Connecting to the ‘net generation’

oblinger speaker
oblinger speaker
Diana Oblinger kicked off the President’s Speaker Series with her presentation “Educating the Net Generation” on Aug. 30 in the Clifford White Theater.

Like Alice in Wonderland, today’s college students learn by immersing themselves in alternate realities, and it is the university’s job to keep connected with students and their technology adventure, an information technology expert told an NAU audience of 300 people.

Diana Oblinger, vice president of EDUCAUSE, an organization promoting the intelligent use of information technology, kicked off the 2006-07 President’s Speakers Series with her presentation, “Educating the Net Generation” on Aug. 30 in the Clifford White Theater.

“When you see how technology is changing our culture, the implication is that we might want to do things differently with our learners,” Oblinger said. “You worry about the retention of students, about graduation and the expectation that you make them into better educated human beings. All of that has to do with connecting with them.”

Oblinger discussed how educators can understand and respond to the “net generation,” younger students accustomed to the rapid rate of technological change, unlike most older students who are busy juggling their family, careers and education.

The first step to connecting with students is understanding how they live and learn, she said, adding her observations that the net generation is comfortable in the digital world, constantly connected to information and used to immediacy.

2006-07 President’s
Speakers Series

Rufus Glasper 
Chancellor, Maricopa County Community College District
Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006
3 p.m., Ashurst Auditorium

Robert Shelton
President, University of Arizona
February 2007

John Haeger 
President, Northern Arizona University
April 2007

She said students learn through peers and visual stimulation and want to work on things that matter. They are experiential learners who are used to being engaged in a subject and they come from a do-it-yourself culture.

“Do you send things in the mail to students anymore? Two weeks, two days is too long. Two minutes is fine with e-mail, but two seconds with text messaging is even better,” she said. “It is not as if they are saying they want to be entertained. They want to be brought into a subject matter emotionally and intellectually engaged in what is going on.”

Oblinger said if universities want to engage students, they need to adapt more informal learning, which represents 90 percent of all adult learning.

“Our younger students have spent just as must time playing outside as they have spent in front of screen media. Think about the characteristics of screen media. It is visual, colorful and all kinds of things in a rapid pace,” Oblinger said. “We are beginning to understand that the brain reshapes itself based on this exposure. It’s called neuroplasticity. You might remember studies that looked at kids playing video games and within two weeks the synapses and the pathways for hand-eye response was dramatically different because it had rewired itself.”

Oblinger said it’s time for universities to rewire their way of thinking to begin to meet student needs. “For students, technology is simply a way of getting things done,” she said. “They’ve never known any kind of pace of change expect one that goes straight up.”

She cited examples of how advanced interface technology once used for computer games is now providing simulations for medical students and for hand-held devices that provide information when pointed at certain buildings or pieces of art in museums.

“Students are becoming like Alice in Wonderland,” she said. “They are comfortable using multi-user virtual learning environments that immerse them in a situation. It’s time to embrace this technology as a learning tool.”

Oblinger suggested that educators glean some of technologies attributes into non-technology situations, such as incorporating color into classrooms and unbolting desks and chairs so students can work in collaborative environments. “Since blogs, Googling for information and Facebook matter to students. We might want to adapt some of those features into ways we connect with them.”

According to Oblinger, technology is here to stay and educators should accept it.

She offered five suggestions to remember when working with the net generation:

  • Remember the basics: Learning is not just about covering content, it’s about developing competency. This is a connected, interactive generation; collaboration and interaction are important learning principles. Learning can occur anywhere, anytime. Technology must support good pedagogy.
  • Involve students: Students are consumers with a choice. They have a unique perspective on their learning environment. Not all students are alike, and language and perspectives differ. Oblinger suggests teachers “spend a day in their shoes.”
  • Consider the options: Reach students with different teaching options such as using more visuals and less reading. Provide a mixed delivery of online and face-to-face information.
  • Redefine space: Space should be shaped by learning rather than instruction and should be socially catalytic. Shift from classrooms to learning complexes.
  • Align technology with pedagogy: Don’t mistake use for integration. Understand what you want students to do.