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Look up a word in a real dictionary? That is so last millennium.

Life and learning in the digital age

how the generations gap

By Billie Wahlstrom

January 3, 2006

When classes began at the University of Minnesota this fall, we had five generations on campus, generations separated by years and by technological changes with tremendous and unanticipated social and cultural effects. World events have shaped each generation, certainly, but as Thomas Friedman has pointed out, increasingly, world events are being shaped by technology. Cell phones and the Internet are as integral to the terrorist attacks in London and Spain as they are to our daily activities.

This fall, the University will be home to the G.I Generation (born 1901-1924), Silent Generation (1925-1942), Baby Boomers (1943-1960), Generation X (1961-1981), and the Millennials (the high school class of 2000 and beyond). Each approaches life and learning differently, but none is as different as the last generation--the Millennial generation--is from all the others. I understand these differences intellectually as an academic and an administrator, but as a parent I have been forced to learn what these generational differences mean in a more personal way.

I have three children--a son, 33, a daughter, 20, and a son, 13. The oldest and the youngest are constant reminders that we live in a liminal period marking the shift from analog technologies to digital ones. The oldest one, Mike, is my analog son and the youngest, Misha, my digital son. How differently these two see and interact with the world reflects these technological changes more than the 20 years that separate them. These differences also suggests the accommodations higher education will need to make to meet the needs of its newest generation of students.

When Misha [now 13 years old] gets to the U, he--like many of his generation--will be impatient; he will expect all information systems to know him and his preferences once he enters a single password; he will expect information and resources to be available all the time from everywhere; and he will expect faculty to answer his e-mail within the hour.

Mike, who graduated from the University of Minnesota, was shaped by an analog world where clocks had hands pointing at numbers, and we still go "clockwise" around the table to introduce ourselves at meetings. If I ask him the time, he says "about 20 minutes to 12." Misha inhabits a digital world; he doesn't know what "counter clockwise" means or that clocks had hands. These archaic concepts aren't taught at his school. If I ask him what time it is, he looks at his alarm clock, the microwave, the cable box, or the computer and says, "It's 8:27."

How these different generations see time isn't trivial because it reflects different understandings of how the world works. For Misha, information is ubiquitous, precise, and accessible almost everywhere. For Mike, the phone is one thing, but the television, computer games, and music systems are other things. For Misha, they are all the same thing. Phones take pictures, have text and games; refrigerators have Internet access; and cars have DVD players and GPS. My older son has some patience; Misha has almost none.

Imagine how this impatience, time awareness, and sense of ubiquitous information affects expectations in the classroom and how it shapes expectations of how information repositories such as libraries should work. Compare my generation's pleasure at leisurely browsing in the stacks with my digital son's demand for immediate answers to all questions from a Google search. Educause's The Key to Competitiveness summarizes these differences: "Whereas the older siblings and peers of [older students] may regard technology as important, [the Millennial] generation regards it as oxygen. They see no other way to work, form and maintain relationships, or pursue their education."

At the University of Minnesota, my analog son carried his ID to offices where he had to transact business face-to-face, stand in lines, walk to the library to find his books, and wait, sometimes, for interlibrary loans or his professor's office hours. When Misha gets to the U, he--like many of his generation--will be impatient; he will expect all information systems to know him and his preferences once he enters a single password; he will expect information and resources to be available all the time from everywhere; and he will expect faculty to answer his e-mail within the hour.

Faculty and staff have the responsibility of understanding the needs of all the generations at the University. Leading the way in this effort are the University libraries by moving collections into digital formats and online, providing information literacy courses for students so they can access and evaluate information, and by emphasizing the role of free speech and access in a digital democracy.

This last task isn't theirs alone, however. The whole University community must realize that how we as individuals see the world and the tools we prefer to navigate it may differ from others. Faculty must take their students' learning patterns and preferences into consideration as they develop classroom materials. Students have to understand how different generations' views of the world are shaped and what they mean in day-to-day interactions. Administrators have to provide professional development for faculty, and they have to fund libraries to continue their work.

In The Quiet Crisis, Peter Smith points out that our "educational model... has been in place since the 14th century," and, as he argues, if we fail to take advantage of the opportunities afforded to higher education by technology, we will retain "a system of education that is outdated, outmoded, and outlandish as an ox cart plodding down Interstate 405."

From the University Libraries publication, Continuum, Fall 2005. Billie Wahlstrom is vice provost for distributed education & instructional technology.