environments are enhanced further with the introduction of multiple media. Traditional approaches to learning, both analog and digital, emphasize text and voice. Pictures, such as in comic books, were seen as somehow taking away from learning. But as John Seely Brown of Xerox points out, "if you look at the genre of communication in corporate America, it's actually developing techniques that are quite close to comic books." Understanding this has caused me to change my attitude about my son Alex reading Mad Magazine, for example.

An imminent N-Gen foray into multimedia communications environments is the MUD - Multi User Domain. As explained earlier, a MUD is a "place" on the Net where users create their own dramatic adventures in real time. MUDs are evolving into virtual meeting places and learning places- virtual social realities - on the Net. Soon your kids studying science will be able to meet in a troubled bio-region and share data, research and solutions. Or to have a meeting in a space station about the results of an experiment on the impact of gravity on viruses.

When you go for a virtual reality ride through the human cardiovascular system at a multimedia theme park, you are experiencing the next step in the evolution of digital learning environments-virtual reality simulation. This began with flight simulation systems which enabled airplane pilots to practice emergency situations, such as loosing engine power, in a safe environment. Virtual reality (VR) today usually involves some kind of clothing such as a glove, goggles, or headset. In special centers the same effect can be experienced with large screens and hydraulics to move the cabin.

The ultimate interactive learning environment will be the Web and the Net as a whole. It increasingly includes the vast repository of human knowledge, tools to manage this knowledge, access to people, and a growing galaxy of services ranging from sandbox environments for preschoolers to virtual laboratories for medical students studying neural psychiatry. Today's baby will tomorrow learn about Michelangelo by walking through the Sistine Chapel, watching him paint, and perhaps stopping for a conversation. Students will stroll on the moon. Petroleum engineers will penetrate the earth to the drill bit. Doctors will navigate through your cardiovascular system. Researchers will browse through a library. Auto designers will sit in the back seat of a car they are designing to see how it feels and examine the external view.As I explained in The Digital Economy, imagine the future applications you might create with VRML-Virtual Reality Markup Language-the VR equivalent of the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) used to compose home pages.


Eight Shifts of Interactive Learning


By exploiting the digital media, educators, and students can shift to a new, more powerful and effective learning paradigm. Figure 2 outlines these shifts.


Figure 2: The Shift from Broadcast to Interactive Learning

DATA: Alliance for Converging Technologies


1. From linear to hypermedia learning

Traditional approaches to learning are linear. This dates back to the book as a learning tool, which is usually read from beginning to end. Stories, novels, and other narratives are linear. Most textbooks are written to be tackled from the beginning to end. TV shows and instructional videos are designed to be watched from beginning to end.

But N-Gen access to information is more interactive and non-sequential. Notice how a child channel surfs when watching television? I note that my kids go back and forth between various TV shows and video games when they're in the family room. No doubt this will be extended to surfing the Net as our TV becomes a Net appliance.

When we observed our N-Gen sample surfing the Net, they typically participated in several activities at once. When surfing some new material, they hyperlinked to servers and information sources all over the place. Seven-year-old Robert Huang and his sister Franny, eleven, came to our office to show us how they surf the Net. Robert looked up the movie Independence Day, and followed links to fans' pages and returned to the search engine. Interestingly, Robert entered three different searches, but he never went more than two pages away from the Independence Day site. If a download took too long or a page disappointed him, he hit the back key to return to the site.

Franny was a little more focused. Her pet hamster Bupsie was pregnant and she wanted to see sites about baby hamsters. After conducting a Yahooligans search, she followed several links to other hamster owners pages. She traced the mouse over the length until she found a link to an on-line journal which, with text and photographs, traced the development of a baby hamster from its blind and hairless infancy to adulthood-a process that takes only a few weeks. Franny intentionally avoided a Guinea pig link on one hamster page because, "I don't like Guinea pigs, but some people in South America eat them and even I don't want to see a fried one."

2. From instruction to construction and discovery

Seymour Papert says, "The scandal of education is that every time you teach something, you deprive a child of the pleasure and benefit of discovery (Papert, p. 68)."

At the risk of sounding equally heretical, there is a shift away from pedagogy-the art, science, and profession of teaching-to the creation of learning partnerships and learning cultures. The schools can become a place to learn, rather than a place to teach. According to Seely Brown, "Pedagogy had to do with optimizing the transmission of the information. What we now find is that kids don't want optimized, pre-digested information. They want to learn by doing-where they synthesize their own understanding-usually based on trying things out." Learning becomes experiential.

This is not to say that learning environments or even curricula should not be designed. They can, however, be designed in partnership with the learners or by the learners themselves.

This approach is described by educators as the constructivist approach. Rather than assimilating the knowledge broadcast by an instructor, the learner constructs knowledge anew. Constructionism argues that people learn best by doing rather than simply being told; constructionism as opposed to instructionism. The evidence for constructionism is persuasive, but shouldn't be too surprising. The enthusiasm a youngster has for a fact or concept they "discovered" on their own is much more likely to be meaningful and retained than the same fact simply written out on the teacher's blackboard .

Seymour Papert illustrates the difference in his lucid book The Connected Family. He explains that an instructionist might make a game to teach the multiplication tables. A constructionist presents students with the challenge of inventing and creating the game.

Computers today are used to teach mathematics using the drill and kill narrative. "How dull that is!" says Coco Conn. "That's why we never learn math, because it's all about math." She describes the Cityspace project where children from multiple locations collaborate to construct virtual cities, right down to the streets, buildings, and rooms in the buildings. "In projects such as this, you're dealing with a lot of math because the kids are sitting there thinking about the scaling of the model, how many polygons they can put in their object-all about thinking spatially, and mathematically. They are doing it in a way that's fun and also relevant to something that they are creating." She explains that when the project was demonstrated in a four-day workshop, "We had the math teachers tell everyone what the kids were doing with math, and everyone was astounded," she adds.

3. From teacher-centered to learner-centered education

The new media enables centering of the learning experience on the individual rather than on the transmitter. Further, it is clear that learner-centered education improves the child's motivation to learn. Learning and entertainment can then converge.

It is important to realize that shifting from teacher-centered to learner-centered education does not suggest the teacher is suddenly playing a less important role. A teacher is equally critical and valued in the learner-centered context, and is essential for creating and structuring the learning experience. Much of this depends on the subject; no one would suggest, for example, that the best way to learn the piano is the discovery mode.

In the past, education has tended to focus on the teacher, not the student. This is especially true in post-secondary education where the specific interests and background of the teacher strongly influences the content. Much of the activity in the classroom involves the teacher speaking and the student listening.As evidence of this teacher-centered approach, "You'll never find a classroom that spends the first week where the teacher actually learns about their students-what their skills are, what computers they have at home, what games they play, what they're good at, and have the kids share their talent with the whole classroom," notes Coco Conn."So right from the beginning of the year there is little respect for the skills that children have." The new media provides a vehicle to center the learning process more on the student.

Learner-centered education begins with an evaluation of the abilities, learning style, social context, and other important factors of the student that affect learning. It would extensively use software programs which can structure and tailor the learning experience for the child. It would be more active, with students discussing, debating, researching, and collaborating on projects.

4. From absorbing material to learning how to navigate and how to learn

This includes learning how to synthesize, not just analyze. N-Geners assess and analyze facts-a formidable and ever-present challenge in a data galaxy of easily accessible information sources. But more important, they synthesize. They engage with information sources and other people on the Net and then build or construct higher level structures and mental images.

"In our generation, we reach for the manuals-if we don't know how to do something, we ask," says Seely Brown. "We don't engage directly with the unknown and then do sense-making afterwards. Kids today engage and synthesize. Our generation is good at the analysis of things, as opposed to the synthesis of things."

Educom is a consortium of universities and colleges dedicated to the transformation of higher education through information technology. Carol Twigg, Educom vice president, notes how the knowledge explosion has an impact on the curriculum in post-secondary education. She notes the cliche is that by the time a student studying to become an engineer graduates, half of his knowledge is already obsolete: "To use your broadcast metaphor, the professor says 'Here is your curriculum, I will broadcast it at you, you will somehow absorb it and then move on and be prepared for life.' This is literally a joke." She says we can no longer prepare students to live in a world of rapid change by "shoveling" knowledge at them. "No one has yet come to grips with this whole concept of learning how to learn. No one is doing that in a full curricular sense."

5. From school to lifelong learning

For the young boomers looking forward to the world of work, life was divided into the period when you learned and the period when you did. You went to school and maybe university and learned a competency-trade or profession-and for the rest of your life your challenge was simply to "keep up" with developments in your field. But things changed. Today many boomers can expect to reinvent their knowledge base constantly. Learning has become a continuous, lifelong process. The N-Gen is entering a world of lifelong learning from day one, and unlike the schools of the boomers, today's educational system can anticipate this.

Richard Soderberg of the National Technological University puts it well: "People mistakenly think that once they've graduated from university they are good for the next decade-when they're really good for the next ten seconds." This is a reflection of the knowledge explosion in which the knowledge base of humanity is now doubling annually.

6. From one-size-fits-all to customized learning.

Mass education was a product of the industrial economy. It came along with mass production, mass marketing, and the mass media. Businesses everywhere are shifting to what I described in The Digital Economy as a molecular or individualized approach. We have markets of one where a soccer club is treated as a market, composed of individuals. There are production runs of one-highly customized-from bread to newspapers. We customize products with our own knowledge.

Schooling, says Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a mass production idea. "You teach the same thing to students, in the same way and assess them all in the same way." Pedagogy is based on the questionable idea that "Optimal Learning Experiences," as John Seely Brown describes it, can be constructed for groups of learners at the same age level. In this view, a curriculum is developed based on pre-digested information and structured for optimal transmission. If it was well structured and interesting, then large proportions of students at any given grade level would "tune in" and be able to absorb the information.

The digital media enables students to be treated as individuals-to have highly customized learning experiences based on their background, individual talents, age level, cognitive style, interpersonal preferences, and so-on.

As Papert puts it: "What I see as the real contribution of digital media to education is a flexibility that could allow every individual to discover their own personal paths to learning. This will make it possible for the dream of every progressive educator to come true: In the learning environment of the future, every learner will be 'special.'".

In fact, Papert believes that the one-age classroom-fits-all model "community of learning" shared by students and teachers: "Socialization is not best done by segregating children into classrooms with kids of the same age. The computer is a medium in which what you make lends itself to be modified and shared. When kids get together on a project, there is abundant discussion; they show it to other kids, other kids want to see it, kids learn to share knowledge with other people much more than in the classroom (Papert, 1997)."

7. From learning as torture as learning as fun.

Maybe torture is an exaggeration, but for many kids class it is not exactly the highlight of their day. Some educators have decried the fact that a generation schooled on Sesame Street expects to be entertained at school-to enjoy the learning experience. They argue that the learning and entertainment should be clearly separated. As Neil Postman says, ". . .Sesame Street does not encourage children to love school or anything about school. It teaches them to love television (p. 144)."

But doesn't that say more about today's schools-which are not exactly exciting places for many students-than it does about the integration of learning and entertainment? I'm convinced that one of the design goals of the New School should be to make learning fun! Learning math should be an enjoyable, challenging, and, yes, entertaining activity just like learning a video game is. And it can be! Besides, Sesame Street let the entertainment horse out of the barn. So did video games, the Web, FreeZone, MaMaMedia, and a thousand others.

It is said, however, that if learning is fun it can't be challenging. Wrong! Try getting through the seven levels of Crash Bandicoot or FIFA soccer on your kids video game if you think entertainment and challenge are opposites. The challenge provides much of the entertainment value and vice versa.

Why shouldn't learning be entertaining? Webster's Ninth College Dictionary gives the third and fourth definition of the verb "to entertain" as "to keep, hold, or maintain in the mind," and "to receive and take into consideration." In other words, entertainment has always been a profound part of the learning process and teachers have, throughout history, been asked to convince their students to entertain ideas. From this perspective, the best teachers were the entertainers. Using the new media, the learner becomes the entertainer and in doing so builds enjoyment, motivation, and responsibility for learning.

8. From the teacher as transmitter to the teacher as facilitator.

Learning is becoming a social activity, facilitated by a new generation of educators.

The topic is salt-water fish. The teacher divides the grade 6 class into teams, asking each to prepare a presentation on a fish of their choice covering the topics of history, breathing, propulsion, reproduction, diet, predators, and "cool facts." The students have access to the Web and are allowed to use any resources they want. Questions should be addressed to others in their team or to others in the class, not the teacher.

Two weeks later Melissa's group is up first. They have created a shark project home page with hot links for each of the topics. The presentation is projected onto a screen at the front of the class as the girls talk. They have video clips of different types of sharks and also a clip from Jacques Cousteau discussing the shark as an endangered species. They then go live to Aquarius-an underwater Web site located off the Florida keys. The class can ask questions of the Aquarius staff but most inquiries are directed at the project team. One of the big discussions is about the dangers posed by sharks versus the dangers to sharks posed by humans.

The class decides to hold an on-line forum on this and invite kids from their sister classes in other countries to participate. The team invites the classes to browse through their project at any time, from any location as it will be "up" for the rest of the school year. In fact the team decides that they are going to maintain the site adding new links and fresh information throughout the year. It becomes a living project. Other learners from other countries find the shark home page helpful in their projects and built links to it. The team had to resource the information, tools, and materials they needed.

The teacher acts as a resource and consultant to the teams. He is also a youth worker-as one of the students was having considerable problems at home and was not motivated to participate in his team. Although the teacher can't solve such problems, he takes them into account and also refers the student to the guidance counselor. The teacher also facilitates the learning process, among other things participating as a technical consultant on the new media. He learns much from Melissa's group who actually know more about sharks than he does (his background is art and literature, not science.) The teacher doesn't compete with Jacques Cousteau, but rather is supported by him.

This scenario is not science fiction. It is currently occurring in advanced schools in several countries. The teacher is not an instructional transmitter. She is a facilitator to social learning whereby learners construct their own knowledge. They will remember what they learned about sharks as the topic now interests them. More important they have acquired collaborative, research, analytical, presentation, and resourcing skills. With the assistance of a "teacher" they are constructing knowledge and their world.

Needless to say, a whole generation of teachers needs to learn new tools, new approaches, and new skills. This will be a challenge-not just because of resistance to change by some teachers-but given the current atmosphere of cutbacks, low teacher morale, lack of time due to the pressures of increased workloads, and reduced retraining budgets.


1 A study of 1,0001 teachers conducted by Josten's Learning Corp and the American Association of School Administrators found that while 94 percent of teachers and school superintendents believe coputers have improved teaching and learning, they are most frequently used for "teaching computer skills, classsroom instruction and record keeping."


Papert, S. (1996). The connected family: bridging the digital generation gap. Marietta, GA: Longstreet Press.

Papert, S. (1997). The Christian Science Monitor, 21 April 1997.

Postman, N. (1995). Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business. NY: Penguin Books.




From: Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generationby Don Tapscott, Copyright 1998 by McGraw-Hill Companies, Reprinted by permission of the McGraw-Hill Companies


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