Sunday / July 21

A New Kind of Student: Learning Attributes of the Digital Generations

Today, learners take for granted growing up in a world that is seamlessly connected by powerful information and communication technologies that give them instant access to everyone and everything, anytime and anywhere.

Digital games, YouTube videos, texts, tweets, Instagram messages, SnapChats, and all of the other elements of the always-on generation’s digital diet have created a landscape of experiences that are constantly wiring and rewiring their neural structure. This constant bombardment of information in the new digital landscape has become the catalyst for the emergence of a new kind of student.

Chronic digital bombardment has transformed our learners into digital learners. The digital generations have developed new preferences for learning. Jukes, Schaaf, and Mohan (2015) identified nine key learning attributes of the digital generations. These are attributes that don’t apply equally to every learner in every location but are affected by factors such as culture, socio-economics, geography, and personal experiences. These attributes are:

  1. Digital learners prefer receiving information from multiple digital sources.

Nowadays, learners ask digital assistants like Siri or Alexa for simple answers that learners of previous generations needed to memorize or look up in a dictionary or encyclopedia. In the age of hyper-information, having an iron-clad memory is not always necessary in order to be successful. In many instances, the resources at their disposal in their homes or pockets are more powerful than the resources that are available to them in their classrooms. Learners can instantly access more than a trillion web pages, and use them to independently construct personal knowledge. However, to effectively use the power of the internet, learners and teachers alike must be able to distinguish between information, misinformation, mythinformation, and “fake news” amongst online sources.

  1. Digital learners prefer parallel processing and multitasking.

Many parents have had the experience of walking into their kid’s room to find them using a tablet or computer, with earbuds draped around their neck blasting music from their phone, while their hands play imaginary riffs to the guitar solo of the song. Meanwhile, they’re also doing their homework, watching a YouTube video, sending SnapChats, streaming content, and searching Google, while simultaneously carrying on two conversations — one on Instagram with a person they’ve never met, while at the same time texting their best friend about last night’s party. For many members of previous generations, this scenario resonates as being utterly overwhelming. There’s just too much going on at once! The amazing thing is, if you ask the kids, many of them may tell you that they’re still bored.

The behavior the digital generations are engaging in is known as continuous partial attention, where they randomly switch between tasks, deciding which one to do next, and time-slice their attention into shorter intervals. Although the digital generations can’t engage in multiple cognitively demanding tasks simultaneously, they can perform everyday tasks they’re familiar with, or that aren’t cognitively demanding using their digital devices to augment their thinking skills. Lower order thinking is being replaced by search results and instantaneous access to information. Digital devices are quickly replacing selective parts of their memory, while at the same time freeing up cognitive capacity to address higher order thinking tasks.

  1. Digital learners prefer processing pictures, sounds, color, and video before they process text.

Due in large parts to advances in the existence of digital technologies and media, the digital generations have grown up in a remarkably visual world. Images have the ability to communicate meaning quickly. From an early age, they have been exposed to television, computers, tablets, videos, and digital games that provide colorful, highly expressive, high-quality, realistic, multi-sensory experiences that contain little if any text. As a result, many members of the digital generations prefer to process pictures, sounds, color, and video before they process text. It’s a logical conclusion that they would prefer to access their media at school in the same way they use it at home.

  1. Digital learners prefer to network and collaborate with many others simultaneously.

Today’s children have grown up with literally hundreds of ways to communicate with one another. The new digital landscape allows the younger generations to connect anytime, anywhere, with anyone using digital tools to communicate.

The digital generations are highly social — just not in the same way that the older generations are. They use computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, Instagram, Snapchat, FaceTime, texting, and hundreds of other tools to collaborate and learn independently or from one another. Based on current trends, being able to transparently communicate and work with others in both virtual and face-to-face teams is becoming an increasingly important skill.

  1. Digital readers unconsciously read text on a page or screen in an F or Fast-pattern.

As a result of digital bombardment and their chronic urge to rapidly skim, scan, and scour digital resources, a ‘new’ reading pattern has emerged in the always-on generations. Prior to the proliferation of digital screens and web-based content, traditional book readers engaged in a reading pattern similar to the letter ‘Z.’ Traditional readers would start their reading experience at the top left of a page. Then the reader’s eyes would read to the right until it reached the end of the text line. Next, the reader’s eyes would move diagonally down to the next line and repeat the reading from left to right.

Today, as a result of constant exposure to digital reading formats, reading also involves viewing the layouts of things such as social media pages, websites, tablets, smartphones screens, ebooks, and video games. New research has emerged that demonstrates that, as a result, digital readers don’t read pages the way older generations do. Instead, their eyes first skim the top of the page, then scan the edges of the page, before they start scanning the page itself for information in what’s called an F or fast pattern. This has enormous implications for reading comprehension skills.

  1. Digital learners prefer “just-in-time” learning.

The global economy rewards people who can make swift, well-informed decisions utilizing multiple information sources while penalizing those who lack the modern-day skills needed for the new workforce and workplace. Today, learners are increasingly entering a working world that requires them to continuously be upgrading their skills to stay current – let alone move ahead in their careers. To be successful, the digital generations must prepare for a life of constant learning, unlearning, and relearning if their skills are to stay relevant in emerging work environments.

To do that, they must embrace a “just-in-time” mentality – learning a new skill just-in-time to to accomplish a new task, to solve a real-world problem, or to fulfill a new passion.

  1. Digital learners are simultaneously looking for instant gratification and immediate rewards, as well as deferred gratification and delayed rewards.

Digital learners have grown up in a world with ready access to navigate in the new digital landscape. One of the most influential factors that keep them coming back for more is the constant feedback they receive from their digital habits. As they dive into their virtual environments, they receive feedback and gain immense and immediate gratification for their efforts.

Technologies like smartphones, video games, and social media tools tell them that if they put in the time, and master the game or tool, they’ll be rewarded with the next level, a win, a place on the leaderboard, or a skill that’s respected and valued by their peers. What they put into a task determines what they get out of it; and what they accomplish is clearly worth the hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of effort they put into developing these skills. But at the same time, video games and digital technologies give kids immediate feedback for their efforts, and quench their constant thirst for instant gratification.

  1. Many of the digital generations are transfluent. Their visual-spatial skills are so highly evolved that they have cultivated a complete physical interface between digital and real worlds.

The always-on generations live a hybrid existence. One part is constructed from real-world experiences – the other part is a virtual environment. The older generations may develop a digital presence, but many of them continue to see the real world and the digital landscape as two separate environments. For the digital generations, their digital existence is just as relevant as their existence in the real world.

Although the digital generations covet their smartphones and tablets, they don’t think about them because they’ve outsourced parts of their brain to their smartphone—the devices are just a means to an end, not an end in itself. They use their tools to create seamless, transparent gateways between real and virtual worlds.

  1. Digital learners prefer learning that is relevant, active, immediately useful, and fun.

Outside of school, digital learners are constantly connected to others in a global intelligence – immersed in virtual environments that promote a participatory culture that encourages them to not only interact with their friends and classmates, but also with other in far-off places.

Beyond the classroom, members of the digital generations have a large measure of control. They pick what games to play, what blog posts to read or write, what causes to advocate for, what videos to like, which friends to text, what music to listen to, and what passion project to embrace.

Today’s Kids are Different

A fundamental reflective question to ask yourself is, “As an educator, how have I modified my instructional assumptions and practices to address the fact that kids have fundamentally changed and continue to change?” There’s nothing stopping us from changing the way we learn and how we teach. And yes, we understand that change is hard. We know that some educators are struggling to come to terms with the digital generations and the new digital landscape. But this struggle is normal.

Every generation since the time of Socrates and Plato, including our parents’, has looked at the next generation and said, “What’s wrong with kids today?” There’s nothing wrong with them! They’re just different. They’re neurologically different. That’s why they see the world differently. That’s why they engage with the world differently.

To further examine how to teach the digital generations and explore the ways schools, learning, and the roles of educators must change for the future, A Brief History of the Future of Education: Learning in the Age of Disruption is now available for sale.


Written by

Ian Jukes has been a teacher, an administrator, writer, consultant, university instructor, and keynote speaker. He is the director of the InfoSavvy Group, an international consulting group that provides leadership and program development in the areas of assessment and evaluation, strategic alignment, curriculum design and publication, professional development, planning, change management, hardware and software acquisition, information services, customized research, media services, and online training as well as conference keynotes and workshop presentations. Ian is the co-author of several bestselling books, including Literacy is Not Enough.


Ryan L. Schaaf is the Assistant Professor of Educational Technology at Notre Dame of Maryland University, and a faculty associate for the Johns Hopkins University School of Education Graduate Program, with over 15 years in the education field. He is the co-author of Making School a Game Worth Playing.

Latest comments

  • Wow. This post gives all educators a lot to think about. The digital age has so much impact on the classroom already, the social-emotional differences of children raised in it are just being addressed. I was very interested to read about Z vs. F patterns in reading. We’re trying to help our students understand what they are reading, but we aren’t addressing the differences of digital content. Thank you for sharing these insights, Ian and Ryan.

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