3 Take-aways: Educating the Net Generation

Kvavik (2005) studied undergraduate students’ attitudes and use of technology for learning. For me, the most interesting take-aways from this research were the differences in technology preferences between students from different major subject areas. For example, while 67.8% of engineering students surveyed reported a preference for extensive technology use in their classes, only 39.3% of fine-arts majors did so (Kvavik, 7.10). To me, however, the most fascinating statistic was that only 42.9% of education majors preferred extensive technology use; in fact, just over half of the education majors preferred either limited technology or no technology at all in their college classes. Given the essential role of motivation in learning, I would hope that our next generation of educators would understand the unique advantages of blended and online learning, and embrace technology in their own learning accordingly.

In my experience as an Education Technology Specialist, I work with many new teachers and undergraduate interns, some of whom are young enough to themselves be so-called digital natives. Although most of the new teachers I work with are more accepting of technology use in the classroom, a surprising number of them are hesitant to use more technology in their own lessons. I believe this hesitance can have many causes, including a lack of familiarity with digital learning tools, a tendency to rely on more-experienced (and, often, less-computer-savvy) mentor teachers for lesson ideas, and (in at least a few cases) general anxiety about using computers. Of course, most young teachers I work with are extremely enthusiastic about adopting technology tools in their own classrooms–but I think we shouldn’t assume that, even in the education field, all young people are always ready, willing, or able to use technology, just as we shouldn’t assume that all experienced teachers are slow to adapt to new technology. For these reasons, I think any use of the terms digital-native and digital-immigrant should be taken with significant grains of salt.

Ramaley and Zia (2005) wrote that 21st Century learners have a strong need to feel connected in an immediate sense (p. 8.7). I have sensed this strong desire to be in the know among a lot of teenagers and young adults I work with. Technology now allows people to learn almost as much as they desire about whatever subjects interest them. My youngest son, for example, like many other pre-teens, has recently cultivated an interest in water-bottle flipping. At first I had trouble understanding my son’s motivations for flipping a half-full bottle of water, and I must admit the repetitive sound of the bottle hitting the ground is quite annoying to me personally.

When I dug a little deeper, however, I started to realize that his bottle-flipping is motivated by his interactions with an online community of practice. He and his friends share YouTube videos of unusually difficult or impressive feats of water-bottle flipping. Thankfully, my son’s bottle-flipping is not a clever ploy to annoy me, but rather a challenging kinesthetic puzzle that he self-reinforces by trying to emulate and improve upon the bottle-flipping tricks he has seen online. The savvy teacher understands this generational reality and, rather than fighting it, tries to exploit it. I wonder if the right set of YouTube videos (or other educational media tools) already exist that might ignite the same level of interest and passion for academic learning that my son and his friends have already developed for bottle-flipping!

Of course, finding the right tools and instructional methods to successfully motivate 21st Century learners is easier said than done. Clayton-Pedersen and O’Neill (2005) wrote that many university faculty members, for example, receive very little support with the very difficult task of integrating technology into their instructional practice (p. 9.6). Even now, eleven years later, many of my colleagues who teach at both the K-12 and college levels tell me that they lack the time, training, and/or technology resources to modify their lessons as much as they would like to. As an administrative colleague of mine frequently quips, if curriculum can be likened to the design of an airplane, then the task of education reform is akin to modifying the airplane’s design while it is in the air.

As a trainer of busy teachers, I try to emphasize small, incremental steps that teachers can make. Most teachers do not want to immediately and radically redesign their entire curriculum from the ground up, nor should anyone expect them to do so. But as Clayton-Pedersen and O’Neill suggest, there are small- and medium-scale ways to implement technology into a curriculum, like incorporating multiple media into a project and/or allowing students some flexibility in determining how they can demonstrate their learning (p. 9.9). Last week I observed a middle-school teacher who had assigned her students a small-group Google Slides presentation about a specific topic. Aside from the fact that each student was using a Chromebook to do basic research and collaborate on his or her group’s slide deck, the assignment was virtually identical to a paper poster presentation I might have been assigned when I was in junior-high school 30 years ago. I think it’s important to remind my fellow educators that, while technology does require us to modify our practice to meet our students’ needs, it does not compel us to reinvent the wheel.


Clayton-Pedersen, A., & O’Neill, N. (2005). Curricula designed to meet 21st-century expectations. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: Educause. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf 

Kvavik, R. (2005). Convenience, communications, and control: How students use technology. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: Educause. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf 

Ramaley, J., & Zia, L. (2005). The real versus the possible: Closing the gaps in engagement and learning. In D. G. Oblinger & J. L. Oblinger (Eds.), Educating the net generation. Washington, DC: Educause. Retrieved from http://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/pub7101.pdf


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