October – 2012

Beyond the Net Generation Debate: A Comparison of Digital Learners in Face-to-Face and Virtual Universities

Begoña Gros and Iolanda Garcia
Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Spain

Anna Escofet
Universitat de Barcelona, Spain


In the last decade, an important debate has arisen about the characteristics of today’s students due to their intensive experience as users of ICT. The main belief is that frequent use of technologies in everyday life implies that competent users are able to transfer their digital skills to learning activities. However, empirical studies developed in different countries reveal similar results suggesting that the “digital native” label does not provide evidence of a better use of technology to support learning. The debate has to go beyond the characteristics of the new generation and focus on the implications of being a learner in a digitalised world. This paper is based on the hypothesis that the use of technology to support learning is not related to whether a student belongs to the Net Generation, but that it is mainly influenced by the teaching model.

The study compares behaviour and preferences towards ICT use in two groups of university students: face-to-face students and online students. A questionnaire was applied to a sample of students from five universities with different characteristics (one offers online education and four offer face-to-face education with LMS teaching support).

Findings suggest that although access to and use of ICT is widespread, the influence of teaching methodology is very decisive. For academic purposes, students seem to respond to the requirements of their courses, programmes, and universities. There is a clear relationship between students’ perception of usefulness regarding certain ICT resources and their teachers’ suggested uses of technologies. The most highly rated technologies correspond with those proposed by teachers. The study shows that the educational model (face-to-face or online) has a stronger influence on students’ perception of usefulness regarding ICT support for learning than the fact of being a digital native.

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