Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation

Reynold Macpherson (Centre for Professional Development University of Auckland)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 1 August 2000



Macpherson, R. (2000), "Growing up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 38 No. 3, pp. 299-301.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

The merger of AOL and Times Warner has made it clear that digital media will gradually transform TV into yet another facet of the Net. Net technology is also changing the creation of wealth, the nature of enterprise, commerce and marketing, as well as entertainment, government and national cultures. Surely this means that current curricular, pedagogical and organisational structures are appropriate for a print era and that education needs to develop fresh arrangements for a digital age. If this proves to be the case, those wishing to participate in, and thus guide the coming changes to, educative ends, will find Tapscott’s report very helpful.

This book, by the author of The Digital Economy, started as a compilation of issues identified by 300 youngsters aged between four and 20 (the so‐called “Net generation”) over a year at an interactive Web site. A research team of two graphic artists, two writers and a programmer led by Kate Baggott developed the site at and used data collecting activities to map their perceptions and values.

Propositions were then developed about the Net generation by drawing on a range of additional sources: demographics; developmental psychology; economics; marketing; sociology; pedagogy; technology; parenting; and business strategy. In sum, the propositions developed merit close yet cautious scrutiny. And given the greying of teachers and professors, and the rampant development of Internet technology, this text can serve as an aid to inter‐generational understanding.

Tapscott accepts at the outset that most children are not growing up digital. And since the propositions developed are based on an opportunistic and unstructured sample that participated, the book tends to articulate the views of a very small, privileged, and probably non‐representative elite. Nevertheless, the issues were then processed at various workshops with colleagues, and subjected to some external coherence checks with data and ideas from other disciplines listed above. The arguments are also typically well reasoned, appropriately referenced, couched in open and often amusing language, and are generally compelling.

Tapscott tends to be unconditionally optimistic about children’s capacities, somewhat romantic about their potential, and a committed techno‐booster. He is more convincing when, on American demographic grounds, he shows that the baby boomers born 1946 to 1964 became the TV generation. He also explains how the baby busters born 1965 to 1975 mastered multi media, and then how the baby boom echoers born 1977 to 1997 became the Net generation. Since 1995, over 40 per cent of US homes have become connected to the Internet.

The key point here is that the Net generation is the first that has had real use of interactive and distributed communication technology, and thus, had the capacity to direct its own generational learning. The interesting evidence presented suggests that the Net generation is already developing a relatively homogeneous culture with particular personality traits. The culture reportedly exhibits fierce independence, emotional and intellectual openness, inclusion, free expression and strong views, innovation, a preoccupation with maturity, investigation, immediacy, sensitivity to corporate interest, and authentication and trust. Three common personality traits are described as an acceptance of diversity, strong curiosity, and assertiveness and self‐reliance.

N‐geners are also typically critical thinkers, keen to boost social, academic and physical aspects of self‐esteem, and willing to both explore multiple selves and develop multiple forms of intelligence. And do they exhibit retarded social skills? The evidence is suggestive but very positive. To illustrate, a rather adventurous generalisation from one case study argues that:

While Caleb appears to be an extraordinary 14‐year‐old, he is actually quite typical of the children with whom we have worked. In his story we see the contours of an N‐Gen child – smart, fluent, social, analytical, self‐reliant, curious, contrarian, creative, media‐savvy, bored with television – a child that interacts with his world, and creates and achieves balance.

What is clearer is that the Net generation will need to be educated for citizenship in a knowledge economy. To this end, Tapscott shows convincingly that the transmission model of teaching, what he terms “broadcast learning”, is becoming obsolete, as is the associated delivery system. The costs he projects alone suggest that broadcast learning can not be sustained financially. Instead, and this is where the educative potential of Internet technology comes into play, broadcast learning can be replaced by interactive learning supported by the Internet. It will mean, however, moving from:

  • linear to hypermedia learning;

  • instruction to construction and discovery;

  • teacher‐centred to learner‐centred;

  • absorbing material to learning how to navigate and learn;

  • school learning to lifelong learning;

  • standardised to customised learning;

  • learning as torture to learning as fun; and

  • teacher as transmitter to teacher as facilitator.

The implications are systematically clarified. Teachers will have to adopt a new pedagogy. Schools, colleges and universities will need to provide asynchronous access and encourage discovery‐based and interactive learning. They will also need to incorporate globally and become network rather than bureaucratic organisations.

Three chapters then discuss how the Net generation will play, consume and work. The final three chapters address major social policy issues – the responsibilities of families, the growing “digital divide” between those with and without access to the Net, and how the Net generation might be provided with political access and influence to limit inter‐generational conflict. Tapscott concludes (pp. 304‐5):

These young people will bring and implement radical views regarding how business should be conducted and on the process of democratic governance. They will be a generation which can learn, as a generation, unlike any other. They will seek to protect the planet … and will seek to share in the wealth they create. They will want power in every domain of economic and political life. The big remaining question for older generations is whether we will share that power with gratitude or will the N‐Gen be forced to take it from us? Will we have the wisdom and courage to accept the N‐Geners, their culture, and their media, and grant them the opportunity to fulfil their destiny? Listen to the children.

Whether or not N‐Geners will remain as politically homogeneous as Tapscott suggests, in a context of grossly differentiated access, he is right to stress that the digital revolution raises fundamental questions about the purposes of education in a global community, and the primary service provided by politics.

The world has a rapidly developing and laissez faire global economy that lacks responsible governance. The development of international political structures lags far behind e‐finance. As Bernard Crick pointed out (In Defence of Politics, Pelican, London, 1982, p. 32), politics is “the activity by which differing interests within a given unit of rule are conciliated by giving them a share of power in proportion to their importance to the welfare and the survival of the whole community”. International polities, policies and social institutions are now needed urgently, to better safeguard the common good.

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