Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation

Hear more from Ryan Schaaf and other innovative analysts, thought leaders, and educators at the 2018 Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC), January 23-26 in Orlando, Florida. Learn more here.

by Ryan L. Schaaf

Series Synopsis: Due to continuous digital bombardment and the emergence of the new digital landscape, today’s youth process information, interact and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation before them. Meanwhile, many of us, having grown up in a relatively low-tech, stable, and predictable world, are constantly struggling with the speed of change, technological innovation and the freedom to access the overwhelming sea of information online – all defining characteristics of the digital world of both today and the swiftly-approaching future.

“The Internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication since the invention of call waiting.” —Dave Barry 

The first learning attribute we’ll explore in this series is that digital learners prefer receiving information quickly from multiple, hyperlinked digital sources. Traditionally, the most-common educational approach involved a slow and controlled release of information from limited, non-digital sources.

Digital learners have spent their entire lives operating at twitch speed and suffer from FOMO—Fear of Missing Out. According to Larry Rosen (2010), three-quarters of teens and young adults check their devices every fifteen minutes or less, and if not allowed to do so, they become highly anxious. Many of them—and many of us—can’t get through a day without constantly scanning, texting, calling, tweeting, or logging into a digital world that has become so deeply embedded in our lives that living without it seems almost impossible.

Instant Information

Many kids arrive at kindergarten with a fast-food mentality and an expectation for instant access, instant gratification, instant feedback, instant recognition, instant success and instant change. This death of patience—the need to constantly be connected—is primarily due to their lifelong exposure to video games, handheld devices, smartphones, hypertext and all of the other aspects of our increasingly digital, high-paced world. Because of chronic digital bombardment, the digital generations have had a great deal more experience processing information at a far faster rate than older generations have. The always-on generations have fast-twitch wiring—digital is their native language, and instant gratification is their way of life.

Understanding the Need for Speed

The challenge that many traditional educators face is that they haven’t had the same kind of online, high-speed experiences that their students have. As a result, it’s completely understandable that many traditional teachers feel comfortable only when they’re processing information at the conventional speeds they’ve experienced most of their lives. Consequently, they don’t always understand or appreciate the digital generations’ chronic need for speed.

Digital learners spend hundreds, if not thousands of hours of their lives before and after school and on weekends and holidays playing video games, surfing the web, wandering around in virtual environments, and using their smartphones, tablets or other digital devices. Then they come to school, where many of them tell us that they feel like they’ve run into a wall when they’re confronted by the awesome technological power of an overhead projector or dry-erase board.

Imagine students as they leave the outside world and enter the classroom. Outside school, they’re interacting with friends, using social media on smartphones and iPads, listening to playlists of music that they’ve downloaded from the Internet or making and sharing videos on YouTube. Meanwhile, at school, they get to carry around heavy backpacks of books and listen to teachers talk at them while they take notes using a pen and paper. Can there be a starker contrast between the two halves of their lives? They’re in the 21st century when they’re at home and in the community, and they’re in the 20th century at school.

If we want to really connect with the digital generations, we need to start by acknowledging the absolute centrality of digital culture in their lives, and we need to be willing, at least part of the time, to acknowledge, accept, embrace, and show respect for the digital world that is an every- day and internalized part of their lives. To do this, we must meet them where they are, taking the time necessary to rethink our roles so that students don’t have to radically repackage what they learn in school to make it relevant to their personal lives.

But that’s part of the ongoing problem we’ve been encountering in education. Throughout history, educators have regularly struggled and resisted trying to come to terms with new innovations and tools that are central to society, only to change their minds later—typically much later—when the educational value of the innovations and tools finally becomes clear.

The National Association of State Boards of Education (2012), one of the most conservative educational organizations in the United States, released a report called Born in Another Time: Ensuring Educational Technology Meets the Needs of Students Today—and Tomorrow, which suggested that schools could no longer be the last place to catch up to the present.

They suggest that students need to be using smartphones, iPads, and other personal digital devices as academic tools for research and learning, the same way students use Bunsen burners or microscopes. Particularly in times of budgetary shortfalls, it’s absolutely foolish not to allow students to use these devices in schools for educational purposes. Rather than banning these devices from classrooms, we should be showing students how to use them appropriately.

Put simply, the message to educators is this: the world has changed—it’s time for us to acknowledge it. It’s time for us to get over it and get on with adequately preparing our students for the world that awaits them once they leave school, not just preparing them for the world we experienced when we were growing up.

Digital learners today have access to the greatest collection in human history—the Internet. Students can access over one trillion interconnected webpages and resources and use them to construct their own knowledge. However, to effectively use the power of the Internet, students and teachers alike must be able to distinguish between the flash and substance of online resources.

Strategies that Work

What follows next are some strategies, apps, and resources for educators to consider using with learners to access their preference to receive information quickly from multiple, hyperlinked digital sources.

Wikipedia is a multilingual, collaboratively edited, free online encyclopedia that contains over 30 million articles in 287 languages. Due to large-scale editing by numerous, unverified sources, Wikipedia has been dismissed by many as an unreliable, untrustworthy resource. Should Wikipedia entries be trusted? The answer is yes and no. Wikipedia is a wonderful tool for starting the research process. Each entry is organized and categorized into relevant subheadings, and important vocabulary terms are linked to other Wikipedia articles to allow readers to investigate the subject in greater depth.

To be clear, Wikipedia should never be used as the final source or solution for research. Rather, it must be considered as a starting point for any research journey. Whether it is on Wikipedia or any other source, students must learn how to analyze, triangulate, and authenticate the information they find.

Google Earth is a virtual globe, map, and geo-information program. It combines satellite and aerial imagery to construct a simulated planet Earth. Over the years, additional features and plug-ins have revolutionized the program, transforming it into a versatile tool for students and teachers alike. Users can construct or view 3-D models of buildings and land features, participate in a virtual world tour, visit important landmarks, and click on Wikipedia articles and panoramic views to learn about points and events of interest. The mapping program also includes additional layers to its display such as political borders, location labels, roads, photos, weather, traffic, earthquake locations, volcanic activity, historical mode (to view back in time), and much, much more. Pretty much every content area can benefit from the use of Google Earth.

eBooks aren’t just digital copies based on traditional books. Many are now hyperlinked road maps to a multilayered reading and viewing experience. In traditional books, if a new word or concept challenges a reader, the reader has to stop and research the word or skip it and lose out on a potential learning experience. With an eBook, readers have their choice to read the text from beginning to end as in traditional books or read in a nonlinear fashion by stopping, performing deeper research and reflection, then returning to the text where they left off.

Developed by Bernie Dodge, WebQuests are inquiry-oriented lessons where most or all the information that learners work with comes from the web. Learners are introduced to tasks they must accomplish and have their work evaluated based on set criteria.

For additional strategies, please consider purchasing the award-winning book Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation: Strategies and Apps that Work.

In our next installment of the series, we will explore the digital generations’ preference for parallel processing and multitasking.