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The Kids These Days

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Recently, I got into a conversation with a friend of mine about technology and education. He’d just gotten back from a conference and said that while he was there he kept hearing the same discussions about the future of the university and its relationship to higher education. He was concerned that the vision of the future of higher education is that courses are created (I use the passive intentionally) and then delivered via instructors who function, basically, as technicians. (As someone who has spent the past year developing a course that could potentially function like that, I can attest that there’s an enormous amount of training to get to the point where the technician can press the button.)

At any rate, lots of people I talk to seem to be worried about this. I’m not. I don’t think it will ever happen.

Here’s why.

We assume too much about our students and their abilities with technology, and it is at their expense.

We know, for instance, that our assumptions about “digital natives” have been wrong. Sure, they have grown up with digital technologies, but this does not mean that they are particularly good with those technologies. We know that, although they think they are multitaskers, they actually aren’t. We know that, although they think they know how to get around the internet, they are remarkably bad at it. And they don’t even seem to realize that they’re bad at it.

Let me put is this way: almost none of my freshmen this year—”digital natives,” all—had ever heard of Google Docs. Most of them had never heard of Dropbox. Those two things alone should shatter notions of the fabled abilities of digital natives.

There are other problems.

  • My students are really good at Facebook and Youtube and text messaging (and, actually, doing all kinds of sophisticated things with their phones). But many are likely to have difficulty downloading, opening, manipulating, and storing a file I have sent them.
  • Sometimes, they have difficulty finding files on their computers and/or sending files to me.
  • They don’t seem to check (or really use, much) their email at all.
  • There are vocabulary issues that limit their abilities to use search engines effectively. And they are often easily frustrated when their searches do not return some magic source immediately.

We assumed they were good at using the internet, so we never taught them how to use it effectively. We assumed they were good at manipulating their computers, so we never taught them how to do it well. We assumed that they were good with Google, so we never taught them how to use it effectively.

And now we have students who are often frustrated because they’re expected to know things that there is no good reason for us to assume that they know.

Students’ relationship with the texts they encounter online is another troublesome point here. For instance, They are very likely not to draw a distinction between The Economist and some random blog. For them, it seems, all texts are equal on the internet. It makes sense. Why would we expect them to be able to draw distinctions between magazines and journals that they have never even heard of? Their experience of the internet has been an uncurated firehose of information from unfamiliar sources. All of it is equal. And all of it seems, really, to be bewildering to them.

Don’t believe me? Ask your students to do some research. Have them locate 10 sources on some topic and create a works cited page. Then set about correcting that works cited page so that it is in proper MLA format. Look up the sources. Double-check everything. The things they do to those poor sources will break your heart, partly because it will make clear how much we assume about their abilities and partly because it will give a sense of just how confusing the world must be to many of them.

Yes, our students live in an age in which they have access to an unbelievable about of information. But we have failed them miserably when it comes to dealing with that information by making unfounded assumptions about their ability to read and comprehend texts, evaluate the relative value of texts, and, most broadly, understand that the web pages they encounter are simply part of an ongoing conversation.

My students often cannot, and generally do not bother to even try to, distinguish between an essay in Boys’ Life and The New Yorker. To them, all texts are equal. A letter to the editor in the Tupelo Daily Journal and an editorial from the New York Times are the same thing. There is a reason for this: they’re not, generally, conducting research in the way that we would hope they are. Instead, they’re looking for quotations to stick into their papers. To make matters worse, they’re not particularly looking for quotations to back up what they’re saying. They’re just looking for quotations that are vaguely in line with whatever subject they are writing about.

Such a relationship with texts shouldn’t be surprising. They’re really just doing what we’ve inadvertently taught them to do by focusing so much on them having and articulating opinions without first insisting that they fully understand some kind of larger argument.

In his evaluation of my course this semester, one of my students wrote this: “I was used to writing an opinion about the piece instead of learning what the author was trying to say.”

I suspect that this is pretty common. For their entire life, it seems, my students have been asked to speak their mind about whatever they’re reading, and we have assumed that this was fine because surely they understood what they were reading.

I want to make it clear that I am not complaining about “the kids these days,” nor am I blaming them for these “deficiencies.” We have made assumptions about what they needed to know and, as a result, failed to teach them the skills they need to navigate all this information. Given all of this, to assume that online technologies will be some kind of silver bullet is, frankly, absurd. Online education will be troubled by the students’ difficulties making sense of the online environment and the information in it until we stop assuming that we don’t need to teach them strategies for information management at much, much earlier stages in their lives.

We also assume to much about the relationship between the newest technologies and student success.

It really seems like every time there’s a new technology (word processing! The internet! iPods! iPads! Blogging! Twitter!) there’s an immediate rush to shoehorn it into the classroom—whether it’s suited or not.

I use blogs in classes where people are being trained (e.g. tutors and TAs). It provides a sense of continuity from one class to the next, and over the years the blogs have become repositories of information for anxious new students. I use Google Docs to facilitate workshopping and peer review. I use Twitter to quickly share information. I grade everything in Google Docs or as PDFs on my iPad. My students don’t have to print as much, and I don’t have to carry as much of what they print around.

I can’t think of anything less useful than piling iPads into a classroom full of people who don’t understand how to use them. This was no different than when we moved to online classes. We expect instructors will minimal skills to develop classes for students with minimal skills–and now we are amazed that this may not be the magic bullet for higher ed that we thought it might be. Sure, there are some technologies that fit nicely. I use Google Docs in all of my classes. I use our LMS and youtube and TED talks and Twitter and blogs. But unless the technology solves some problem or makes something easier, piling it on isn’t necessarily going to help.

The technologies we have don’t really replace face-to-face instruction, and asynchronous discussions online don’t replicate the dynamism of a classroom discussion. Maybe this will change, though, as video compression gets better and as bandwidth expands. But right now? The technology is just too primitive.

A discussion forum, a chat room, and a whiteboard aren’t going to replace sitting in a room together, even if we stopped bitching about students and started rethinking our assumptions about them.

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Written by srogers

April 28, 2012 at 5:23 am

Posted in Teaching

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