Monday, December 5, 2011

Do Digital Natives Prefer Tablets?

A couple of weeks ago, I was on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus for a meeting and had some time to wander around during lunch. While walking through the lobbies of campus buildings, past lecture halls and classrooms, and throughout cafeteria areas, I noticed an interesting phenomenon: At a place with a dense population of digital natives working in an environment of intense academic workload, I saw high usage of digital devices, none of which were tablets. This runs counter to the beloved features that make tablets great: longer battery life, seamless syncing with online stores, fun apps, easy use, and the list goes on. Yet, digital natives--at least in this environment--are turning to laptops.

The interesting ingredient in this observation is that these digital natives have the liberty to choose the device to fit their needs and tasks with minimal interference from adults, teachers, administrators, and technology directors--most of whom have high device bias. My guess is that the choice of laptops over tablets is based on two instinctive functionality needs: First, digital natives are under the stresses of collegiate academic rigor (e.g., remote access to library databases, citation managers, research papers, Moodle, etc.), which may better align to laptops functions. Second, they are constantly in the modality of hyperinterconnectedness (e.g., running multiple tabs, multiple windows, and several chat boxes, all while running simultaneous applications including Facebook, Spotify, Twitter, etc.). Laptops may currently complement digital natives' prerequisite functions

This is not to say that tablets don't have the possible functions that may better align to hyperconnectedness and adult-level academic rigor. Tablets, however, require extra effort and commitment to configuring them in such a way that replicates the functions of a laptop. If natives don't want to exert the effort and don't have the device commitment, the laptop may just be easier.

This also is not to say that there aren't ancillary elements of partiality to Windows-based laptops within network active directories, high-use/university-level web applications such as "Blackboard," or software such as "Solidworks."

To get back on point, if digital natives at UW-Madison are not using tablets, who is ? Do an image search on Google for iPad + user. What do you see? Adults who would widely characterize themselves as digital immigrants, and very young users. Both of these populations struggle to conceptualize the use of digital-age tools. What conclusions can we draw from these observations?

Here are some jackknife thoughts: 
  • Tablets are entry-level technology devices to be used as a springboard into devices with more capacity. 
  • Tablets may be great for elementary or recreational learning environments, but they may not be as compatible for heavier academic workloads.
  • Tablets are more difficult to use within the hyperinterconnected technology ecosystem of digital natives.

Now, what inferences can we take from this for application within the field of #edtech integration, platform management, active/virtual directory administration, resource allocation per developmental level, LMS selection and evaluation, and/or staff development? Any reflections? 


  1. As always, great thoughts Brad. I think college-aged students may be more likely to use laptops because that is what they are used to. Another really practical reason, might just be that it is much easier to input information (typing) on a device with an integrated "real" keyboard. It will be interesting to see what the preferred devices will be on college campuses in 5-10 years.

  2. Perhaps they're just more money. A person would probably already own a laptop, because, really, you can't run a tablet efficiently without an occasional connection to a laptop. So, you'd have to own a laptop and a tablet, and if you're really just doubling the function, why purchase a tablet. I'm a pretty device-oriented/connected kind of guy, but I don't own a tablet and probably won't for some time. That said, I do own a Chromebook, but that was a free-bee, but I do love the instant connectedness it provides with a full keyboard.