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Zooming in on learning in the digital age (ZILDA): Report 1: Zooming in on 'digital' age learners

Rachel Bolstad, with Jane Gilbert, Karen Vaughan, Charles Darr, and Garrick Cooper

The Zooming in on Learning in the Digital Age (ZILDA) research programme aims to 'zoom in' - or dig down deeper - into issues surrounding 'digital age learning'.

The goal of the first phase of the ZILDA research was to zoom in on the views and experiences of 'digital age learners'. We wanted to know:

  • Could we engage a group of young New Zealanders in an exploration of what it means to them to be 'digital age learners'?
  • What (if any) insights do these young people have into the differences between their in-school and out-of-school uses of digital technologies?
  • How does this relate to current research, theory, and initiatives regarding desirable curriculum, teaching, and learning practices for the '21st century'?

We recruited 16 young people aged between 11 and 14 years from five schools to participate in the research. The first part of the project involved engaging the young people in creating a multimedia digital presentation about what it meant to them to be 'learning in the digital age'. One to two weeks later, we interviewed the young people about their in-school and out-of-school experiences with digital technologies.

Many people think there is an increasing mismatch between the practices and culture of formal schooling, and the kinds of social practices and literacies developing among young people as they engage with digital technologies outside the formal education system. However, there are disagreements about what this means:

  • At one end of the spectrum young people are sometimes portrayed as a 'natural-born' digital generation, becoming smarter and worldlier through their engagement with these technologies, having to 'power down' when they step into a classroom environment that is much less socially and cognitively challenging than that which they experience outside school.
  • At the other end of the spectrum young people are sometimes portrayed as a generation at risk of developing 'flickering minds', particularly if their schools choose to cater to their 21st century entertainment-oriented sensibilities by 'dumbing down' the curriculum with fun and flashy digital technology at the (perceived) expense of real critical learning.


  • One of the most important findings was the diversity of the young people's interests in, and priorities for, the use of digital technologies in their personal lives. These findings are an important counterpoint to the tendency of the 'digital generation' literature to homogenise young people, implying that they all think and act in particular ways due to their formative experiences with digital technologies.
  • A second finding was that many of the young people found it very difficult to articulate what it means to be 'learning in the digital age'.

We suggest several possible explanations for this. First, they may not have had well-developed theories about learning, or about the purposes of school education, to draw on when we asked these questions. Alternatively, we may not have asked these questions in a way that supported the young people to articulate their views and experiences on these matters. 

Our conclusion from the ZILDA research is that we may need to change the focus of our inquiry from 'How do we engage young people in reflective discussions about learning in the digital age?', to 'How do we engage young people in reflective discussions about learning?' and possibly 'How can we engage young people in learning experiences with digital technologies that support their abilities to do this?' This focus would provide valuable opportunities for us to align ZILDA with other research that has investigated young people’s perspectives on learning, and the kinds of school experiences that seem to support students’ development into lifelong learners.

Year published: 
Publication type: 
Research report
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not full-text
Garrick Cooper
Jane Gilbert
Karen Vaughan