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Margin Notes

The digital embrace

BY LÉO CHARBONNEAU | DEC 01 2008

A few things caught my eye recently concerning the “net generation” – today’s youth who have grown up immersed in the digital world (a.k.a., the Millennials). Some have worried that these digital natives are socially and intellectually disengaged, self-absorbed and, well, just plain lazy, wasting untold numbers of hours texting, surfing the net, etc.

Well, an intriguing new study sponsored by the MacArthur Foundation says all of this time spent online is far from wasted and is in fact essential for today’s youth to acquire “the social and technical skills they need to be competent citizens in the digital age.”

That sounds almost like a tautology to me – the younger generation’s emphatic embrace of digital media, social networking and ubiquitous communication has fueled the stunning rise of these things, and so these same youth better spend a whole lot of time mastering these technologies or risk being left behind in the online reality they helped create.

But I don’t wish to sound like a fortysomething fogey. I am in fact very envious of the ease with which today’s youth master digital technology while I’m still trying to figure out the finer points of my iPod.

The study, conducted by researchers at University of California, Irvine, found that youth use online media to engage with and extend friendships and interests, and – of most importance to educators – to engage in new forms of peer-based, self-directed learning. The researchers warn: “To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.” (Read an executive summary of the study; as well, University Affairs columnist Christine Overall has an interesting take on her dealings with Millennials.)

Apparently teens’ computer gaming activities are also educational. A new study by the Pew Research Centre, also funded by the MacArthur Foundation, found these activities are “rich and varied, with a significant amount of social interaction and potential for civic engagement.”

Author Don Tapscott makes similar points in his new book, Grown up Digital, a follow-up to his popular 1999 title, Growing up Digital. Tapscott, an adjunct professor of management at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto, argues that this new generation “is savvier, more creative, more diverse, more collaborative, and more adaptable because of their digital embrace.”

And yet…

I can’t help but think that we’re missing something here. When you add up all the time people spend surfing the net, twiddling with their cell phones, playing video games, etc., at what point does this become too much? (The Nielsen Company refers to the “three screens” – TV, internet and mobile phones – and found that the average person in the U.S. spends a combined 172 hours a month in front of them.)

What about the “offline” world? You know, the one not mediated by a digital screen? Is there still time left for meeting friends face to face, playing pick-up hockey in the street, taking a walk in the forest?

These two worlds are not, of course, mutually exclusive. But, in embracing one, let’s not neglect the other.

ABOUT LÉO CHARBONNEAU
Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. Todd Pettigrew / December 12, 2008 at 16:00

    Why is the assumption always that the university must adapt to the new generation and never the other way around? Why shouldn’t the new generation adapt to the university? Why is it always “today’s kids are techno-networked so we are going to have to work to reach them”? Why is it never, “today’s kids are techno-networked so they are going to have to work to understand the face-to-face tradition of higher education”?