Who is the 21st century learner?

Several of my classes this semester have asked me to put things in the perspective or to take into account the 21st century learner. This got me thinking, exactly who is this mysterious 21st century learner?

In the content of K-12 and undergraduate education, the 21st century learner might also be called "the net generation" or "digital natives" and is often defined as those born after 1980 (that is, after the realization of the personal computer). There have been many generalizations about this group, such as their increased ability to multi-task and they increased aptitude for the use of technology; however, many of these generalizations have failed to be proven as true when tested using current research methodologies. This indicates that either the generalizations are false, or there is an inadequacy in research methods (Corrin, Lockyer, & Bennett, 2010).

Now, my area of interest is more at the graduate and work-place learning level – so the 21st-century learner in that context is not necessarily the "net generation" or "digital natives", rather it is the lifelong learner, who is drawn to both formal and informal opportunities to learn. "Few of us today will have a fixed, single career; instead, we are likely to follow a trajectory that encompasses multiple careers" (Brown & Adler, 2008, p. 18). This need to constantly re-train changes the way we need to approach education. Even those who do not change their careers need to constantly update their skills to align with the changed in technology.

So, in answer to the question, who is the 21st century learner? The answer is simple, "I am" and "you are". If we want to survive in today's knowledge economy (or tomorrow's knowledge economy depending on your perspective), then you need to be a lifelong learner and you need to learn to adapt to the rapid pace of change.


Brown, J. S., & Adler, R. P. (2008). Minds on fire: Open education, the long tail, and learning 2.0. EDUCAUSE Review, 43(1), 16-32.

Corrin, L., Lockyer, L., & Bennett, S. (2010). Technological diversity: An investigation of students' technology use in everyday life and academic study. Learning, Media and Technology, 35(4), 387-401.

3 Comments on Who is the 21st century learner?

  1. Thanks for the post. I have become more and more convinced through my own observation and a small body of research that I have read that the term “digital native” is a fallacy. it may have had some more weight in the past when simple technologies such as VCRs and new TVs were on the market and younger people were supposively able to “magically” be able to work out how to use them without reading a manual. I don’t think it applies as well with more complex technologies and tend to find those with an interest in the area of technology are the “natives” rather than age being the defining factor.

    As for lifelong learning, I think that “had to” is a major motivation. I just wish that more people understood that the need to be a lifelong learners is becoming more necessary as we venture further and further into the digital age.

  2. It seems to me that our society has an illness called "naming diarrhea"  :-)
    Life long learning is nothing new, but we really treat it as something new now that the whole digital native/net gen thing hasn't panned out for Prensky et al.  My dad, born long before the computer, is a lifelong learner, my grandparents and great-grandparents who moved to the  US in the 19th and 20th century were lifelong learners, because they had to.  As human beings we don't stagnate in our development (well…some do :p). I guess I am having a hard time with the edu-jargon… :-)   (ironic because I am in education!)

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