Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Perhaps Our Kids Really Are Smarter Than We Were: Technology and E-Learning

Podcast / downloadable mp3 file.

I had an interesting conversation with my son about e-learning and social networking. He described the way the Internet makes one think and behave differently. I have to admit that I was just sort of nodding in agreement, when he started to describe how and why adolescents of today do not feel the need to succumb to peer pressure when it comes to experimenting with drugs.

“We’re smarter than your generation, Mom,” he said. “We’ve moved beyond that. We evolved.”

I have to say I disagree with him that teens are not affected by peer pressure. I see peer pressure as a part of social learning and group conditioning, both from a behavioral standpoint and a cognitive one.

Nevertheless, my son’s rationale made me pause for a moment and reflect my beliefs and attitudes about the knowledge and skills bases of today’s (and tomorrow’s) learners.

Could my son be right? Are kids today smarter than my generation when we were kids? Part of me agrees, for the following reasons:

1. Tech-savvy kids are adept at managing large amounts of data with technology. They are also used to teaching themselves how to solve problems in an interactive environment. As James Paul Gee has described in his book, What Video Games Have to Teach Us about Teaching and Learning (2004), when playing a video game, the average child learns quickly how to do effective task analysis in a “real-time” setting and to obtain the necessary information which is available on-demand in order to achieve the goal. This is a perfect example of situated, outcomes-oriented learning, and children of this generation are extremely skilled at it by age 6 or 7, depending on how long they’ve been playing video games.

2. Today’s generation of youth are exposed to vast quantities of information, and they learn to manage, classify, use, and dismiss what is not useful to them. While this is an excellent skill it also may result in distressingly extensive lacunae, that is to say, gigantic gaps in knowledge. If the information is not immediately applicable and relevant to one’s life, it is ignored or dismissed. The positive aspect of this approach is that the average tech-savvy kid will have encyclopedic knowledge in areas that interest him or her. This might include audio files, “cheats” for games, movies on DVD. On the other hand, he or she may know little or nothing about world geography.

3. With the new social networking sites, tech-savvy kids are becoming adept at social development learning, which has been described by Vygotsky and others. According to this theory, people learn through social interaction, and it does not matter whether or not it is face-to-face or virtual. It follows, then, that kids who spend hours instant-messaging or interacting with social networking spaces such as myspace.com, livejournal.com, xanga.com and others, will have experienced an accelerated pace of learning.

4. Comfort with searching and finding information that helps them achieve their objectives in a short period of time is something to marvel at when seeing it in action. Teen-agers are creating web-based businesses of all sorts, and have been extremely effective at generating traffic and revenues. They are also adept at using the internet to solve logistical problems, and they use Mapquest, Google-earth, UPS tracking, US Postal service (create your own stamps, etc.) with great success.

5. Image manipulation is not only easy for tech-savvy kids, it is also accompanied by the awareness that each digital image is manipulated, resulting in a worldview that does not necessarily trust appearances.

When one considers how kids have been spending their free time with information technology, it is no wonder that they are bored by school. You don’t have to be an “Indigo Child” (http://www.indigochild.com/) to find a 50-minute traditional class where students sit dutifully in hard chairs behind desks, listening to the teacher, taking notes, then taking tests, to be utterly stultifying. It is enough to convince a parent that homeschool or “unschooling” (http://www.unschooling.com/) could actually be better than a structured classroom experience.

Thinking about my son’s words, I try to imagine how the current generation of teen-agers might view their Generation X and Baby Boomer parents. The words “narcissistic” and “self-absorbed” occur to me immediately, as I think of the high divorce rates, the “me generation,” the “yuppies,” and bizarre custody battles in which more concern was given to the family cat and rights to the time-share than to the kids. I do believe that my son has a point. Boomer generations can been seen as resisting the notion that everything is always in flux, and that nothing is permanent; thus one can never be smug or complacent. A failure to embrace the notion of constant technological change and upgrades sets up internal resistance to new ideas and structures. I can see how this could lead to a failure to communicate in any meaningful way about process and procedures.

It occurs to me that Boomer and Gen-X parents do not quite realize that the Internet, watching media (including films and television), and playing video games are not the same passive activities that they were during Leave It to Beaver or Pong days. Video games are massively multi-player, so playing them requires a great deal more range, skill, and communication ability. When they download and edit movies and music, play games, and communicate with friends, tech-savvy kids are problem-solving, recognizing patterns, increasing hand-eye coordination, cataloguing events, determining cause-effect relationships, predicting sequences, and more.

Further, as they download music and film, they develop extreme film and music literacy. Granted, it’s not in a form that is easily tested, and the knowledge gained here won’t make anyone a wunderkind in the local No Child Left Behind test battery. Nevertheless, they do know how to get the information. The trick is to turn it into knowledge, and knowledge that can be used.

While a great deal of effort is expended in creating online courses and education programs that will appeal to adults, operating under the assumption that the adult learner needs to have the course content presented in a certain way for learning to take place, perhaps it is not too far-fetched to say that the same principles apply to tech-savvy kids.

The specific activities required in the lessons will be different, and the way the material is used will vary. However, the following three learning outcomes can accommodate both generations. Upon successful completion of the course, the student should be able to

1. Make connections between unrelated and/or related items and to support the connections with a rationale based on close analysis of the items;

2. Solve problems using the material and concepts presented in the learning module;

3. Engage in metacognitive tasks and develop skills such as generalization, classification, and abstraction that can transfer from one course to another.

In the meantime, it probably would not be a bad idea to start putting a renewed emphasis on ethics and ethical behavior. After all, this generation and the one after it will be taking care of us one day.

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