'Educating the Net Generation'

February 25, 2005

Today's students have different expectations and skills with regard to technology, and colleges sometimes fail to meet those expectations or understand what those skills mean, according to a new e-book.

The e-book, the first published by Educause, is Educating the Net Generation. It is available free on the organization's Web site.

Diana G. Oblinger, a vice president of Educause and co-editor of the book, answered some questions about its themes in an e-mail interview:

Q: What are the most important things for professors and administrators to know about the "Net Generation"?

A: There are a set of attributes that the Net Generation displays, along with some learning preferences. For example, the Net Generation tends to be digitally literate. You'll never see them have to pick up an instruction manual to know how to operate a computer. They are also connected. They stay connected with their friends and with information all day, no matter where they are. They tend to be experiential, that is they prefer to learn by doing rather than by being told. They also favor immediacy. They don't want to wait to fill out a paper form, put it in the mail and wait a couple of weeks for a response. They'd like to do it online and get a response immediately. And, they are social. They want to interact with people. It doesn't always have to be face-to-face; they interact with others in multiple types of environments.

When it comes to learning preferences there are a couple to pay particular attention to. One is that this generation tends to be experiential. They'd like to figure it out for themselves, do things hands-on. They learn from experience. That means colleges and universities may have to restructure some learning environments. They are also visual learners. They read visual images and make sense of them -- sometimes much better than text.

Q: How do you avoid letting technology just be "the cool new thing," as one of your chapter headings warns?

A: In the book we talk about learning principles and learning activities. It is important that there be interactivity in classes, for example. Students learn more through interaction -- with each other, with information, with faculty. You can create an interactive environment through group work, debate, experimentation or other techniques. Many times, but not always, that interaction is facilitated by technology. Colleges and universities should focus on what they want to achieve, understand who their learners are, how people learn and then tailor environments to foster what they want to achieve. Technology is very often part of the solution. But technology, without the right pedagogy or people, won't yield the desired results. It's all about keeping thingsin balance.

Q: Are there common mistakes colleges have made in applying technology to reach this generation of students?

A: Perhaps the most common one is assuming that because they've grown up with technology, they want technology in everything on campus. Technology isn't a "thing" to this generation. It is important because of the activities it enables. If you listen to students, they will talk about instant messaging, not as an application but as a verb. They IM people. They "talk" on e-mail. So the technology isn't as important as what it enables.

A common misconception is that this generation of learners will want to learn online. The University of Central Florida actually studied the online preferences of different generations. The generation that preferred online learning the least was the Net Generation. The older the learner, the more they preferred online learning. Why? We suspect it is because the Net Generation is very social and they want to be in touch with other students and with faculty. Technology is not as important as being connected to others. That doesn't mean they don't want to use technology. They definitely want it for convenience, communication and the like. But to assume that it is the focus would be incorrect. It is a means to an end, not the end.

Q: How do you see the role of libraries changing?

A: Joan Lippincott's chapter provides a very good overview of where there are potential disconnects between this generation and libraries. For example, today's learners think of the Web as their information universe; it is not limited to the library. In fact, they are more likely to search for information on Google than going to the library. They do realize that Google may not provide the best information for academics, but it is fast and easy. And, it is less intimidating that going to the reference desk.

Libraries have been at the forefront of seeing the world of information resources. It is not just about collections of books or journals. It's not just about information technology, either. It is how you put the pieces together for information literacy. It is how you access the information, what you do with it, how you manage it and how valid the source is. Libraries have an important role to play in helping student develop the deep information literacy they will need to be successful.

Q: Are colleges doing enough to support faculty members -- both those who are excited by these changes, and those who are skeptical?

A: Colleges and doing more and more to help faculty. And, faculty are doing more to help each other. Sometimes the best support you can get is from someone who has faced similar challenges, has similar concerns but who has been successful. The faculty development programs at Virginia Tech, for example, have faculty teaching each other. So, it's not just students who do well in a peer-to-peer environment.

Others are developing programs that mirror the kind of environment they want faculty to be able to move into. The University of Central Florida, for example, encourages faculty to think about using blended courses -- where part of the course is online and part is face-to-face. Their faculty development program is actually a blended experience -- part online and part face-to-face, so that faculty experience it first.

What we hope this book will do is encourage colleges and universities to think about who their current generation of learners are and the implications for courses, curricula, services and support. There is no one right answer for everyone. And, there are many things we don't yet understand. But as more institutions explore the implications we'll all be able to do a better job making learners successful.

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