Bridging the Digital Generation Gap

Having just finished our annual week-long summer Institute on Teaching and Learning there is plenty on my mind that is deserving of some reflection. However, I’m tempted by some of the low hanging fruit, and will try to sketch out a few ideas here that are at the surface for me.

The Institute was filled with the ebb and flow of interesting conversation, challenging questions, healthy skepticism and an awesome potluck lunch on the closing day. It is not always easy to predict what generates the spark, but as always, the Institute week contained moments of intensity and passion where discussion about teaching and learning got “hot.” One of these moments came on the morning of the final day when my colleague Britt Watwood was facilitating a session on NetGen learners. Let me begin by saying that Britt did an excellent job with the session, and my comments here are not a critique of his presentation, but rather an examination of the context and what unfolded. The intended purpose of the session was to address some characteristics of NetGen students, explore factors shaping their learning and to consider some implications for teaching and course design…arguably an important conversation to have with faculty members. Britt kicked off the session with Michael Wesch’s A Vision of Students Today as a conversation starter. We’ve used this video in a number of contexts – as many folks have – to generate conversation and highlight some key points about how we see the web impacting teaching and learning. When the clip ended there was a brief moment of silence punctuated by “Wow!” and “That was amazing” and “Interesting.” And then the comments shifted a bit…

One faculty member said something to the effect: “This is an example of why I don’t want to use technology in the classroom. I don’t allow students to use laptops in class while I’m teaching…they are simply a distraction.” This generated some head nodding, and another comment, “And the same with Wikipedia too.” This was the first time I had encountered faculty members responding to Wesch’s video in this way. Instead of examining questions about context, opportunities and challenges, the conversation turned toward a bit of technology bashing. I was baffled. Why were these faculty members seeing the video as a confirmation of why to NOT use technology in the classroom? Were they threatened? Was the message in the video an affront?

With the images of Wesch’s video still dancing in their heads, Britt shifted gears and asked folks to transition from the video to some discussion about the NetGen. This also brought immediate replies and questions: “You mean Millenials, right?” “What about the Gen X students?” It was at this point that something came into clearer focus to me…

Introducing labels like “NetGen” and “digital natives” in discussion establish “us / them” boundaries that divide. They offer very little in the way of understanding diverse sets of students or in guiding our teaching practice.

With all due respect to people who have written eloquently on this topic, I have come to the personal realization that terms like NetGen, digital natives, Gen X…and others that are sure to follow…offer me very little in the way of predictive power about how students will learn in my classroom, and how I might better support their learning. The terms are often used too generally and broadly for my liking, and they also have the undesired effect of masking diverse experiences. In some ways they are examples of grand narratives that attempt to simultaneously be descriptive and prescriptive.

We tend to use terms like “NetGen” and “digital native” to raise awareness and focus discussion about how the Internet and digital technology have impacted students. My recent experience with faculty members in our Institute suggests that the terms confound the discussion, or frame it in such way that detracts from attention to important questions. While many of today’s students have certainly been steeped in digital technology from their earliest days, I don’t think that makes them “digital natives” anymore than “non-native” tech-savvy educators who also use digital media in very meaningful ways…and who also happen to know how to put a stamp on a hand-written letter. Perhaps we are unnecessarily focusing our attention on sorting out artificial distinctions.

Digital technologies and web-based media are impacting all of us in ways that require us to rethink some fundamental assumptions we hold about teaching and learning. So instead of attempting to illustrate how one generation is digitally different than another, perhaps we should shift the conversation to address key issues and questions that impact all of the generations in the digital melting pot.

The next time I have the opportunity to talk with faculty members about how the web is impacting students, I’m thinking I’ll forgo the NetGen rap and see if we can come to any agreement on some of these questions:

1) What does critical thinking – on and about the web – look like?

2) How is the unprecedented access to information on the web [re]shaping our notions of teaching and learning?

3) What is the read / write web anyway? How is it changing our perspectives of publishing, scholarship, authority and authenticity?

4) How is hyper-connectivity (always on) changing our expectations and thoughts about communication?

5) How are web-based social networks redefining the exchange of ideas, collaboration, and community building?

For me, seeking answers to these and similar questions – across generations – is where we are going come to some better understanding of how to build connections among varied expectations and experiences.