How should we deal with a new generation of learners who grew up with the Internet and who are currently entering our schools, universities and corporate learning centres? Who are they? What do they expect from their teachers and trainers? What sets them apart from previous generations? To find out what really lies behind the labels “Generation Y”, “Net Generation” and “New Millennials”, experts from all over the world shared their research findings, real-life experiences and promising approaches at this year’s OEB.
A Crisis of Significance
Throughout the conference, Generation Y was a dominant issue. Dr Michael Wesch, keynote speaker at this year’s opening plenary, works with young learners every day in his courses at Kansas State University. Wesch, a cultural anthropologist, focussed on the problematic expectations towards students in today’s educational system. With the rise of the Internet age, a social and a cultural revolution is taking place right in front of us. But at the same time, a “crisis of significance” is occurring in our classrooms. Learners want to be active, just like they are in the world wide web. When surfing on the internet, they filter, comment, rate, as well as create knowledge and thus take an active part in gathering information and knowledge. On the other hand, in our classrooms they are still forced into a passive role, merely consuming the information that is offered to them by others. Although the revolution is happening on the web, schools and universities still fail to adapt to these changes, which offer great opportunities for learning and teaching.
Economics of Identity
Norbert Bolz was another speaker in the opening plenary who addressed the massive shifts our society is experiencing at the moment and how young people in particular are dealing with these changes. The well-known media theorist from Berlin’s Technical University shared his thoughts on the internet culture of the 21st century, as well as on its impacts on global communication, mobility and ultimately our way of life. According to Bolz, there is no difference any more between working time and free time. Young generations are entering a labour market where personality and the unique personal brand have become more important than ever before. The most prominent evidence for that is the rise of online social networks. He describes the creation of extensive online profiles and the constant interaction with others as “impression management” and “self-design”. Bolz foresees not only “economics of identity” but also a “competition of attention” due to the information overload in a networked world. Therefore, trust becomes an important issue. All in all there is no other way than to deal with the challenges presented by modern information and communication technologies in order not to be left behind and to find our place in a changing media environment.
A Networked Life
The discussion on Thursday evening also covered the rise of a new learning generation and the issue of living in an increasingly connected world. Ton Zijlstra talked about his own networked life and started with a quote from Harold Elletson, chair of the opening plenary, who said earlier that day: “I’m a Gen Y member in a baby-boomer’s body.” Zijlstra described the massive changes thei nternet has brought into his life, although he is not a member of Generation Y according to common definitions. But in his opinion, a networked life is not necessarily a matter of age. He claims that the focus needs to be not so much on the new generation of learners but on the changing globalised world we are all living in. Generation Y pupils and students are not a different species, but having grown up with the internet, they more easily adapt to new technological developments. The new interaction and communication infrastructure has serious impacts on our everyday lives from which everyone can benefit. In fact, we all need to become part of a new Generation Y – a “Generation You” – in which age does not matter.
Clive Shepherd, counterpart in the discussion, took a closer look at learning and knowledge in the corporate world. The British e-learning guru also pointed out that we should not waste our energy by defining a new generation of learners, but rather by focussing on keeping up with developments. With his work background of many years in the field of corporate training, he highlighted the “forces of change”, which include new thinking, new expectations and new pressures. The economic downturn we are currently facing poses serious challenges. but according to Shepherd, new media helps us to make learning and training more efficient. It is time not only to talk about change but to take action right now.
A changing world, changing media, ubiquitous networks and their impacts on our everyday lives were without a doubt the main theme of many presentations of Online Educa Berlin this year. It was repeatedly pointed out that the learners of Generation Y are only one, but a very important, manifestation of these developments.
E-Learning Becomes Ubiquitiuos
Studies on an institutional, national and international level have shed light on students who take to the internet and mobile gadgets like ducks take to water. The findings indicate quite a few changes in recent years while also revealing some common misunderstandings about the students at our schools and universities. For instance, there is a risk in assuming too much about the technology-immersed learners, who may utilise very few features of their devices and gadgets. Learners do not always recognise the potential of technologies as learning devices. This was pointed out in a study carried out by the team of Professor Judy Hardy from the University of Edinburgh, UK. Their work investigated how learning technologies are utilised by first-year undergraduates. The focus was on “critical moments”; specifically, the impact of technology on learners’ transitions to university and their progression through the first year.
Furthermore, the study showed that the young learners are quite traditional in their views and value the “tried and tested” methods. They have limited vision of what the future of technology holds for education. This is reflected in their strong desire for face to face contact, while using technology to supplement and enhance this. So it may not be very surprising that the term e-learning does not mean much to them. There is simply teaching with strands of technology running through.
Other case studies showed how members of Generation Y can be engaged in learning when teachers and trainers take their cultural backgrounds more into account. Developing critical thinking skills and the ability to source and judge reliable information are part of the challenges that the Generation Y learners face – like the many generations of students before them. The University Library of Teesside, UK, developed an authentic online learning tool that aims to help students find their way through academic knowledge sources. The online evaluation tool utilises online voting and rating systems to evaluate the quality of texts without knowing their actual sources, benefiting from the fact that Gen Y students especially are used to these features through Facebook and YouTube. During rating process, the sources are revealed, along with an assessment of students’ votes through academic peers, thus allowing for critical feedback on the process of information sourcing.
It also became evident that the expectations young learners have are very similar to the expectations and needs of every learner, no matter how old they are or if they are living their life online. Getting a high-quality education and learning together with fellow students in an open, collaborative learning environment that motivates and fosters critical thinking should be top priorities in any educational context and for any group of learners. The internet has become an integral part of our lives and even more in the lives of our children. Teachers and trainers need to embrace the changes surrounding us in order to bring out the best of learners, no matter what generation they are part of.