Monday, September 14, 2009

Why Gen Y learners won't demand better educational technology

A lot of us in online higher education have been talking for years now about the coming of the Gen Y student, and how we better get into web 2.0, or we'll lose these people. Conventional wisdom says those who grew up on X-Box and Facebook won't stand for the flat, 1990's learning systems that are so deeply entrenched in education. But I've lately come to realize that there's something odd going on. The Gen Y students are not clamoring for the Twitterization of education. They aren't wondering why their online courses are so deadly boring. They are going along with whatever we hand them. Why?

I fear I know the answer. You probably do too, if you think about it. We've taught them too well. Along with Bio and Chem and Spanish and Algebra II, we've taught them that they aren't to make demands like that. Their appointed role is to roll their eyes, let the heavy wave of dull duty sweep over them, and do what they're told.

For years their classroom teachers have been telling them to turn off their phones, put away their laptops, unplug their iPods, sit down, open their books to page 226, and listen to me while I talk. We have driven a wedge between their real world, which is online, plugged in, constantly in contact, moving, changing, interacting... and their education. We have sent the same strong message class after class, year after year, and their academic success has depended on them hearing that message, understanding it, and accepting it. We have demanded they learn this one truth:

Education = Out of Touch

You can't be plugged in and be a good student. It's what all our actions are telling them. Education does not play by the rules of the rest of the world. So why would they even blink when they find our educational technologies gray and drab? The answer is, they won't.

Is this acceptable? I suspect that many educators' response to such news might actually be relief. "Whew. So now we don't have to use all those tricky technologies after all." But that is a self-defeating, self-destructive attitude. That is the attitude of Lemming Number 289 as it follows Lemming Number 288 off the cliff. Because the wedge we have driven between our students' world and their education is actually a wedge between education and learning.

Learning, that's not boring. That's the excitement of something new that can be put to use. That's the kid coming home talking endlessly about a "good teacher," one who makes history come alive. One who makes history seem like what it actually is, useful and applicable to what's happening around us right now. Learning, that's the physics teacher who makes projectile behaviors and the characteristics of light appear to be what they actually are, truths that give us control of our world, that open doors to what is possible on earth. Good teachers take hold of anything and everything that makes learning exciting.

But that's not the right phrasing. The very vocabulary of "making learning exciting" reveals the assumption that learning is a dull, lifeless thing that has to be jazzed up, or candy-coated, to appear to be anything other than boring. In fact, learning is just the opposite of boring. Learning is a natural stimulant. We need to get out of its way, rather than shoving it into, or shoveling it onto, learners. Good teachers understand this in their bones. Good instructional designers, too. And good learning technologists.

And that's exactly why this current generation of Web 2.0 technologies is so powerful. There are thousands of ways to make use of them, to get in the flow, to keep students engaged with the truths that will change them, that will open doors for them, that will give them control of their lives and the ability to affect their world for good. Innovations are just waiting, begging, for the light of day.

Take text messaging. Why has texting not replaced hand-raising in class? Why is it not the standard approach to question and answer sessions? Set up a website to receive text messages, list them on a page, compile them for the teacher, and block out the name of the sender so it's anonymous. Suddenly, every cell phone becomes a clicker, a polling device, a way to get at what students are really thinking. Students will communicate in their preferred manner. They won't shut down when they enter class, they will power up. And their teachers will get the real deal, the actual thoughts and ideas of students. The back row will vanish. Is this a good idea? I think so. And so do these people:

The technology is already available. And guess what... for a class of up to 30 people, it's free. And that's just one example. There are hundreds of these. There are hundreds of creative ways to make use of technologies, big and small. But if we wait for Gen Y to clamor for them, it will be too late. That wedge we've been driving all these years will turn into a coffin nail. And that coffin will be buried under a headstone bearing the name of Lemming Number 289.

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