Millennials’ Relationship to Technology Mixed, Say Researchers

By Katie Ash — June 25, 2013 3 min read
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San Antonio

Teachers who belong to the millennial generation enjoy technology, but their relationship to it is more nuanced than it may seem at first blush, argues one academic scholar who has studied that class of educators.

At a roundtable discussion held at the ISTE 2013 conference this week, Glenn Phillips of Texas A&M University, along with his colleague, researcher Trina Davis, described a project they’re working on called Knowledge for Algebra Teaching for Equity. Their research has examined how preservice teachers are reacting to different types of technology used during their training to become educators. The educators they are working with are largely part of the millennial generation, defined as those born after 1982, Phillips said.

As part of the project, those teachers-to-be conduct student teaching in Second Life, a virtual world where people are represented by avatars. The student-teachers have been asked questions about their experiences leading classrooms in that virtual environment. From their responses, Phillips and Davis have drawn conclusions about millennials’ views of technology and their relationship to it.

The researchers found that the student-teachers loved technology—as long as they were comfortable with it. Students reported feeling comfortable with iPods, iPhones, laptops, etc., but were much more likely to report feeling anxious or uncomfortable using Second Life.

In addition, the aspiring teachers recognized that while technology was an important tool, they emphasized that they didn’t want to take it “too far.” For instance, many of the students Phillips and Davis were working with were in the process of becoming math teachers, and many of them expressed concerns about relying too heavily on calculators and thereby forgetting how to conduct simple equations and other math procedures longhand.

Another finding: Millennials enjoy using technology up until the moment when it breaks.

During the first few weeks of the study, the student-teachers at A&M faced numerous technological challenges when using Second Life. There wasn’t enough bandwidth to allow all the students to engage in the program without audio and other technical glitches. All of the feedback provided by teachers about the project focused on how difficult the technology was, rather than their actual experiences teaching in Second Life. Millennials have little patience with technology that does not work smoothly and easily, Phillips and Davis found. Consequently, they concluded that millennials were far more likely to respond positively to technology if troubleshooting solutions were provided.

Lastly, the researchers found that the preservice teachers did not regard technology as the most effective teaching tools in every situation and actually preferred doing some lessons by hand. Phillips hypothesized that this could be because the preservice teachers wanted to teach students as they had been taught—which was before technology had become so ubiquitous. Some of the student-teachers said they felt that the teacher-preparation class had wasted time on learning how to use the technology, which got in the way of the ultimate goal of the course, which was to develop broader classroom skills.

Although the students that Phillips and Davis worked with were college students, they said their research could speak to the experiences of K-12 students who have also grown up with technology and are often referred to as “digital natives.”

Phillips and Davis warned the group at the roundtable not to paint millennials with too broad of a brush—yes, many of them embrace technology and are comfortable with digital devices, but it doesn’t mean that they love every aspect of it, or immediately feel comfortable with new tools simply because they are sophisticated tech users.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.