Generation of Like

Recently PBS Frontline broadcast a documentary on the role of social media and marketing among teenagers, providing an interesting view into the culture of the junior high and high school age young person as its being driven, manipulated, and influenced by social media, and as they in turn are driving, manipulating, and influencing the marketplace. The documentary underscored my long held belief that there is a growing impact and influence of social media at all levels of our institution, from IT, to the classroom as well as student admissions recruitment, the role of the library, the hiring of millennial’s, and fund-raising.

About a year ago, someone once asked me what kept me up at night. Rather than give the standard data security answer (which also keeps me awake given the recent data breaches in retail and a major research institution—I don’t sleep much), I responded that I didn’t feel that, in general, higher education is prepared for this next generation learner. Across the nation and in many school districts, the students in elementary and junior high school are being taught differently. “Sage from the stage” instruction is giving way to the more “guide from the side” instruction, where students are encouraged to collaborate and share in the learning process. Along with this evolutionary change, there is a greater reliance on electronic texts that is much more dynamic and current, as opposed to relying on physical textbooks that are nearly out of date by the time they reach publication. Instructors are using computer technologies like Twitter, student response systems, or some commercially developed active learning tools to more actively engage with all of their students. These are the students who will be sitting in our classrooms or connecting virtually to our fully online courses over the next 3-5 years.

To bring this into context, for the most part the current college student hasn’t been taught much differently than those of us educated prior to the digital revolution. While most college students and instructors have access to the Internet and computing devices, the instructional differences are only in the types and uses of the delivery media. For example, prior to the digital revolution, our instructors used overhead projectors. Today, it’s PowerPoint or Keynote on static slides. Our instructors used chalkboards as a central part of instruction. Today, most classrooms still have chalkboards or white boards installed, and in some cases we’ve added smart boards to print or more easily share the content, but again, just a change in medium. We took notes using paper and pen. Today’s students may use a computer or tablet to take notes. To survive a boring lecture, we doodled on a note pad, slept, or discretely read another book. Today’s students distract themselves with social media or web surfing (or they may sleep, doodle or read another book). We used printed textbooks. Today, most college courses are still using printed textbooks. Our libraries had a lot of books. Most of today’s libraries are still book centered (though this is changing). Again, our instructors were the “sage from the stage” instructors. In many disciplines, today’s instructors are functioning very similarly. I could continue with the comparisons, but you get the point; just because we’ve changed the media doesn’t mean we’ve engaged in the digital revolution—especially in the classroom.

Over the past year or so, we’ve starting to see evidence of the aforementioned cultural changes in the first and second year college students. These students, who are between 17 and 20 years old, have a very different perspective of the role and use of technology than the students who are 21 and older and it appears that the gap getting wider every year. These younger students are engaging in the use of technology and social media at a sophistication level that out paces the older students, marking them as the true digital natives.

So why is there a difference in these two groups of students? Many of these technologies and social media channels have been around for a while. As with all technology, availability and adoption are two different topics. Prior to years 2010/2011, tools like Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, Google+, etc. were used sporadically and more as a novelty. Since then, they are used to share nearly every aspect of a young person’s life. For example, Twitter added 500 million new users in 2012 who posted 340 million tweets per day! Along with this, we’re now seeing that using these tools can be monetized. So, in just a couple years, the difference between someone using the tools casually and someone fully engaged in their use is reflected in this younger demographic, which by the way, has also impacted their view of personal privacy and their willingness to integrate their personal, social, and academic lives.

I’ve included the PBS Frontline abstract and link to the documentary, Generation of Like, below. While there are some “creepiness” factors, if you take 54-mintues to view it, I think you’ll find it abundantly valuable. As you’re watching, consider how these tools can be incorporated in the areas you are responsible for. We need to not only prepare for this new generation of learner, but also engage with the tools that they are using. Ignoring the wave doesn’t make it go away or lessen its impact. However, if we can actively engage, I believe we can identify ways to shape the appropriate use of these tools, along with those on the horizon, and our students will receive the full benefit of the education and services we have to offer.

Abstract from Frontline

Thanks to social media, teens are able to directly interact with their culture — celebrities, movies, and brands—in ways never before possible. But is that real empowerment? Or do marketers hold the upper hand? In “Generation Like,” Douglas Rushkoff explores how the teen quest for identity has migrated to the web — and exposes the game of cat-and-mouse that corporations are playing with them.

ADDITIONAL NOTE: I recognize that there are many local schools and school districts finding it difficult to engage with technology due to budget problems. They have outdated, broken computers and may not have adequate computer support.  The gap in quality education has been there for a long time and probably won’t change much. Yet, the phenomenon that I share above and the information provided in the Frontline documentary remains to be true. Whether it’s 50% of the student population or 80%, the digital natives are going to have a much different expectation of instruction, service, and support from our institutions, our administration, and our faculty than ever before.

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