keeping digital natives engaged

On an episode of the ABC’s QandA, panelists from the Sydney Writers’ Festival, including Norman Doidge M.D., psychiatrist and neuroplasticity expert, debated the issue of our brains being rewired due to constant technology use and the associated multi-tasking and over-stimulation that we have now become used to (or frazzled by). Other authors, including Pulitzer Prize-winning Nicholas Carr, have also explained how the internet is changing our brains.

But is Google really “making us stupid“, as Carr queried back in 2008? The book Born Digital, an initiative of the Digital Natives project, an interdisciplinary collaboration of the Berkman Centre for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Research Centre for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen, aims to understand the first generation of “digital natives“. It boldly states that this group will “move markets and transform industries, education and global politics“. Interestingly, it also argues, as discussed in an article by The Guardian, that there is “no evidence to suggest that digital natives are learning less than their grandparents did, or that they are more superficial in their learning.”

However, in a discussion paper published by the London School of Economics, it has been shown that test scores improve by 14.23% for low-achieving students, and by 6.4% overall, when mobile phones are removed from the classroom, as they have in at least one NSW school.

On the flip side, mobile and other technology can also be used to enhance engagement and increase learning outcomes for students – for example, by designing online quizzes, using online peer feedback, encouraging interactive lecture participation using BlackboardCollaborate™, encouraging collaboration in tutorials and externally using Google Docs, using student blogs for reflection, and experimenting with role-play/simulation.

So to what extent can technology be leveraged to embrace the creative learning opportunities it offers, without causing unnecessary distraction in classrooms?

How will learning design need to be further adapted in the future, to account for the shorter attention spans of this generation of students, to ensure they remain engaged?


Beland, L. P., & Murphy, R. (2015). Ill Communication: Technology, Distraction & Student Performance (No. 2015-03).

Herrington, J., Herrington, A., Ferry, B., & Olney, I. (2008). New technologies, new pedagogies: Using mobile technologies to develop new ways of teaching and learning [Final project report]. Sydney.