Don Tapscott on Post-Secondary Possibilities and the Net Gen

Co-authored by Sara Humphreys

When we began the this site and the project, our group was uncertain where to really begin.  There were so many questions.  How do we define what we are doing?  What are we doing?  The research my colleagues and I have done has provided as many questions as answers.  Work by author, consultant, and technology expert, Don Tapscott’s has influenced my contributions to this site, in particular his focus on the Net Generation (NetGen) and digital (digitized?) education.  Therefore, the decision to ask Don to contribute to the site was as necessary as it was easy. Don very kindly provided insightful comments on how education is evolving to better instruct and teach the Net Gen and why this evolution must happen. Feel free to check out Don’s full answers in a prezi located on the main page or check out the highlights in this post (or do both!):

To start, here is an insightful and perhaps incendiary comment from Don:

“One of the biggest reasons student abandon classrooms in secondary and post-secondary education is that they’re bored”

Whoa. I can hear feathers ruffling…or perhaps sabers rattling? It’s an easy equation: students +classroom = boredom.  Students yawning, drooling, chatting, texting are all common images and the student is often cast as the bad guy in this scenario.  However, Tapscott makes a crucial point in the above quotation.  Students are bored – not because they dislike the material, but because the classroom environment does not suit the way they learn.  The Net Gen grows up surrounded by technology of a variety of mediums.  What is more, students are attracted to using new technology that offers knowledge at a rapid rate and in exciting forms. Students sit with their tablets, laptops, and superphones watching video, listening to music, reading text, and performing their networked selves. All of this multimodality opens up a whole new world of learning for these students. How can a classroom with a teacher lecturing at the front of the classroom with slides and maybe one or two videos measure up?

Tapscott’s main argument is that students grow up in a multi-networked environment, where background noise from technology is normal.  The Net Gen is cognitively different from previous generations.  They are used to distraction, but are not always distracted from the task at hand – they just process it differently.  Tapscott argues that it is the criteria of what is considered distraction that needs to change, not so much the student.  The student is a product of an environment enriched by digital media and once they enter into a classroom, which often functions using the traditional “Industrial Model,” they are at a loss (for a short video on the deficiencies of the Industrial model of education by Sir Ken Robinson, click here).

“[T]he evidence shows that giving students laptops, for example, can free the teacher to introduce a new way of learning that’s more natural for kids who have grown up digital at home”

Laptops in the class give the student freedom to explore and record (through typing and actual recording) the information provided..  Social media use is another thing: students will often flip from facebook to twitter and then look up what an instructor is discussing – all in a matter of seconds. Are students learning or are they distracted? Don says students are learning, but in a new way: students are taking the information they receive in class and expanding on it, which brings into question the efficiency and efficacy of traditional teaching methods. What if students can learn to teach themselves?  The role of the teacher/instructor/professor could change since they no longer would be the centre of all knowledge, but a distributor of knowledge that can be explored further using technology.  Educators have to become guides to a network of information rather than gatekeepers to one way of knowing.  Don states that the educator is similar to TV (a legacy medium – how about that folks?): both are forms of one-way communication.

“Youth today are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. Sitting mutely in front of a TV set–or a professor –doesn’t appeal to or work for this generation. They learn best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative activities. Digital immersion at a formative stage of life has affected their brain development and consequently the way they think and learn.”

It is simple: we teach how we learn.  Therefore, the student and educator divide will be present until the educator is capable of learning the way their students do. This divide is also apparent in the private sector:

“If companies don’t respond appropriately, Net Geners will start their own corporations”

Don further states that this generation is a “Global Generation,” which have five main qualities: “norms for freedom, customization, collaboration, integrity and innovation.” Further, the “Global Generation” (or Net Gen) is a generation who wants to know why, not just how.  The knowledge of why is the power that they harness when they are creating the next world for both past and future generations.  Net Gen is a generation that will bring profound change, but it will be in bytes.  Gradually, the world will look back to the world these digital natives have created and realize that enormity of change that has occurred in several decades, not several centuries.

And digital technologies are the tools for this change. It’s clear that if academia wants to “train” youth for the future, then academia needs to respond appropriately or NetGeners may bypass university entirely or, more likely, educate themselves.

Thank you to Don Tapscott and Kejina Robinson of the Tapscott Group.  Both provided us with truly useful information.

Digital Media and Transformation of the Essay

Digital Technology and Hybrid Essay Format

One of the purposes of this site is to show that there are other ways of learning over and above standardized methods (like an instructor reading from slides or, worse, a textbook. if you do this: stop – stop it now).  The essay format has been a stand-by in the humanities and social sciences.  Professors swear by it and it has been institutionalized as a trustworthy way of accessing writing skills and critical thinking.  From high school on, students write essays every year and continue these habits as they enter into post-secondary school, regardless of the discipline they enter.  This post will focus on how and why the essay format is changing to accommodate the different modes of presenting a thesis and the arguments that support it. Digital communication is changing the way we interpret and argue, not just the way we learn.

The Law of Identity: Challenging Strict Structure

Active Vs. Passive Voice: There is an emoticon for that.

A thesis is a thesis is a thesis.  A thesis argues a point, like this “essay” is currently attempting.  Students are encouraged to support these points with arguments and conclude them very neatly our essays.  Essays are not simple, but they have a simplified format that instructs students to present information in a structured, logical way: topic, thesis, body, conclusion.  The essay structure has been institutionalized – or shall I say, burned into students’ minds – since high school.  It does have many benefits, including the following:

  •  the essay teaches students to make an interpretation of the texts studied
  •  the essay teaches students how to research and present research in a logical manner
  •  by making a solid claim, the student is learning to have a voice and opinion on what they study.
  • grammar and literacy improves

What else?  Actually, the criteria of essays is pretty straightforward.  It can also be very narrow.  The essay does not always encourage students to explore a topic fully because of the strictures placed by format and structure.  Also, due dates force students to adhere to a structure and essay plan.  After completing essay after essay, the structure is bound to weaken.  However, digital media is changing this.  First, let’s brain-storm how:

  •  the essay format is adapting to incorporate digital media into its structure.  For example, online scholarly databases and journals provide excellent sources of information that is both factual and theoretical.
  • the essay format is being presented on different mediums other than print: online essays, including those on blogs, are providing an innovative new way of presenting information
  • the essay format is changing its traditional structure to include different ways of expressing a central argument (example: images, hyperlinks, podcasts, etc)

The essay format is becoming a product of the digital culture.  With more research online nowadays, students are encouraged to include multimedia in their essays.  This allows for a hybrid presentation of knowledge with the addition of web content for extra information and a more in-depth analysis of a particular topic.  The pros of this are many, one of which is that the transformation of the essay has resulted in a far more interesting product.  Scholarly sources become conversations, not merely one-way, or one-dimensional, presentations.  The essay format is becoming multi-mediated from so many sources – the sources of which most people, whether in higher education or not, are familiar with.

So, am I suggesting that the scholarly essay may be available to the many individuals – a widespread allowance into the information of scholarly institutions?  Although the internet enables students access to previously inaccessible content, copyright laws maintain a stronghold over the rights of academic material.  In “An Empirically Grounded Framework To Guide Blogging In Higher Education,” G. Conole, et al. includes an earnest assessment of some of the drawbacks of blogging, such as the difficulty in getting students completing them.  The article looks at how blogs are often stereotyped as a leisure activity. Conole specifically notes that students are more concerned about the purpose of doing a blog: “the ideals of educators can be difficult to put into practice.  From the student’s perspective there are two fundamental questions they ask themselves about blogs: “why would I want one?” . . . “what’s in it for me?” . . students need to develop a purpose for blogging that is clear to benefit them” (Conole An Empirically Grounded Framework To Guide Blogging In Higher Education).  So, unlike essays, which carry an academic authority due to a long-standing tradition within academia, blogs still struggle with legitimacy.  Conole makes an interesting point, when he states that the blog presents a blurring of the private and public.  The blogger is autonomous over their blog and can network with who they wish; however, it also puts them on a public platform.  The student interacts with a more public stage during their assignment, including their peers.  Blogging allows them to construct knowledge for themselves and not just adhere to a format and strict set of requirements.  Conole does recognize that when students do complete blogs, they find that they have gained many skills that writing an essay does not allow them to gain.  The study also admits to some negatives with blogging, including the finding that 7 out of 9 bloggers eventually use a routine format after blogging.

So is a blog just a blog just a blog?  Or is there uniqueness to each one?  Simply put, blogs allow for the exploration of content that does not exclude other forms of communication, including other types of media.

PhD candidate Melonie Fullick of York University states her article, entitled “Becoming Prof 2.0“:

meritocracy, the notion that achievements are determined by individual merit rather than by a complex of factors (some of which are beyond our personal control), is a concept that is crucial to academic culture and the operational logic of academe itself.  Because students internalize the idea that their success is dependent on this narrow notion of merit, they often blame themselves if they “fail” to perform adequately during the PhD.  They might be reluctant to speak out about problems, since usually no one else is doing so, and they might feel they are revealing personal inadequacies, rather than bringing to light systemic flaw.

Fullick upgrades this essay’s argument.  What about graduate-level education and the transformation of the essay format and the use of digital media as a means to transform of the curriculum?  Fullick admits that narrow definitions of success are plaguing the university curriculum and giving students at all levels a false estimation of success.  Estimating success based on merit, which itself is dependent on arbitrary factors determined by individuals or a committee, can often cost students a great deal, not only in terms of the financial implications, but also affect them in more personal ways.  Faculty who wish to change how they learn and how their students learn often hit a brick wall that has been constructed by those outside of the classroom.  So, challenging curriculum and methodology can be dangerous to some extent.

However, how does an institution evolve?  How does anything evolve, really.

The issue of digital media in the classroom cannot be ignored.  Digital media is changing the way we learn and why we learn.  Its implications on the basic learning styles, including the academic essay, are open to interpretation and opinion, but cannot be ignored.