Philip van Allen
Students: they're not what they used to be, and one of the key challenges facing educators is rethinking teaching to suit the needs of a radically different learner.

Marc Prensky, responding to the claims that education in the US has declined dramatically, asks critics to remember the fundamental cause of that decline, writing in his essay "Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants," "Today's students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach." He adds, "Today's students have not just changed incrementally from those of the past, nor simply changed their slang, clothes, body adornments, or styles, as has happened between generations previously. A really big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a 'singularity' – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called 'singularity' is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century."

In her essay Educating the Net Generation, Diana Oblinger describes the Net Generation, by which she means people born after 1982, as having these characteristics:
  • the ability to read visual images: they are intuitive visual communicators;
  • extensive visual-spatial skills: perhaps because of their expertise with games, they can integrate the virtual and physical;
  • they prefer inductive discovery: they learn better through discovery than by being told;
  • they demonstrate enviable attention deployment: they are able to shift their attention rapidly from one task to another;
  • and they boast a fast response time: they are able to respond quickly and expect rapid responses in return.

They are also digitally literate, they are connected, they like team learning, they’re achievement-oriented and therefore want to know all the rules and procedures; they prefer an image-rich environment; and finally, they prefer working on things that actually matter. Others have offered other definitions of a new learner – Henry Jenkins’ influential white paper for the MacArthur Foundation, for example, details a list of nine new skills that “build on the foundation of traditional literacy.”

So, these students are different: how do we engage them? That was the topic of the Schools of Thought conference held at Art Center College of Design in March 2007 when designers and educators from across the country reflected on their changing discipline and the future for their students. In other areas, educators are thinking about deploying tools students already use. In their essay “The Play of Imagination: Beyond the Literary Mind,” John Seely Brown and Douglas Thomas, for example, highlight what they call “conceptual blends” created when students play multiplayer online games and begin to combine experiences in physical and virtual worlds. These blends, the authors argue, “encourage the use of imagination to bridge the gaps and boundaries between worlds” and this in turn creates new opportunities for learning centered on interactivity, collaboration and play.

In an attempt to push farther, to a new model of teaching (and indeed, one that might be considered pervasive in line with the themes of this project), John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, in The Social Life of Information, advocate a shift from learning about to learning to be, or as it’s been revised with respect to Gilles Deleuze, to learning as becoming. “Learning about implies a passive consumption of knowledge in the form of facts. Learning to be implies the application of knowledge in the development of skills that allows us to fulfill a particular (professional or non-professional) role in society.” So learning as becoming signifies an ongoing process, one that continues well after graduation.

The New Ecology of Things course attempted to rethink traditional design pedagogy, and as such, entered a much bigger discussion occurring nationally. To the right, we’ve listed some essays on the topic that add to the links above; we hope others will add to it.

Reader's Responses

The New Ecology of Things course attempted to rethink traditional design pedagogy, and as such, entered a much bigger discussion occurring nationally. Below, we've listed some essays on the topic that add to the links at left; we hope others will add to it. add a reference

Anne Burdick, Graduate education: Preparing designers for jobs that don’t exist (yet) (Adobe Think Tank, October 2007)

Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Larry Johnson, "The Sea Change Before Us," EduCause, March/April 2006.

Pierre Levy, Collective Intelligence: Mankind's Emerging World in Cyberspace (New York: Perseus Books, 2000).

New Media Consortium, "A Global Imperative," a report and recommendations following the 21st Century Literacy Summit, April 26-28, 2005, San Jose, California.

New Media Consortium and Educause, The Horizon Report, 2007.

Diana Oblinger and James L. Oblinger, Educating the Net Generation, Educause e-book. 2005.

Kristina Woolsey, Media Literacies: A Language Revolution, 2005.