Are you teaching high-bandwidth kids?

22 November 2012 2,538 views No Comment

Taylor (2005) points out how academically disengaged the “Millennial” generation is. Members are uninvolved in civic activities, and uninterested in studying. They can be described as perennially bored. The challenge for educators is to engage students who are used to being bombarded with entertainment through videos, TV, games, and surfing the net. This generation is used to being in control of their entertainment, much more so than their parents. Instead of turning on the TV when their show is on, they can watch on demand – and choose whether they want to download or stream. They can even head on over to Youtube, where there is plenty of free, unsyndicated content for constant consumption. Youtube will even keep suggesting new videos for you to watch, so you don’t have to deal with entertainment ever ending.

The availability of unlimited entertainment on-demand has given rise to a generation that feels entitled (Taylor, 2005). Entitled to what? Everything! Everything they want, anyway, as long as the choice is theirs. This does not go well in the typical academic environment where students cannot always choose their courses and certainly cannot always choose the work they do in class. It can be hard to sustain attention and interest when you are suddenly not in control. The eternal student refrain of “why do we need to know this?” has become more than just a complaint – it now determines whether students will tune in or not.

The question facing educators today is how best to reach these students, and more importantly how to cater to their different needs. Despite the presence of technology in the classroom for nearly 30 years, in one form or another, the schooling system hasn’t really changed that much (Buckingham, 2007). Despite predictions of widespread reform, my children’s classrooms look and sound much like the one I studied in 25 years ago. Papert suggested that within a few years of introducing computer to education, there would be a revolution in the way children are taught. This vision has not come to pass, and it is my opinion that it cannot happen the way that he envisioned it.

The dream of pure constructivism, although it sounds attractive, does not really describe the ideal educational environment. Additionally, the fear that many teachers have had over the years about being replaced by a machine are also unrealistic, for the same reason. Children have an innate drive to explore and control their learning, as well as their play – and the natural way for young children to learn is through play. However, if all learning was self directed we could never benefit from the knowledge that others had discovered. We would all spend our lives rediscovering the same things that our peers were rediscovering at the same time – and the next generation would do the same. We would lose our ability to stand on each other’s shoulders and see farther than anyone before us.

Learning should be engaging, and interesting for students; however, not all aspects of learning can be fun. There will always be pre-requisite knowledge and required activities that may or may not appeal to a particular student – at times these can be optional, but often learning would suffer if necessary steps are skipped. Learning should be engaging – but engagement does not always equal fun. Learning should definitely be geared towards the “new” student who not only is used to more media consumption than their parents, but can also handle more stimulation than their parents’ generation.

The same way that more “bandwidth” means we can download larger files over the Internet, today’s students can handle larger amounts of information “bandwidth.” This means they can be taught with so much more than text and lecture, without getting overwhelmed. We can use games, interactivity, and self directed activities – together with teacher guidance and sometimes yes, a pre-set curriculum – to teach students on a much deeper level than we ourselves were taught. We can not only teach memorization of previous knowledge, but we can inculcate critical thinking skills and promote discovery of new knowledge, using engagement and media.

Buckingham, D. (2007). Beyond technology: Children’s learning in the age of digital culture. Wiley-Blackwell.

Taylor, M. (2005). Generation NeXt: Today’s postmodern student-meeting, teaching, and serving. In a collection of papers on self-study and institutional improvement, 2005, 2, 99-107. Chicago: The Higher Learning Commission.

Elisa teaches online professional development courses for teachers at
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