feeling the generation gap

I read an article today by Stephen Downs of the National Research Council of Canada called “E-learning 2.0.” It’s a bit of an older article (2005), but there is a lot of interesting discussion you could have about the issues Downs brings up.

There was something that jumped out at me in particular, though, probably not a particularly novel point. Downs discusses “the changing nature of Internet users” that educators are needing to reach these days. He describes this rising generation of “digital natives,” writing:

They absorb information quickly, in images and video as well as text, from multiple sources simultaneously. They operate at “twitch speed,” expecting instant responses and feedback. They prefer random “on-demand” access to media, expect to be in constant communication with their friends (who may be next door or around the world), and they are as likely to create their own media (or download someone else’s) as to purchase a book or a CD.

The big revelation in reading this is that I am not a part of the generation he is describing. I’ve spent my life feeling pretty comfortable with computers. I don’t necessarily know a lot about their inner workings. I’m not especially knowledgeable about any particular programming language either, and would not consider myself a master at using any particular applications. Still, for as long as I’ve been in the ocean, so to speak, computer technology has been part of the water passing through my gills, and I’ve always felt confident in my ability to easily pick up what I don’t know when necessary. And when the old-timers shook their heads in wonder at how easily “kids these days” took to technology, I always knew I was one of those fresh-faced geniuses that had inspired their awe.

As I’ve thought about this article, my confidence and self-satisfaction has been shaken up a bit. I’ve come to recognize a change has been sneaking up up on me these past few years; I’ve realized that somewhere along the line I’ve stopped growing up along with the technological world that surrounds me. For instance, I really have trouble accepting the idea that my phone, my computer, my books, my music player, and who knows how many other tools and resources should all be contained in one pocket-sized device, a pretty standard paradigm in American culture today. And no matter how many hours I’ve spent working on computers from a very young age, there are still some jobs, like taking notes in class, that I would rather do with pen and paper, no matter how many laptops you see in university classrooms these days. I’m learning to accept that these are not simply personality quirks or individual preferences, but attitudes that have developed as I’ve grown up over a certain period in history, in a certain cultural context. In short, I’m having to recognize that I’m getting a bit outdated.

Let me mention one more example of how my own paradigm is at odds with more recent trends Downs identifies among today’s “digital natives.” He writes:

The breaking down of barriers has led many of the movements and issues we see on today’s Internet. File-sharing, for example, evolves not of a sudden criminality among today’s youth but rather in their pervasive belief that information is something meant to be shared. This belief is manifest in such things as free and open-source software, Creative Commons licenses for content, and open access to scholarly and other works. Sharing content is not considered unethical; indeed, the hoarding of content is viewed as antisocial. And open content is viewed not merely as nice to have but essential ….

Now, I for one would argue in favor of something like open-source teaching and learning resources. My own native worldview informs me, however, that this sort of thing is “merely nice to have,” that the relinquishment of copyrights over educational tools is an act of charity performed by good and benevolent developers, but is by no means expected as a part of common design practice. In contrast, Downs describes a young, tech-savvy generation that does not view the world from a perspective of such self-centeredness and isolation, and does not necessarily accept the notion that ideas can be claimed, bought, and sold as private property. This is a pretty drastic difference in cultural values, no matter how little I can close the gap in terms of my technical capability, and poses a significant challenge if this is the audience I am supposed to be reaching as a teacher and an instructional designer.

So what is to be done? One thing that’s for sure is that I am not likely to make meaningful contributions toward teaching and learning if I can’t imagine any better use for technology than promoting the same old teaching methodologies; this is one of the main points I take away from Downs’s article. Yes, when I really think about it, the array of tools being developed these days and the level of connectivity that is now possible overwhelms and intimidates me. I can’t take for granted that I am going to automatically “get” the way students think and learn best any more. But this doesn’t refute the possibility of some deep, fundamental changes on my part. I’ve had to adjust to new ways of living in the world before, living for extended periods in Kenya and India. I think I can be open to a fresh acculturation in this instance, too. Acknowledging the generation gap is an important first step. After all, you need to recognize the fact that you are lost in the woods before you can find your way home.

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