Reflection in an Always-on Learning Environment: Has It Been Turned Off?

By Helen L. Chen
Stanford University

Who are the students entering today's colleges and universities? Sometimes referred to as the Net Generation or Millennials (students born in or after 1982), we know that this is a group that has never known a world without computers and the Internet. The Kaiser Family Foundation recently released a study on "Generation M: Media in the Lives of 8-18 year olds" ( which found that not only are children and teens interacting with media (including TV, videos, music, video games, computers, movies and print) for non-school activities on average 6 hours per day, but a quarter to a third of these students are multi-tasking, and using another form of media while reading, using a computer, or listening to music. Video game designer and writer Marc Prensky uses the metaphor of digital natives vs. digital immigrants ( to suggest that these kinds of experiences (video game playing, interactions via instant messaging, email, and cell phones, watching MTV) have actually changed the physical structure of digital natives' brains, how they think, and consequently how they learn.

Educause's Diana Oblinger describes how the expectations of this generation have implications for all aspects of college life. Faculty and instructors will find the learning styles of these students oriented towards teamwork, experiential activities, and the use of technology such as online discussions or simulations. Institutions must provide students with a campus infrastructure that enables them to be connected anytime and anywhere through cell phones, email, and instant messaging. Administrators and staff must meet a strong expectation for excellent customer service and immediacy with a low tolerance for delays during the admissions process, and in student services and academic advising. The learning environment that students reside in is one that is characterized by multitasking, visual orientation, immediate gratification, and parallel processing (

One could argue that coping with information overload and developing the cognitive skills to effectively manage and critically evaluate and communicate information are essential to 21st century literacy and students' future success. However, my concern lies with what these digital natives may be losing in the process, namely the opportunity and the skills to effectively reflect on their learning experiences for the purpose of turning those experiences into meaningful and reusable knowledge. Blog historian, Rebecca Blood, states: "We are being pummeled by a deluge of data and unless we create time and spaces in which to reflect, we will be left with only our reactions" ( From Marc Prensky's perspective, this is both a challenge and an opportunity for educators: how to build reflection and critical thinking into the learning process but in a language and format that is relevant to how today's students understand and live their lives.

The issue is not just about providing time to reflect, but recognizing that reflection for the purpose of learning is a skill that needs to be taught, possibly through an apprenticeship model. For example, at Middlebury College (VT), lecturer Barbara Ganley ( has incorporated blogs (a web application that contains date and time-stamped posts, weblinks, and commenting features on a common web page) in her creative writing courses. In asking her students to make their thoughts public and open to commentary, to share their works in progress, and to be exposed to their peers and class community, she realized that as the instructor she also needed to engage in the same activities and risks she was asking her students to take. She did so by blogging on her own growth and evolution as a humanities and writing teacher integrating technology into the classroom. For both faculty and students, blogs have the potential to encourage reflective thinking and community building through "blogging-as-conversation" rather than just "blogging-as-monologue."

Another example of how reflection can be reframed for today's students is through such tools as electronic learning portfolios or e-portfolios. Reflection is an essential component of an e-portfolio and is inherent both in the process of portfolio creation (selecting which artifacts to include and juxtaposing learning experiences in a digital space) as well as the actual portfolio product (through annotations on individual or groups of artifacts which can then serve as a concrete context for reflection with an advisor or mentor). At St. Olaf College (MN) (, students in individually-designed majors create e-portfolios in web pages. They use hyperlinks to illustrate the connections they have made among their courses, jobs and internships, clubs and organizations, studies abroad, and research experiences. The opportunity to create a rich representation of learning experiences while incorporating various media-photographs, documents, video, sketches, music-can be intrinsically motivating for students. At the same time, the public nature of e-Portfolios can enhance or otherwise alter social interaction and communication by facilitating the sharing of experiences and increasing occasions for dialogue and feedback among students, faculty, prospective employers, and the larger community.

The conceptual framework of the Learning Landscape, co-developed by Tracy Penny-Light of the University of Waterloo (Ontario, Canada) and David Tosh of the University of Edinburgh (UK) (, is one approach to thinking about the varied domains that comprise students' lives - academic, community, and workplace - and the overlapping areas that offer the most potential for integration, transfer, and re-use of knowledge in other learning contexts. In this model, e-portfolios support intentional learners who are able to adapt to new environments and situations, synthesize experiences from a variety of courses and environments, inside and outside the classroom, on campus and off campus, in face-to-face and virtual environments, and during and beyond their undergraduate years (see the Integrative Learning Project co-sponsored by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching at

Blogs and e-portfolios are two examples of the social software tools that might scaffold more reflection for our digital natives. We also can assign "shared-author essays" where two students write alternating paragraphs of an essay, in the process gaining access to self-reflection and a sense of audience, or how other's make meaning. The adaptation of these, and other emerging social software tools, has great promise for encouraging the development of intellectual coherence and integrative capacities in our future graduates. While these "always on" students are in our charge, it is our responsibility to help them make meaningful and lasting connections as they live their frenetic lifestyles.

--Helen L. Chen (hlchen at is a research scientist at the Stanford Center for Innovations in Learning ( and co-facilitator of the Electronic Portfolios Community of Practice (EPAC).

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