August 14, 2008

Higher Ed Responds to the Digital Generation

By Menard, Joan

Today's young people were bom into the Internet era and live a life saturated by digital media. They use iPods, laptops, video games, text messaging and other tools on a day-to-day basis for entertainment, communication and, we hope, to support their studies. A 2005 Pew Internet & American life study reported that 87 percent of twelve to seventeen year-olds use the Internet and 51 percent go online daily. We can assume those figures are even higher today. Educators at all levels must keep up with the digital world inhabited by a new type of learner whose worldview is often developed through surfing the Web, instant-messaging, and online activities like video games or social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. A 2005 Henry J. Kaiser Foundation study revealed that many young people are avid multi-taskers and engage in all of these activities simultaneously.

Higher education has responded to the digital generation. Colleges and universities in New England and beyond use MySpace, Facebook, YouTube, blogs and instant messaging to recruit students and to keep them engaged after they are admitted. Once enrolled, students use campus-wide wireless Internet and their campus Website as a portal to services, online course content, and more.

In the classroom and lecture hall, faculty and students are using these tools to communicate, educate and collaborate. At UMass Dartmouth, for instance, Professor Brian Glyn William, a leading expert on terrorism and Middle East warlords, last year blogged throughout a trip to Afghanistan keeping his students and anyone with access to the Internet up to date with first hand accounts of life in that war-torn country. The College of Visual and Performing Arts is using Facebook and MySpace to stay connected to its students, faculty, and alumni 24-7; and the math whizzes at the Kaput Center for Innovation in Mathematics Education keep a public wiki filled with discussions about how to teach math in ways that excite K-12 students.

Exciting things are happening at the community college level as well. At Bristol Community College in Fall River, Mass., faculty in human services use embedded video and YouTube in the classroom and on their online course space. Video plays a role in the college's therapeutic massage program as well. Each lab is videotaped and uploaded to the online learning space where students may review techniques before working with clients in the clinic. A real-time e- learning system has made it possible for a Bristol Community College history professor to run her course from home while recovering from surgery. The technology enabled her to work during her recovery, establish a relationship with her students and engage them using real time audio and video.

Institutions are disseminating content in new ways and to a wider audience - making courses and syllabi available online for anyone to access regardless of whether they are students, individuals looking to enrich their lives through learning online, or professors from other institutions seeking to augment their own teaching and curriculum. New England institutions - including Wellesley College, MIT, Gordon, Bowdoin, University of Maine, University of Massachusetts Amherst and Yale - make material available via iTunes University. These podcasts include information about campus activities, alumni events, conferences, lectures and readings.

Not all young people are savvy users of these tools and technologies, however. A digital divide remains. Blacks and Latinos are less likely to have computers and Internet access at home. A 2005 National Center for Education Statistics study showed that about 54 percent of white students use the Internet at home, compared with 26 percent of Hispanic and 27 percent of black students. Learning resources outside of school are also narrow for students without Internet access at home. They are often hobbled in their efforts to research school assignments, explore college possibilities or simply explore worlds different from their own. Being technology-ready is indeed a component of being college- ready. It is up to all of us to work to level the digital playing field for today and tomorrow's students.

Joan Menard is chair of the New England Board of Higher Education. She is a Massachusetts state senator representing the First Bristol and Plymouth district. She was also a Massachusetts state representative and has served in the legislature for 28 years. E-mail: [email protected]

Copyright New England Board of Higher Education Summer 2008

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