The Millenial Whisperers

Over at The Chronicle, a forum post on using technology to teach Millenials has been sitting at the top of the queue for quite a while.  The discussion is interesting to me, as I happen to be a bit of a tech geek, but there’s something curious about the way the conversation is often framed both in this thread and elsewhere.  The OP posits that “Millennials are supposed to be quite different from the previous generation” in their use of technology.  The video linked to the post describes them as “digital natives,” a generation that has grown up amid digital technologies and social media, but as a member of a tech-saturated generation myself (different rubrics label me either as a Millenial or as Gen-Y, though I think those terms are sometimes used interchangably), I’m not sure that this relative comfort with communications media implies specific imperatives for the classroom.  I’m not sure that this generation is so profoundly “different” that technology must be used to “reach” them.

As this post at Historiann indicates (as well as this post on Not of General Interest, which Historiann links), universities and school systems are exerting increasing pressure upon instructors to implement new media and tech in the classroom:

Administrators love technology, because people think it’s doing something magically special for education so they buy it and want professors to use it regardless of its actual strengths and powers.

The belief that technology has magical powers in the classroom extends to this idea that using social media makes one a sort of Millenial Whisperer, as if this generation were a different species or culture (digital “native?”) communicating in foreign ways.  There’s a strange way in which this effort at bridging a generational gap has become decidedly othering.  What makes it worse is the way in which an affinity for new media has increasingly been depicted as a dependency or pathology.  (For what I think is a truly balanced looked at internet addiction see the work of research psychologist Nick Yee, who prefers the term “problematic usage” to addiction.)   While it’s true that you can hardly turn around without seeing an alarmist article about a kid who spontaneously combusted because his parents took away his World of Warcraft account, most Millenials actually are capable of functioning without the mediation of a computing device.

Most students are, in fact, quite accustomed to traditional classrooms, given that most public schools cannot afford to equip every class with state of the art equipment.  Last fall, I was assigned a classroom that was like a portal to 1985, with a chalkboard and an overhead projector, and we all did just fine.  As a rule, I think that students appreciate an instructor who genuinely cares about their progress more than they care about whether you tried to incorporate Facebook into your course.  Be a good teacher first, then figure out how to use technology creatively and effectively, but only if it is going to a) make your life easier, or b) help you achieve some specific pedagogical goal.  And stick to tools that are comfortable to you.  If it seems like an unnecessary hassle or a poor fit to you, I guarantee it will feel that way to your students, who can smell pandering insincerity a mile away.

As for me, I’ve found that a class website, whether you manage it through Blackboard, a wiki, Facebook, or some other means, can be an invaluable tool, and next Spring, I am going to look at using WordPress blogs in order to help students think about writing for broader public rather than just writing what they think the teacher wants to read.  I am skeptical about the use of texting, because not everyone has an unlimited plan, and I suspect that being charge 10 cents to receive updates from your instructor probably isn’t much fun.  Using stuff that students can access for free in their home or in a lab is essential for me.

Technology can be incredibly useful for educators, but it is not a magical tool that will make you relevant to the generation you’re teaching.  Sincerity and genuine investment in what you’re doing, as it turns out, is pretty timeless.

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One thought on “The Millenial Whisperers

  1. The prof who ran our graduate seminar last year (and will again this year) had a blog that I found interesting. Sadly, I was the only blogger in our cohort and everyone else had a lot of trouble interacting with it.

    (Which isn’t really surprising, I guess. Only 4% of Canadians have a blog.)

    I found your discussion about how to use a wiki for class really interesting and, when the time comes, I think I shall adapt something like that, or try and use Blackboard to its full potential, but it does feel like “come and get your bells and whistles!”

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