The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It's a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.
Young Americans under 30 are the first to have grown up digital. Growing up at a time when cell phones, the Internet, texting and Facebook are as normal as the refrigerator. This interactive media immersion at a formative stage of life has affected their brain development and consequently the way they think and learn.
Some writers, of course, think that Google makes you stupid; it's so hard to concentrate and think deeply amid the overwhelming amounts of bits of information online, they contend. Mark Bauerlein, an English professor at Emory University, even calls them the "dumbest generation" in his recent book on the topic.
My research suggests these critics are wrong. Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that will help them handle the challenges of the digital age. They're used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What's more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what's going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia.
Two problems here:
1) The ability to look anything up on the net is not the same as knowing how to think critically. Wikipedia epitomizes this perfectly: even though it may be factually accurate, critical analysis and judgment is sorely lacking. Here is an example of what passes for analysis that I ran across the other day, about The Dream Life of Balso Snell, a novel by Nathanael West:
The lack of a coherent plot structure, the juvenile humor and the abundant scatological details are all intended to aggravate, perplex and annoy readers. The desired result, according to West, is a book that is “a protest against writing books”. The juvenileness and incoherence of the novel prompt critics to disregard it as merely “a sneer in the bathroom mirror at Art” (Alan Ross), “squalid and dreadful” (Harold Bloom)and “a hysterical, obscure, disgusted shriek against the intellect” (James F. Light). Nevertheless, by its complete and disgusted rejection of all religious, political and artistic ideals The Dream Life of Balso Snell foreshadows the nihilism of West’s next novels.
This might get you a passing score in a 9th Grade essay. Maybe.
The primary role of a university education is to, however they accomplish it, teach critical thinking, no matter what you major in. And education isn't about 'waiting for a trusted professor to tell [you] what's going on', it's about having that professor guide you through your first tentative steps of critical thinking in a particular subject - whether it's science or literary criticism or business or whatever.
And that leads directly to problem 2:
2) I'm not convinced that a new generation as mastered information overload and multitasking - people who revel in information overload tend to mistake access to information for the ability to make sense of information. To learn a difficult subject like your typical Freshman Newtonian physics, requires the ability to concentrate, to focus on your subject and manipulate it in your mind until you understand it. Professors need to help wiki-generation students learn to slow down and focus.
To be fair, the article isn't about replacing lectures with Wikipedia (I suggest following the link and reading the whole thing). Lectures are an awful way to learn for many (myself included), but the problem is, lectures are an easy way to teach. The new teaching methods detailed in the piece are hard, at least in the beginning, requiring some serious up-front effort.
(For those of you who don't get the title of the post, please click.)