How to Teach and Manage 'Generation Net'

The sage-on-stage model no longer works. To reach the Internet Generation's members, engage them in conversation and let them work in groups

Editor's note: This is the fifth in an eight-part series (, 11/17/08) of Viewpoints by author Don Tapscott—who draws on the $4 million research project that inspired his new book, Grown Up Digital—to explain how digital technology has affected the children of the baby boomers, a group he calls the Net Generation.

A few years ago, I delivered a speech designed to provoke my audience, a distinguished group of university presidents. The prevailing model of education, I said, made no sense for young people today. This model revolves around the sage on the stage, the teacher who delivers a one-size-fits-all, one-way lecture. This model, designed in the Industrial Age, might have been a good way to condition young people for a mass-production economy, but it makes sense neither for young people who have grown up digital nor for the demands of this digital age.

Later, sitting down with the distinguished educators, I asked why it was taking them so long to change. "The problem is funds," one president said. "We just don't have the money to reinvent the model of pedagogy." Models of learning that go back decades are hard to change, another said. "I think the problem is the faculty," still another educator said. "Their average age is 57, and they're teaching in a 'post-Gutenberg' mode."

A very thoughtful man named Jeffery Bannister, who at the time was president of Butler College, was seated next to me. "Post-Gutenberg?" he said. "I don't think so. At least not at Butler. Our model of learning is pre-Gutenberg. We've got a bunch of professors reading from handwritten notes, writing on blackboards, and the students are writing down what they say. This is a pre-Gutenberg model—the printing press is not even an important part of the learning paradigm." He added, "Wait till these students who are 14 and have grown up learning on the Net hit the [college] classrooms—sparks are going to fly."

Bannister, a wise man who, sadly, has since passed away, was absolutely right, and he was able to make some progress at Butler after our encounter.

Scanning texts, skipping lectures

The old model of pedagogy—teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all—makes no sense to young people who have grown up in a digital world. Members of the Net Generation, as I call those who turn 11 to 31 this year, have different mental habits than their Boomer parents have. They expect a conversation, rather than a lecture, and they're used to working in groups, rather than toiling alone. Digital immersion has even affected the way they absorb information. They don't necessarily read a page from left to right and from top to bottom. They might instead skip around, scanning for pertinent information of interest.

In universities across the country, the smartest students often don't go to lectures. One Stanford student said to me recently: "The thing around here is to get an A without ever attending a lecture."

This shakes up such old style professors as Mark Bauerlein, who wrote the book, The Dumbest Generation, arguing that "the digital age stupefies young Americans and jeopardizes out future." Educators like Beuerlein are uneasy with the change in power reflected in how information is dispensed and knowledge is obtained. Sadly, these old-style educators—locked into models that go back centuries—end up heaping abuse on the students who are revolutionizing the model of pedagogy.

Industrial Age model: Isolation

Net Geners clearly need a different model. The education system should revolve around the student, rather than the teacher. And teachers, instead of lecturing, should interact with students and help them discover lessons for themselves. Schools should customize education to fit each child's individual way of learning, and they should let students collaborate, instead of isolating them in an out-of-date model.

Yet old paradigms die hard.

The Industrial Age model of pedagogy is so embedded in the everyday practices of America's schools that it will take time to truly change. Consider an example from a 2007 study of the quality of students' experiences in 2,500 U.S. elementary school classrooms. It found that students were spending the vast majority of their classroom time listening to the teacher or working alone on low-level math or reading worksheets.

Education obviously shouldn't be confined to schools and colleges and universities, either. We're now faced with the fast-paced world of the information age, where, as jobs change, you can't take the time to send workers back to school for retraining. We have entered the era of lifelong learning. In some technical areas of study, half of what you learned in your freshman year might be obsolete by the time you graduate.

discretion on the Web

Learning has to be part of work. Rather than maintaining separate training programs, companies should make learning part of a Net Gener's job. For example, some companies are making it compulsory for young employees to blog, so that they learn more about the company's approach and start thinking about big ideas. We try to do this at the nGenera Insight, a community of thought leaders, researchers, and experts working to help companies adapt to the Net Generation. All employees are required to blog regularly as part of their jobs. Each of them (and they're mainly Net Geners) must think about important issues facing our clients, and—ased on their research—formulate opinions for public presentation. The blog delivers value to our clients and the market and, as part of their work, our employees learn from it. Work and learning—the same thing.

Lots of employers are understandably worried that employees will disclose important company information in blogs or other writings on the Internet. To guard against this risk, employers need to explain the rules to new Net Gen employees, says Danah Boyd, a researcher who recently released the results of a three-year study> of digital youth. "You have a guideline on it," says Boyd (who likes to render her name in lower case, as danah boyd). "You have to make it very, very clear that there is zero tolerance for sharing company information, with the penalty of being fired for cause. No one knows discretion until you teach them."

Training has to change, too. Some companies are using game-based training to update employees on short-term projects. DirecTV (DTV), for example, needed to boost sales of its sports programming package, so it created a simulation game to place the call-center agent in an interactive environment. The agent must deal with realistic characters voicing frequently asked questions about DirecTV and its programs. By playing the game, the agent practices active-listening skills, learns telephone etiquette, and is familiarized with the benefits of DirecTV's popular sports programming package. The scoring mode on the game gives players instant feedback on how well they're doing as sales representatives.

Education—at school and on the job—needs to be revamped to cater to young people who have grown up digital. The old model, the sage on the stage, needs to be abandoned, and schools and employers need to look at education as an interactive, collaborative venture that lasts a lifetime.

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