Teaching and Learning with the Net Generation

A decade ago, the first wave of the Net Generation began to enter college, forcing educational institutions to
deal with a new population of learners with unique characteristics. With the Net Generation representing
nearly 7% of the population today (Bartlett 2005) and with nearly 49.5 million students enrolled in schools in
2003 (Enrollment Management Report 2005), responding to the specific needs of this generation of learners
is becoming increasingly important. The challenge of evolving pedagogy to meet the needs of Net-savvy
students is daunting, but educators are assisted by the fact that this generation values education. These
students learn in a different way than their predecessors did, but they do want to learn. In this article we will
define the characteristics of Net Geners’ learning styles and discuss how educators can make the most of
these particular traits.
Net Geners Want to Learn . . .
One key characteristic of this generation is that they are very education oriented. Educational pressure
begins early for Net Geners; college-directed goals take hold as early as the first year of high school. Net
Geners state that their efforts in high school are a direct reflection of the type of college to which they plan to
gain admission. Older generations often take as true the stereotypes of teenagers as obsessed with clothing,
relationships, and friends. Indeed, most teenagers do feel caught between the competing interests of
mastering schoolwork and socializing with their peers. Yet many parents of Net Geners say that their children
are spending most of their nights doing school assignments rather than engaging in social activities
(Whitney-Vernon 2004), and the 2004 Trendscan report finds that the number one thing that Net Geners
aged 12-24 are saving for is college tuition (Marketing Magazine 2005). A survey of 100,000 Canadian teens
reports that teens express far greater concern about education than adults in the survey expect them to feel.
The report concludes that many teens are so worried about school and postsecondary careers that “Saturday
nights are about doing homework” (Whitney-Vernon 2004, 4). This generation is extremely goal-oriented, and
achieving their career ambitions entails a good education. Happily for educators, Net Geners’ learning goals
do not change in college. Most can be expected to continue to sacrifice weekends to study, to regard the
consequences of poor grades seriously, and to attend classes regularly. Even if only in order to enable future
success in their chosen careers, Net Geners, on the whole, want to do well in college.
. . . But Net Geners Learn Differently
Although they value education highly, Net Geners learn differently from their predecessors. This generation is
unique in that it is the first to grow up with digital and cyber technologies. Not only are Net Geners
acculturated to the use of technology, they are saturated with it. By the time he or she has reached 21 years
of age, the average NetGener will have spent
• 10,000 hours playing video games,
• 200,000 e-mails,
• 20,000 hours watching TV,
• 10,000 hours on cell phones, and
• under 5,000 hours reading (Bonamici et al. 2005).
Having been raised in an age of media saturation and convenient access to digital technologies, Net Geners
have distinctive ways of thinking, communicating, and learning (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005; Prensky 2006;
Tapscott 1998).
Independence, Autonomy, and Learning
Net Geners tend toward independence and autonomy in their learning styles, which impacts a broad range of
educational choices and behaviors, from “what kind of education they buy” to “what, where, and how they
learn” (Carlson 2005, ¶4). This makes Net Geners more assertive information seekers and shapes how they
approach learning in the classroom. These students make conscious choices about what learning techniques
work best for them, which can include reading lecture notes online, viewing interactive media such as
PowerPoint presentations or digital images, or working in groups.
Such an assessment is supported by educators and scholars whose findings indicate a greater desire for
active, engaged learning experiences among Net Gen students. Oblinger and Hagner (2005) observe that
Digital Age students express a need for more varied forms of communication and report being easily bored
with traditional learning methods. Glenn (2000) notes that Net Geners need self-directed learning
opportunities, interactive environments, multiple forms of feedback, and assignment choices that use different
resources to create personally meaningful learning experiences, while Hay (2000) finds that Net Geners want
more hands-on, inquiry-based approaches to learning and are less willing simply to absorb what is put before
them. What explains these shifts in learning styles? Tapscott (1998) argues that this more independent
learning style has grown out of the ingrained habits of seeking and retrieving information from the Internet,
which marks a striking contrast to previous generations of students, who tended to acquire information more
passively from authority figures.
Other educators, however, object to the pressure to reshape higher education to meet Net Generation
expectations. Naomi Baron, for example, asserts that the move to incorporate technology, reduce lecture
time, and reshape assignments to engage impatient Net Geners merely caters to a lack of discipline. For
Baron, “at some point, what we are doing is killing higher education” (quoted in Carlson 2005, “Not So
Different?”, ¶6). Baron’s observations may have some merit. Higher education in the United States has a
respected democratic tradition that has developed over two centuries of practice; unlike many peer
institutions in other countries, universities in the U.S. have been (relatively) responsive to new developments
and willing to meet the changing needs of the student. Yet while education can be altered and even improved
by incorporating greater autonomy in learning, the educational system may be ill-served by rushing to meet
the perceived needs of the Net Generation. While they are frequent users of electronic tools, Net Geners
typically lack information literacy skills, and their critical thinking skills are often weak (Oblinger and Oblinger
2005). They may be digital natives, but they do not necessarily understand how their use of technology
affects their literacy or habits of learning. For educators, providing the technological bells and whistles
needed to engage Net Geners may not be as effective or as critical as improving their information literacy and
critical thinking skills.
In the same vein, educators may not serve their students well by satisfying another typical Net-Generation
learning need: their self-reported preference for immediacy. Net Geners’ use of the Internet for immediate
access to information has taught them to expect immediate answers. This conditioning has made them, on
the whole, less likely to accept delayed gratification in learning, both in the classroom and outside it. Hay
(2000) offers a story that illustrates these points. In an elementary school classroom, during a lesson on
Australia, one of the children asked, “What do kangaroos eat?” The teacher, admitting that she did not know
and assuring her students that she would get back to them later with an answer, was met with one student
getting up from his seat and offering to find the answer online, “real quick” (9). Instructors typically find it
difficult to resist this desire for immediate answers in the face-to-face classroom. Many institutions are
attempting to reconnect Digital-Age students with traditional classroom practices through technology, and a
substantial number of universities (over 150, according to Carnivale and Young 2006) now require students
to buy laptops. This strategy can undoubtedly benefit Net Geners, giving them the Internet access they crave.
Some educators worry that it can also work against effective teaching as professors vie with the Internet,
instant messaging, and computer games for students’ attention during class (Carnivale 2006). However, such
worries may be more a function of educators’ beliefs and assumptions about learning, springing from their
own learning styles, than a reflection of Net Generation practices and beliefs. The well-known educator
Seymour Papert has pointed out for many years that computers and technology can be powerful teaching
tools, but their potential is not fully exploited by educators who use them as isolated tools, disconnected from
the processes of student life and learning (Papert 1993). To Net Geners, who have “grown up digital,” the
social interaction and structure of the classroom is more important than the potential distractions of the
Internet. This is best articulated by Ben McNeely (2005), himself a member of the Net Generation, who says
that students of his generation “like the social interaction that comes from being in class with their peers” (44).
For them, McNeely feels, “relationships are a driving force in the learning process [and] . . . learning through
social interaction is important” (2005, 44). McNeely quotes Arman Assa, an MBA student and president of the
Mac Users Group at North Carolina State University, who says that technology in a class is not bad for the
classroom; rather, it should “simply augment what is there” in terms of interaction, teaching, and learning
(2005, 45). This discussion suggests that educators can best serve the needs of Net Generation learners and
meet teaching goals by modifying pedagogies to accommodate Net Geners’ need for independence and
autonomy in learning.
Media, Multitasking, and Learning
Net Geners’ habituated use of media in many different formats highlights another clearly notable
characteristic of their learning style. Multitasking is an integral part of the Net Generation lifestyle (Oser
2005). As a landmark survey found, Net Geners between 8 and 18 report using multiple media
simultaneously, using computers and the Internet at the same time as video games, print media, music, and
the phone (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005). Another study found that younger Net Geners (aged 6-14) pack
8.5 hours of media usage into 6 hours (Kaiser Family Foundation 2005).
Accustomed as they are to multiple stimuli, Net Geners report being bored in the traditional classroom, even
as older educators bemoan Net Geners’ short attention span. Baron explains that
students have a very short attention span in part because of the media that we as teachers and parents have
encouraged them to spend their time with, and in part because we haven’t taught them to have longer
attention spans. (quoted in Carlson 2005, “Millennials and ‘Me'”, ¶5)
Net Geners, however, typically do not accept the notion that the problem is a lack of attention span. They
maintain instead that a lack of time compels them to multitask. It is important for educators to understand
that, at least sometimes, when Net Geners complain that a particular subject seems unnecessary, they may
not be expressing a lack of interest. Rather, the range of activities demanding the time and attention of young
people may make them less patient with lessons that do not directly apply to their chosen careers.
Multitasking, Net Geners claim, simply helps them get everything done. Whatever the motivation, educators
must contend with the fact that multitasking is a way of life for many of today’s students.
Interestingly, Baron maintains that educators bear significant responsibility for this problem. In attempting to
accommodate the learning styles of the Net Generation, educators often encourage their students to use
various media in their work while failing to teach the equally important benefits of slowing down, focusing, and
contemplating material deeply. As a result, she claims, administrators are giving up on a core lesson:
teaching students how to think on their own and to communicate their ideas clearly. “We have told them, ‘We
want to hear what you have to say, your opinion matters, nothing you can say is wrong—we can only just sort
of add to it,'” Baron says. “There is a growing assumption that what matters is how you express yourself, not
whether anyone can understand what you have expressed” (quoted in Carlson 2005, “Millennials and ‘Me'”,
¶7). While appealing to the media proficiencies of Net Generation students can yield the short-term
advantages of increased student engagement, such a shift often caters to those students who seek to
complete work with a minimum of effort (Carlson 2005). The dilemma in this case arises from pedagogical
strategies that effectively conflate knowledge with mere information management while failing to tap into the
positive potential of the Net Geners’ orientation towards learning.
Meanwhile, classroom practices designed to accommodate emerging learning styles are gaining a foothold at
all levels. Educators across the country are increasingly moving from the traditional lecture to
discussion-based classes that allow for more individual expression. Use of teamwork and reliance on
experiential learning have become the norm rather than the exception in classrooms today. Universities
encourage faculty to combine the traditional lecture format with techniques that prompt active interaction with
students. Promotional materials for colleges and universities illustrate this trend; a new marketing campaign
at our university (William Paterson University), for example, uses billboards and posters featuring a student
proclaiming, “I believe in conversations, not lectures.” The prominent place of the term “information literacy”
in conversations about pedagogy is yet another example of this shift in focus (National Education Association
2005). Clearly, universities seek to attract students by accommodating their self-perception as learners who
acquire information by developing their own questions, systematically evaluating sources, and selecting
evidence to support their answers (Howard 2006).
In light of the benefits that can arise from accommodating Net Generation learning styles, educators should
formulate strategies that meet students halfway while avoiding the pedagogical pitfalls noted by Baron and
other concerned critics. The good news is that over the past decade, educators have begun to move toward
the development of such pedagogies, often adapting traditional teaching strategies to take advantage of the
benefits of technology to engage Net Geners. WebQuests, for example, use the Internet to promote the
development of “higher level thinking” and to “develop small group skills in collaborative learning” (Zheng
2005, 55). Originated by Bernie Dodge and Tom March in 1995, the WebQuest is characterized by what
Dodge (2001) calls the deep learning that involves constructing new knowledge through a critical thinking
process. WebQuests are not only easy for instructors to use, but they have proven very successful at
engaging Net Geners. (More information on the usage of WebQuests can be found at WebQuest news).
WebQuests are an example of “learning by doing,” a learning style that many say characterizes the Net
Generation (McNeely 2005; Prensky 2006; Shutt n.d.). Several characteristics of Net Geners’ learning
discussed in this paper, such as their consistent multitasking, need for instant gratification, and need for
independence and involvement in the learning process, can be harnessed by the use of pedagogical
strategies that emphasize learning by doing through technology. One example is the use of blogs, long a
staple of Net Geners’ lives, in the classroom. Darren Kuropatwa (2006) describes one use of blogs in his high
school class. His assignment calls for students to act as scribes, recording what is learned each day:
Write a brief summary of what we learned in class today. Include enough detail so that someone who was
away sick, or missed class for any other reason, can catch up on what they missed. Over the course of the
semester, the scribe posts will grow into the textbook for the course; written by students for students.
Remember that as each of you write your scribe posts. Ask yourself: “Is this good enough for our textbook?
Would a graphic or other example(s) help illustrate what we learned?” And remember, you have a global
audience, impress them. (“Harnessing the Power of Pedagogy,” ¶4)
The assignment begins with a volunteer who then chooses the next scribe; the instructor’s role is simply to
update a post called The Scribe List daily. The assignment is powerfully successful, according to Kuropatwa,
in engaging students in learning through several different mechanisms. It undoubtedly succeeds because
using blogs in this manner not only engages students through the Internet but also builds upon their social
and relational focus.
A related use of technology to accommodate Net Geners’ learning style is the use of wikis. Wikis, or
open-editing sites, are as much a part of the Net Generation’s learning landscape as blogs. Educators are
increasingly using wikis as collaborative writing spaces. For example, Teresa Dobson from the University of
British Columbia uses a wiki space in a graduate course on technologies for writing as a support for
collaborative experiments in composition and “as a prompt for reflection on the nature of online writing and
reading” (Lamb 2004, 3). This demonstrates one use of wikis, which can also be used “to change the
individualism culture of traditional instruction to one of collaboration and a shared construction of knowledge”
(Ferris and Wilder 2006, “Teaching and Learning with Wikis,” ¶4). As Ferris and Wilder note, the use of wikis
as a tool for collaborative writing allows students to learn about creativity, ownership, and copyright in the
context technology.
While WebQuests, blogs, and wikis use the Internet, other multimedia resources can also appeal to Net
Geners. The increasingly popular YouTube offers a model to one faculty member who employs digital
storytelling as a teaching tool. Melda Yildiz, of William Paterson University, has students in a teacher
education course produce video documentaries and showcases video projects as a means to engage her
students in considerations of multiculturalism, openness to different views of history, and use of multimedia
(Yildiz 2007). These examples demonstrate the ways in which educators can use technology and multimedia
in appropriate ways to incorporate autonomous learning activities while also ensuring that sufficient
classroom time is devoted to fostering information literacy and higher-order critical thinking skills.
Social Interactivity and Learning
For goal-oriented Net Geners, learning is a means to achieving professional ambitions. At the same time, the
Internet is a tool for learning and an essential part of social life. The distinction between Internet tools for fun
and for work is thus a blurry one. In an analysis of 19- to 25-year-olds, McMillan and Morrison (2006) found
that the Internet featured prominently in the everyday lives of these young people. The phenomenal growth of
networking Web sites like Facebook and MySpace has tapped into this generation’s favorite pastime.
Facebook, which has 250 million hits every day and ranks ninth in overall traffic on the Internet (Bugeja 2006
), is university based, enabling students across the nation to come together not just for study but also to find
out where the next party is being held. Many students view this type of social networking to be important
enough that students often sign up before they even begin their freshmen year (Market Wire 2006).
To reach the Net Generation more effectively, educators need to consider strategies that exploit the social
networking skills students exhibit outside of class. For example, Brooklyn College’s library now has a
MySpace page that library staff uses instead of email to communicate with students, including
announcements about events, workshops, and work opportunities (Carlson 2006). While creative and
well-intentioned, such efforts have little pedagogic value if they do not invite students to think differently about
their use of the Internet and, specifically, how it discourages sustained concentration in many contexts.
Toward this end, Michael Kearns, a professor of computer and information science at the University of
Pennsylvania, uses Facebook to teach concepts of social networking, demonstrating a more effective
appropriation of Net Generation lifestyle to foster critical thinking among his students. In his course The
Networked Life, which focuses on the social aspects of computer networks, students create their own
Facebook profiles and investigate the connections among their peers, which leads them to deep questions
about how social networks tend to coalesce around a small number of privileged members (Read 2004). In
turn, the incorporation of e-portfolios in the Expository Writing Program at the University of Washington may
serve as another positive example; in this initiative, students learn how to reorient their social networking
skills in creating online portfolios that illustrate and reflect upon their fulfillment of key learning objectives
(Lane 2006). By incorporating the online habits of Net Generation students within the framework of clearly
defined pedagogical goals, educators can tap into the distinctive proficiencies of their students while ensuring
focused learning and positive outcomes.
Since young people will likely continue to be at the forefront of technological change, Net Geners will
continue to have a lot to teach educators about evolving technology. Yet educators must not abdicate their
role as authorities directing the learning experiences of their students. Our research observes the existence
of a fine line: Educators should continue to find ways to exploit the skills students develop outside of class
without accommodating the habits of instant gratification and shallow thinking. To be human is to learn, and
we learn from good teachers. Russell Ackoff has often noted that the current education system does not
teach students how to learn (Day 2007). Today’s digital and computer technologies allow us to remedy this
by giving us the tools to teach Net Geners not just what to learn but how to learn.


~ by jeanehistoria on December 26, 2009.

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