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The Millennium Generation

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The Millennium Generation

by James G. Lengel, Colleg of Communication, Boston University

Why can't they be like we were -- perfect in every way?
Each generation contributes in its own way to making he world a better place. Tom Brokaw's book The Greatest Generation describes how the World War II generation paved the way for the prosperity enjoyed by the next. The Baby Boomers made their contributions as well -- mostly to their own 401K's and retirement plans. As they get older, they worry about their aging bodies and about the ability of the following generation to support them in the style to which they've become accustomed. And that upcoming generation, the future pillars of our communities, contributors to our social security, the class of 2002, born in 1984, the first to come to maturity in the new millennium -- what are they like?
The class of '02 was born in 1984. That's six years after Apple computers appeared in classrooms, three years after the advent of the IBM PC, the year that the Macintosh computer was introduced. This cohort is not at all like the previous generation. They grew up in a very different world from most of their teachers. They were shaped by a very different series of events, and by a very different set of technologies.
They grew up in a time that was, as no other, full and free. It was full of prosperity -- the longest period of uninterrupted economic growth on record, of unprecedented abundance, and of consumer excess. Not all of the members of this generation enjoyed the fruits of this prosperity, but all of them watched it happen and saw the results flaunted around them. While full of prosperity, this time was relatively free of major war with large numbers American casualties. No generation for more than a century grew up without a war. Our current young generation lived most of its life after the fall of the Soviet Union, at a time when the U.S. was the unchallenged and only world superpower.
During the upbringing of the millennium generation our culture adopted more new personal technologies at as faster pace than ever before -- the computer, the internet, the cell phone, the PDA, the MP3, the CD, satellite TV, wireless. These are their technologies. Their time was full of technology, but relatively free of social unrest. Compared with previous generations, the streets of America experienced few demonstrations, riots, tear gas, marches on Washington, angry protestors, or powerful social movements.
Instead of demonstrating in the streets, they were watching television. And listening to music. And to the radio. And going to the movies. They grew up with 100 TV channels all their life. Radios appeared in every room, car, and pocket. They frequented huge cinema complexes with dozens of screens to choose from. Their choices of entertainment grew exponentially as they grew up. And it seems they chose them all. They grew up in a culture full of entertainment, but bereft of moral leadership. Who were the Washingtons, Lincolns or Martin Luther Kings of the 80's and 90's? Leadership, as they grew up, focused on making money, getting elected, and making people laugh. What's the moral imperative of Bill Gates, Bill Clinton, or Martha Stewart?
Instead of sensing moral imperatives from the leadership, these kids saw scandal. Presidents, priests and CEO's filled the TV screens and magazine covers and news stories as this new generation grew up. They witnessed more public scandals per month than any generation before them. Their time was full of scandal, but relatively free of close parental scrutiny. Never before has an American generation watched so many of their parents both go off to work each morning, and not return until late in the day. Growing up without close supervision, they learned to figure things out for themselves. And their figuring, while it works for them, may not produce the answers that their parents or their teachers were looking for.
Out of this unique upbringing, they have created for themselves a new culture, a culture that for the most part they alone understand.
Theirs is a connected culture. They seek out friends, correspondents, and ideas, and exchange thoughts with them. They use any and all means available to them to make and maintain these connections -- telephone, email, instant messaging, Palm pilot, web sites, discussion boards, chat rooms, street corners, sports events, the internet, shouting down the corridor and watching web cams. Some of them maintain more regular correspondents than most of their parents and teachers. And they carry on the connection no matter where they are or what time it is. And they can keep several parallel connections open simultaneously.
In their culture they suffer a cacophony of choices. Hundreds of channels on the cable, scores of movies at the theater, hundreds of names on the buddy list, 50 stations on the radio, 500 MP3's on the iPod, dozens of numbers in the cell phone speed dial, scores of email addresses, racks full of DVD's and CD's and magazines, millions of web sites. They face more choices for information and ideas than any time in human history. How do they decide what to do at any given moment? Who's guiding those choices?
This millennial generation can talk on the phone, sip a drink, drive the car, and carry on a face-to-face conversation, all at once. Perhaps they learn to multitask so as not to have to make a clear choice. In the classroom they can listen to my lecture, and still have enough brain power to watch the news on, carry on three instant messenger conversations, and compose an email -- all at the same time. And do just as well on the test. They have discovered that the human brain is fully capable, with a little practice, of conducting several mental activities in parallel, with little detriment to any one task. They do it all the time, and they are good at it.
Why do they do all this? Because they want to communicate ideas with other people. They want to listen, to talk, to watch, to create, to investigate, to discover, to initiate, to share. These are natural human tendencies. They do more of it because they have more channels for communication. Theirs is a culture of rampant communication.
Some call them the wired generation. And indeed, the wires are important. But more important is what the wires connect to.
We've been talking about today's generation. Let's imagine now a time in the future, a very long time from now. Our culture is buried deep beneath the ruins of time. An archaeologist many eons in the future uncovers a perfectly preserved home of the early 21st century. The first room he dusts off is an adolescent's bedroom. What does he find?
There's a computer. Next it, an Ethernet connector that leads to the Internet -- at 500 kilobytes per second. On top of it a mobile phone, with worldwide coverage, nights and weekends free. Up there is a radio, AM and FM, with CD player. Next to that an MP3 player with 500 songs (but not much Mozart). On the desk a connector for the digital camcorder. Just around the corner is a television, cable-ready with 120 channels (including one that has been known to play Mozart.)
Is this a typical find? Will he find more rooms like this in the neighborhood? What conclusions will he draw from his collection of artifacts?
The same archaeologist digs down the road a few miles, and uncovers a school. Its cornerstone indicates it was built in 2002. He unearths a classroom, perhaps one that housed the occupant of the bedroom. What communication technologies does he find there? A chalkboard. A whiteboard. A lectern. Chairs. Perhaps that's an Ethernet drop, but nothing's connected to it. What conclusions will the archeologist draw from this collection of artifacts? What will he conclude when he compares them with the list from the bedroom?
Glance into a school classroom in 2002. What information technologies are in evidence? How are the classroom, and the people in it, connected with the world of facts and people and ideas outside? In many classrooms, students are asked to check their laptops and cell phones at the door.
No matter what the age, our classrooms are not unfriendly places. For the most part they are orderly and clean, which is more than you can say for the student's bedroom. But for the most part, they are not connected. Students cannot in most of the classrooms at Boston University turn to the Internet and find out the size of the middle class in Iraq or read Act II of Hamlet or call up a map of central Asia. Nor can the teacher. But each of those students, at home, could do that in an instant.
Think back to the classroom of 20 years ago, just before our millennium generation was born. How does it compare with today's classroom? What went on in there back then? How different is it from what goes on in the classroom today? How much have our classrooms changed as a result of the information revolution? Would a teacher from 1982, if transported into one of our classrooms today, be able to get the second-graders through the morning curriculum and down to the lunchroom?
How about the teacher pictured in Winslow Homer's painting of the classroom of the nineteenth century? Would she know what to do in the classroom of 2002? How long would she survive with today's second grade? And Homer's kids -- what would they think of that 21st-century bedroom? Would they know what to do?
In the world outside of school, there's been a revolution in how we collect, store, work with, and access information. Information of all kinds, from bare facts to fully embellished works of art, from personal calendars to institutional stock trades, from scholarly research to The Simpsons -- it's all done online now.
The millennium generation, growing up in the midst of this revolution, are among its most ardent participants, using the new media chiefly for interpersonal communication. Not only do they communicate, the also research, download, store, listen and watch with these technologies, often all at the same time. Their access to information, their extensive level of communication with each other, and their ability to multitask, set them apart from previous generations. And from their teachers.
What happens when this generation goes to school? Is the information technology revolution reflected in their classrooms? A research study published in August by the Pew Foundation suggests that these students experience a digital disconnect when they enter the classroom door. So it should come to us as no surprise that in another survey this year from the National Center For Educational Statistics that these same students find school less useful and less relevant that the students who came before them. Fewer of them find schoolwork as meaningful, courses as interesting, or as relevant to their future as students of five or ten years ago.
Perhaps it's because these students know that the workplace, where they'll spend their time and earn their keep when they finish school, has changed enormously over the past ten years. The office doesn't consist of an individual at a desk with a telephone and a typewriter, working mostly alone from the seat of his pants with the information in his head.
Today's office looks more like a small group of people, connected to information of all kinds and to other people through a computer, solving a problem by gathering facts and applying the intelligence of the group.
The laboratory does not consist of materials stored in jars on the shelf with sturdy work tables for carrying out experiments. It's more likely to look like a work room full of information and communication technologies, electronics, and devices that communicate to each other through wires and networks.
Nor does the doctor look like the Father Knows Best figure, consulting a book from his medical school days for information that will help his patient. Today's physician is more likely to view body scans over the network on a computer screen, and consult the latest research online. Even the family doctor (now called the PCP, or primary care physician) works this way.
Neither is the life of a news reporter is not like it used to be. Newsprint, shoe leather, and the reporter's noteboook have less and less value to the journalism business these days. The workplace of the journalist -- or the researcher or the novelist or the librarian -- is with her computer, wherever it is.
School, students, and society, while never exactly in synch, have been over the years for the most part a tightly-knit threesome. It's easier to run a school, or be a student, or succeed in society when they are close.
Some observers see today's students and the society moving rapidly down the road toward rampant information, continuous communication, and complex multitasking, while the school remains where it was. This can be frustrating when you are trying to run a good school.
We've been running pretty good schools. For most of the past 200 years, we have each year expanded the number of students who complete high school, from almost none 200 years ago to 80% in 1995. And the proportion who enter college has increased every year during that period. But in the last few years this trend of steady progress has leveled off, and in many states begun to drop -- a smaller proportion of their students complete high school today then five years ago. Why?
We face a tough job as we design and operate our schools, made tougher by the demands of the new technologies. But they're not the only things making demands on us. The parents of this millennium generation want the best for their kids. These parents grew up in the Me Generation – most of their lives, they got what they wanted. Now they demand what they think is best for their kids. And they want the schools to deliver it, with the same or less money, to their kid especially, right now, in the manner they deem appropriate, with a smile and a bow on our part. It wasn't like this when we went to school.
And the parents aren't the only ones. The politicians want us to deliver as well. Higher scores, statewide tests, curriculum frameworks, clear standards, fewer dropouts, schools that promote economic growth, and require fewer taxes. Read my lips. They demand schools that are responsive to parents, schools for everybody – no child left behind. (Except of course those that score below average on the graduation test.) And they want us to prove that all this is happening. Mission impossible.
So, in the face of all this, what can we do?

We need to look for actions that will keep the students of the millennium generation in school, that will reverse the direction of the trend you saw in the study, a school that in their minds is more relevant to the world of work. At the same time, whatever we do must result in a better mastery of the basics – reading, writing, math, science, history and the other thins on the test. And whatever we do must prepare them for the workplace, not as it is today, but as it might be a decade from now. And it would be especially good if we could somehow capitalize on this generation's competence with the new information technologies, their need to communicate with each other, and on their ability to do many things at once. These kids harbor mental powers and technologies that we are not taking advantage of in our schools.

What can we do in our schools that accomplishes all of these goals?
We should work on four A's: Access, Assimilation, Accommodation, and Activity.
We should expand students' access to the new communication technologies and the information that's on the network, so that access in school is easy and natural, from all over the school. We know from careful study and common sense that students with more access learn more.
We should look for ways to assimilate these new technologies and skills – the ones the students are already so familiar with – into the existing curriculum. We know that this is possible, even for teachers who grew up long before the computer or the internet existed.
We must also move beyond assimilation, and look for ways that our curriculum can change to accommodate itself to our childrens' new competencies and to the realities of the workplace. Without accommodation there can be no progress.
We should get the students actively working with the technology, with the subject at hand, with their teachers, and with each other. The more interactive it is, the better it works.
We know better now what works in this arena. The National Science Foundation and other respectable organizations have funded considerable research on which approaches to technology produce the desired results. The folks at Apple computer, who collaborated with the NSF on some of this research with its Apple Classrooms of Tomorrow project, have gathered much of the findings together for your perusal on their web site. Take some time to check it out.
In summary, the research suggests that if you provide the four A's, you can count on better attendance, better scores on the tests, more extensive and better writing, and a more positive attitude toward school.
Consider the 1 to 1 computing concept that educators are implementing in the State of Maine – that's a laptop for each student. But it's more than that -- it's also teacher development, curriculum changes, alterations to the buildings, and a new way of thinking about how students should work during the school day.
Consider multimedia. It's been hyped for a decade as the next big thing by all the media conglomerates, but does it work in school? If so, how does it help students understand science or math or literature? The old wisom says we remember 15% of what we read, 40% of what we hear and see, and 80% of what we hear, see, and do. For true understanding, students need not simply to watch, but to make their own video. Take a look at how students are making their own movies as part of their study of all these subjects. And try it yourself.
Ask how in the world all this technology can be integrated into the school day, by the stable of experienced, tenured, and yet technology-fearing teachers and professors that we have inherited. Is it possible? When do we do it? Where? How do the teachers learn it? Ask these questions while you are here.
And ask your own questions as well. This conference is an opportunity to press your neighbors, the folks at Apple, the speakers, and yourself to delve more deeply into the how and why of technology in education.

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