The Student’s Perspective

Windham, C., 2005 https://www.educause.edu/ir/library/PDF/pub7101.PDF (pp. 5.1 – 5.15)

Are today’s instructors really that out of touch (and that useless)?

The opening scenario in this article seems more than bit dated. I doubt that there are many “relic[s] of the Greatest Generation” (born from 1900 to 1930, according to Wikipedia) still teaching in 2019. I also doubt the average young person would refer to MapQuest for driving directions.

I also find this passage rather disrespectful. Sure, the professor described is set in his ways, but are they really that unfathomable and worthy of disapproval? What’s wrong with the phrase “I don’t check voicemail”? It sounds quite familiar and modern to me. I believe I heard my then teenage son say something very similar to that about 10 years ago, when he was training me to only message him via text- not voicemail or email, if I was hoping for any sort of response.

Not that I didn’t run into professor’s like the one described. I can recall a very unsympathetic Engineering prof I encountered as a young man in the late 1970’s who insisted I would be of no use to the field of engineering unless I could master the already obsolete skills involved in manual drafting.

I think that most instructors today are aware of the pace of tech change, since we’ve all lived through many decades of it. The author states “I’ve surfed the Web since the age of 11”. Well, whoop de doo, is my answer to that. I’ve surfed the web since at least that time, and was a full-fledged adult during the entire period. Why would my Boomer Web-surfing skills be remarkably inferior?

Driven to succeed

I’m saddened by the “Driven to Succeed” section of this article (p. 5.3, para 3), as I’ve seen some of the fallout from this drive to succeed in the lives of my children and their peers. One example that comes to mind is a young man who volunteered to help out with a charity organization I was involved with. He seemed to be sincere, and may well have been, but he apparently so driven to succeed that he lost his moral compass. Although he only once showed up to anything involved with the charity, he listed months of volunteer experience on his application to medical school– and made the mistake of using one of the charity’s long-time volunteers as a reference. When the medical school called to check the reference, the volunteer told the truth, probably ruining the young man’s chances of getting into the school.

The statement “In a world where high school transcripts increasingly look more uniform in their perfection” (p. 5.3, para 3) is unfortunately true, as teachers are forced by school administrators and pressure from parents to inflate grades to the point that many students end up with fraudulently high marks, making high marks essentially meaningless. In response, the University of Waterloo now deflates garden to compensate (see Eaton, A., 2018. From Grade Inflation to Grade Deflation, The Varsity). As Eaton points out, some of the highest rates of grade inflation occur at expensive private schools, making it apparent that no matter how hard youth from poor backgrounds drive themselves to succeed, the game remains fixed in favour of the rich.

Compassion

Although Windham and her peers may very well be interested in “community service and engagement”, I really don’t see any evidence of this being any different than what I have seen from idealist youth in other generations. What about the legions of volunteers from previous generations? Who started the thousands of charities and non-profit organizations that have been in existence since long before the Net Generation were even born?

I’m not saying we shouldn’t make use of youthful zeal to improve the world, but a claim that the Net Generation is more inclined in this direction than other cohorts is something that would take quite an effort to prove.

Hope

This is another passage that seems outdated. The “hole in the ozone layer growing” is no longer a significant issue (see Handwerk, B. 2010, Whatever happened to the ozone hole). It’s nice to believe that this generation is “more likely to employ technology to solve the problems of past and present generations” (p. 5.5, para. 3) but, in my opinion, other generations have been trying to employ technology to solve the world’s problems for a long time. I think, perhaps, that Windham is using the definition of technology coined by Alan Kay “Technology is anything invented after you were born” (as quoted in Kelly, K., 2009. Technology’s Epic Story, TEDxAmsterdam 1:34)

Technological Masters?

“Net Geners have become some of the most technologically adept members of society” (Windham, p. 5.6, para. 3). By learning to use apps and gadgets without ever reading any instructions? Do they really learn how to use technology to its full potential without some scaffolding? This statement rings of hubris.

As a professional instructor who has taught many technology-related classes I find Windham’s statement above to be laughable. In my experience the Net Generation are neither more nor less technologically capable than any other generation without proper training. The average Net Generation member might do better with rotary phones than the Gen Z youth illustrated below, but I wonder …?

Kevin Bumstead, 2018. Two 17 year olds dial a rotary phone.

Filling the Attention Deficit

I must admit that the study habits described by Windham (p. 5.7, para. 2) “I have grown accustomed to juggling multiple tasks at once, at lightning speed” are typical of today’s young people. That does not mean they are effective.

I’ve addressed the issue of multitasking in my comments on A Vision of Students Today and elsewhere. To sum up, I think the idea of effective multitasking is nonsense and that students need to focus on their learning to be successful in their academic work. The statement “It is only in the classroom, therefore, that my mind is trained on one subject” (Windham, p. 5.7, para. 2) indicates there is a problem, but in my opinion it is not the instructor’s problem. If students aren’t paying attention in class, they will need to learn the material the hard way, by studying on their own.

By the above I do not mean to imply that instructors do not need to make any attempt to make their lessons engaging, or that they shouldn’t apply techniques like the flipped classroom and multiple modes of delivery of learning material. I do mean to say that instructors should not need to compete with students surfing the Web, texting, or doing anything else that distracts their attention from the learning task(s) at hand. Otherwise, the benefits of face-face teaching are lost, and students might as well be learning via electronic means.

Interaction, Exploration, Relevancy, and Multimedia

Windham uses the terms “interaction” “exploration” to describe aspects of Active Learning , which is essentially a set of common teaching techniques that “engage students as active participants in their learning during class time with their instructor” (University of Minnesota, Centre for Educational Innovation, n.d.). These techniques can be applied to all cohorts with equal efficacy, so there’s no reason for the Net Generation to miss out on these types of learning activities.

Relevancy of material to student’s lives and ambitions is important. This is something else that certainly applies to all types of student, not just this cohort. One of the main functions of the instructor, especially in a live classroom setting (where adjustments can be made on the fly), is to make sure the material is relevant to the audience.

Too often, Multimedia is merely links to YouTube videos. I caution against using these too often, since this platform automatically serves up material intended to keep viewers online, potentially distracting students from their learning activities. I feel that instructors and institutional libraries need to spend more time/energy/money on creating video resources that are not hosted on commercial platforms with their distracting ads and autoplay features. Another thing instructors need to do is to edit videos carefully, to ensure they are kept as short as possible. Although attribution remains important, students shouldn’t need to sit through long preambles or other video material unrelated to learning points.

Instruction

Finally, something I can totally agree on! Windham (p. 5.9, para. 4) describes the need to educate students in how to “navigate and investigate the modern library” and avoid the false or misleading information that is so often found online. I agree that students cannot “learn solely on the Internet”.

A Virtual Education: Crafting the Online Classroom

In this section, Windham recounts her experiences in two different online courses, expressing a strong presence for one of the courses that involved a considerable amount of online discussion where the “exercises were a thinly veiled attempt to hold us accountable for the reading and to engage us in the material” (p. 5.10, para. 1). She also states that “students … want diversity in both content and content media’ (p. 5.11, para. 3), a statement I can get behind as applying to all generations of learners.

E-Life: The Net Gen on Campus

I’ll wrap up with a quick comment on this section, which applies more to the old-fashioned nature of school administration and payment systems, which I believe have been modernizing fairly rapidly in recent years.

Tuition can usually be paid electronically, and many students are now able to live largely cash-free lives. They are, however, spending plenty of money since campus prices for almost everything are alarmingly high.

There remains plenty to be fixed on many campuses to make them truly welcoming to students, but this is too bib a subject to cover here.

Outlook for the Future

Who knows? We can be assured there will be more change and that the Internet other technologies will continue to disrupt educational institutions and the methods instructors use to do their work.

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