IT Training: Do We Have to Talk the Talk?
Should we teach kids in the l33t Net language they use? ROFL!*
MY 12-YEAR-OLD SON sent me an e-mail the other day, full of acronyms,
numbers, and punctuation symbols that looked more like a foreign language than
like English. Such language is common for the younger generation; it’s used
in e-mail, chat, forums, etc. The same youngster will sit at a computer with
multiple instant messenger windows open, an iPod blasting music to his ears,
the TV running in the background, and a textbook open in front of him. This
is his idea of doing homework. Diana Oblinger, a keynote speaker at the recent
Syllabus2005 conference in Hollywood, CA, refers to him as a “Net Generation
learner.” Others use terms like “Generation-Y,” “digital native,” or “millennial
student.” Regardless of terminology, they are referring to someone born in the
last 30 years or so, who has always or mostly known a life with computers. More
importantly, growing up in a technology- enabled world impacts how these Net
Generation students learn, and thus how we teach.
All of us live in a tech-enabled world, and so all of us are impacted by it
as learners, as teachers, as workers, and at leisure. At Southeast Missouri
State, we have begun using the term “21st century learner” to include those
digital natives but also we digital immigrants who are influenced and impacted
by technology in and out of the classroom. Students today communicate via cell
phones, text messaging, e-mail, chat, and instant messenger. They “google” information,
and thus have turned the name of a search engine’s Web site into a verb.
These students are growing up “wired.” They expect instant access to
infinite amounts of information. They want it all; they want it now. More importantly,
they learn differently, or at the very least, the way in which information is
communicated and processed is different for a digital native. The advent of
Google and the like have led to an expectation that the right answer will always
be found, and in many cases, that it will be the first answer found. This d'es
lead to a concern that while these students know how to get answers quickly,
they are not as good at evaluating the accuracy, integrity, or validity of what
they find. As such, information literacy has become a hot topic for educators
who wish to instruct students on how to locate, gather, verify, analyze, synthesize,
and recraft information correctly.
Twenty-first century learners have different expectations of teachers, of the
content, of the delivery, and of access to that content. This leaves to the
teachers to decide if we should adjust the way we we teach to meet their needs
and expectations, and if so, how to adjust or adapt. Finally, if we do concede
to the needs of 21st century learners, how far do we go to meet them?
Communication is probably one of the greatest differences between this generation
and previous ones. Multiple means of communication are available and utilized.
Each method has its own rules, protocols and languages.
Modes like chat or text
messaging require tedious and/or quick input. The use of acronyms (e.g., LOL
to mean “laughing out loud”), phonetic characters and words (e.g., k for “OK,”
ic for “I see,” afk for “away from the keyboard,” etc.), numbers (2 for “to,”
4 for “for,” L8r for “later,” etc.), and even emoticons (e.g., :-) for a smile)
yield dialogue almost unintelligible to the rest of us. These mutations of English
show up in e-mail as well, though perhaps to a lesser degree. E-mail etiquette
has changed the rules regarding punctuation, capitalization, etc.; even verbal
(as well as text-messaging) conversation via the telephone requires a different
form of abbreviated English. Students, intentionally or not, expect us to be
able to communicate in the same pseudo-language they have adopted. Failure to
do so on our part may lead to poorer communication.
This d'esn’t mean we have to communicate in acronyms, but it may mean that
a little effort on our part to understand some common chat language could pay
off, as could simply being open-minded and flexible when having to read this
eEnglish. On the other hand, it shouldn’t require that we start trying to e-mail
our students with excessive emoticons, acronyms, etc. By the way (btw), there
are dozens of online chat and/or emoticon dictionaries online (www.netlingo.com
is one) that can be entertaining reading.
Aggregation and Wireless Expectation
Collecting material on a course Web site is another way to gear our teaching
toward 21st century learners. Smaller units of information play to the information-processing
approach these students take. Understanding that from the students’ perspective,
the answer to everything can be found on Google (and is almost always the first
“hit”), can help us understand the origin of some assignment answers. It also
provides us an opportunity to stress aspects of information literacy. Of course,
certain technologies lend themselves to student expectations of instant information
access, anytime, anywhere. Wireless connectivity, of course, is a key element
Tablet PCs are a useful 21st century learner technology, as are instant polling
devices, PDAs, and the like. These can all provide personalized, convenient,
and instant access to information during class time. Important characteristics
of these devices are their interactivity and relative ease of use; both play
into the hands of digital natives as well as digital immigrants.
What Are the
Are there risks in trying to adapt to the 21st century learner? That is, should
we adjust our teaching to this new learning and communication style? Should
we let the wants, needs, and expectations of this new type of learner totally
redefine how we teach? Or, should we do “what’s best for them,” and not change
how we teach at all? After all, the world they will enter is still (at least
for the time being) dominated by us— the digital immigrants. Wouldn’t it be
better for students to learn how to deal with us and do things our way? The
likely answer is that we need to meet these students somewhere in between, adjusting
to their eLearning style, but maintaining some of the traditional approaches
that we know are in their best interest.
For instance, we can be more understanding and tolerant of their use of acronyms
and emoticons in online discussions, yet still encourage them to use standard
English to author a term paper. Yet, the facts are these: Today’s college grads
have little or no memory of a life without computers; non-traditional students
have learned to utilize modern technologies in many aspects of their lives;
and we, too, are providing technologies to enhance learning and the access to
learning. We may be a bit slower in adjusting our teaching to meet the needs
of students in the tech-enabled global community, but it’s time to catch up.
The 21st century learner is here. Are your faculty members ready to be 21st
(*For a description of l33t, go to www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A787917.
ROFL means: Rolling on the floor laughing.)
Think your campus is physically secure? Take this quiz.
- A full description of Diana Oblinger’s Net Generation learner can be found on the Educause Web site, including a link to a streamed version of her Educause 2004 presentation on the topic. And see her Syllabus2005 keynote address
- More about teaching digital natives can be found in the recently released Educating the Net Generation from Educause
- Education and learning visionary Marc Prensky describes digital natives and digital immigrants at www.marcprensky.com.
- Another good digital native education source: Millennials Go to College: Strategies for a New Generation on Campus (Strauss and Howe, American Association of Collegiate Registrars, 2003).
- A few articles related to the evolving language of the Net-Gen student can be found in the February 2004 issue of AFT On Campus, and the June 19, 2003 issue of Syllabus IT Trends Online.
- Good resources for information literacy can be found at: www.infolit.org and www.ala.org.