higher ed,  Web/Tech

The cost of good bad ideas

There's a horror film, which I've never seen, called The Human Centipede (if you've never heard of it, I apologise for bringing it to your attention). Now, I like a horror film, but I really don't want to see this one. But here's the thing: the mere existence of the idea that the film contains has given me disturbed nights. In some respects the director deserves credit for this – he has conceived of an idea and then put it into a film, which you don't even need to see to give you nightmares. That's the power of a bad idea.

I was thinking about this the other day in relation to Digital Natives. Of course, there's nothing horrific about the digital natives idea, but like that film, its has kind of infected a lot of educational thinking merely by its existence. 

If you haven't read the studies, most people now think the central ideas in digital natives are, in a word, bogus. There are no real differences between generations, attributable to technology. There are differences between how we used to do stuff and how we do it now. But digital natives (or if you prefer net gen) is largely a myth. In this book Marc Prensky says it was meant as a metaphor and people took it too seriously. Maybe. And maybe there's some back pedalling going on.

But here's a question: how much money has been spent on the idea of digital natives over the years? There have been innumerable keynotes from people proclaiming themselves experts in the area; schools, universities and companies have shelled out for consultants to advise them on how to deal with this strange new breed; we have yards of publications on the matter; then there are the research projects looking at whether it exists or not (for example, my colleague Chris Jones led a very good project in this area); and by no means least there are all those essays, theses and dissertations which take it almost as a given fact.

That's like a mini-industry centred around an idea that had a kind of fashionable appeal, but no real basis in evidence. And what of the opportunity costs? While we were fretting about whether they existed or not and what we should do about it, did we miss seeing what was really happening and the more interesting and subtle changes in society in general. And that's a shame because it's not a competely bad idea – many of us feel instinctively that our children are growing up in a different world than we were, but then we're operating in that world too. The age element made the argument attractive ("these kids are completely different!") whereas the interesting thing was how technology was making it different for everyone. Highlighting changes needed in the education system to deal with this new technology context were a good thing, but wrapping it up as a generational shift missed the point about the different groups and attitudes across all generations. 

My favourite Net Gen nonsense quote is from Oblinger and Oblinger who claimed as one of the defining characteristics of the net generation that “they want parameters, rules, priorities, and procedures … they think of the world as scheduled and someone must have the agenda. As a result, the like to know what it will take to achieve a goal. Their preference is for structure rather than ambiguity.”

Are they comparing this with evidence of a preference for ambiguity and lack of structure in previous generations? That statement seems almost like a horoscope – vague enough to be true of anyone. 

I suppose critics of blogging and the like might point to the fact that the idea didn't generate from a peer-reviewed academic journal, which would have filtered out some of the claims. We could chalk one up for the peer-review system here, and note that popularity and linking is not evidence of rigour and value.

So beware the next good bad idea you come across in relation to ed tech (or horror films), a nice soundbite idea that seems to capture a feeling of the times can lead you off down false paths for years. 



  • Phil Greaney

    Yes – I agree wholeheartedly with your warning. The problem we find is that we’re meant to be able to make mistakes, of which bad ideas are sometimes the result. How do we prevent that? One idea, to follow your example of net gen, I would say minimise intuition wherever possible, unless you plan to explore that hunch with research and evidence. Often our intuition is wrong (see Dave McRaney’s ‘You’re Not So Smart’) or what we’re doing isn’t intuition at all (Gladwell’s ‘Blink’). Intuition is the start, not the end, of a good idea.
    I find this phenomenon of the freely distributed ‘bad idea’ most often found in conferences (but not all of them, of course). I don’t want to be churlish but when I find someone say ‘we need to tinker more’ or ‘ we need to encourage flow in the classroom’ (and the subsequent retweets: ideas like this are popular) I wonder how far this is a useful approach. Perhaps it’s the format: perhaps conferences are best suited to ‘big ideas’ that cannot necessarily be explained in such a short time.
    Similarly, if you an idea accompanied by ‘The [X] is dead’ or ’20 Reasons Why Everything You Thought About [X] is Wrong’ (where ‘x’ is the latest would-be meme) then it’s linkbait at best, and probably a good idea to avoid it.

  • dkernohan

    You’ve hit the nail on the head there Martin.
    Can’t help but think of free market fundamentalism as another good bad idea, with horrifying nightmares far worse and more persistent even than the human centipede…

  • Brian

    I saw the Human Centipede trailer at this weird YouTube party led by Douglas Coupland, had nearly recovered, and now this post takes me back there…
    But not only is the persistence of the horrific imagery in the film an apt metaphor for bad ideas and how they stick around… the title itself might serve as a useful shorthand. Like, “it seemed a bit premature to blow the entire 2012 tech budget on building a learning object repository, but someone said it was the next big thing, and then the human centipede effect kicked in, and next thing we knew…”

  • Martin

    @Phil – yes, you’re quite right, catchy bad ideas are the price we pay for thinking out loud, and that’s fine. I guess we should be suspicious when people are making their careers out of perpetuating it, and so desperately need it to be true. In one sense this is just a good example of academic rigour – someone proposes an idea that has appeal, we go away and look at it and find the real picture. But the idea still sticks. I’m an external on a Masters course and the number of thesis which start with something like “Digital natives are different to the generation that have gone before them…” and quote Prensky as fact.
    @Brian – you go to more exciting parties than I do. No pineapple and cheese on a stick and warm can of lager there. I could have extended the analogy to Human Centipede more, but started feeling queasy.

  • Tanbob

    A stroll through the comments on the Net Gen Skeptic blog (http://www.netgenskeptic.com/) reveals how unpopular it was to challenge the digital natives discourse circa 2008/09. We called it the “snark syndrome” (say it 3x and it’s true), which was first a term first used by Byrne (1993)-via Lewis Carroll-in her discussion of women in science, later used by other researchers in talking about education research, in this case peer reviewed, that snowballed into good bad ideas. So peer review isn’t necessarily a filter to say the least.
    @Joel Greenburg Educause certainly didn’t want to accept our proposal in about 2008/2009 based on our own research (http://digitallearners.ca/) which would have been a contrasting voice to one of the keynotes they ran that year…so your comment might not be far off:-)

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