Millennials and Technology. Or not.

That post title is misleading, because I’m not really that interested in millennials and technology at the moment…I’m more interested in the fact that everyone seems so interested in them. In academic libraries, there’s so much talk about the technology that kids use nowadays, and about how we have to keep up and “meet them where they are,” and I’m just not sure it’s all pointed in quite the right direction.

I mean, I have no objection to using new technology when I can get my hands on it, and I do think that younger people tend (in general) to adopt earlier. A lot of the new technologies we’re talking about are leisure-oriented (or at least they start out that way, or at least we think of them that way–leisure and work are getting blurry), and kids usually have more time for that stuff. So by all means, we should pay attention to the new gadgets kids are using, but only because we should pay attention to everything they’re doing. Because they’re kid, and we’re adults, and as the attentive parent or place-of-parent generation, that’s one of our most basic responsibilities. Pay attention to them.

I’ve been having an email conversation with Anne-Marie Deitering at OSU about these general ideas–the push in higher ed to chase after new technologies in the belief that they’re the key to the next generation. All my disclaimers in place, I actually think technology isn’t the issue. I think the issue is a bigger one, of our shared values and commitments as a society.

For instance, there’s a related conversation going on about how technology may be affecting this new generation’s ability to learn. Quite a few people have floated the idea that new technologies such as IM, cell phones, email, etc. have stunted young people’s ability to concentrate and reflect, and fundamentally changed their learning style to one of multitasking and superficial memorization, rather than deep understanding. I find that an interesting leap, given what we know about how public school education has changed in this country over the last twenty or thirty years. We know that substantial cuts have been made to education and social programs funding (federally, and in many or most states) starting in the 1980s, and we know that a new approach to K-12 education, based on what some might call questionable standards, has been implemented. We’ve all read or heard about the pressures on schools to meet uniform “achievement” standards that may have little or nothing to do with the students’ actual needs. We all know that pressure is uncompromisingly fiscal. If students don’t do well on standardized tests, schools can lose their funding.

This alone–shrinking resources and a shift to a dubious teaching and learning model–seems to me to be a fruitful starting place for a conversation about why the students we’re now seeing (the ones who went to school during this period) may be more inclined to want quick answers and easy memorization than reflection and true learning. In this conversation, technology seems to me to be a side issue. Yes, technology is changing, and yes our students are using it. But I can’t see blaming technology for changes in learning patterns when we have so many bigger fish to fry.

In fact, I tend to see student curiosity about, facility with, and adoption of new technology as a positive sign. It means they’re open to new things, they’re engaged, they’re thinking. Despite the bureaucratization of the public school system, they’re still in there, asking questions about stuff. Good for them.

Now we just have to get some radical trust (TM) going in our relationships with them, so we can shift their attention from their Wiis to the deeper learning experiences we have to offer. Maybe we can start by making our learning spaces–virtual and physical–more welcoming. We have our work cut out for us.

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