CHARACTERISING the current generation of university students as "Gen Y" is a hollow exercise that obscures students' diversity and compromises their learning, says Queensland University of Technology social researcher Dr Jason Sternberg.
Dr Sternberg, from QUT's Creative Industries Faculty, said the term Gen Y did little to explain young adults' lives and should be sidelined in favour of a genuine understanding of the diversity of experience and learning styles students brought to university.
In a paper to be published in Higher Education Research and Development, Dr Sternberg has questioned the whole construct of Gen Y university students and generally held notions of their being self-centred, group-learning oriented and above all "digital natives" capable of multitasking on the latest gadgetry.
"Gen Y has been written and spoken about as if all university students are young, largely middle-class and highly technologically literate," Dr Sternberg said.
"This construct smoothes over the actual diversity in age, socioeconomic, cultural and linguistic backgrounds of today's students.
"It silences discussion on this diversity while drawing attention and resources away from improving access for those, who are under-represented at university."
Furthermore, the Gen Y literature describing the stand-out characteristics of people born from 1982 onwards (even the start date is disputed) was often contradictory.
"For example, we are told that fostering Gen Ys' self-esteem has led them to value 'participation over achievement', which is ironic because one of the defining characteristics is supposed to be a 'desire for success'."
Dr Sternberg said Gen Y university students were often constructed as a new breed of student with radically different learning styles from previous generations, which call for new teaching strategies and new environments that do away with rows of desks to learn in.
"Gen Y students are seen as requiring social interaction and support, especially from their peers, in order to learn," he said.
"For example, a survey of 18 to 25-year-old Australian computer game design students found they preferred immersive learning techniques, which incorporated virtual classrooms, discussion forums and educational games. This learning environment produced high marks for participants.
"However, a study of US nursing students found no difference between generations X and Y, and that both age groups preferred lectures and skill demonstrations over group work and web-based learning."
Dr Sternberg said the Gen Y digital natives were portrayed as spending their time texting, chatting, updating their Facebook status and browsing the web.
"This overstates their desire to use technology for learning. In fact several studies found an overall ambivalence towards technology and that students were not demanding increased use of technology, do not expect novel use of technology and only a few look for new technologies to assist their learning."
Dr Sternberg said stereotyping students as Gen Y and comparing them with other generations alienated students and teachers from each other and also reduced the potential for understanding students' lives.
"The term sells books, increases publication outputs and attracts media coverage but it is ultimately a hollow and facile buzzword telling us little about the complex world our students inhabit."