Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation

Part 5: Digital learners process pictures, sounds, color and video before text

by Ryan L. Schaaf

Series SynopsisDue to continuous digital bombardment and the emergence of the new digital landscape, today’s youth process information, interact and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation before them. Meanwhile, many of us, having grown up in a relatively low-tech, stable, and predictable world, are constantly struggling with the speed of change, technological innovation and the freedom to access the overwhelming sea of information online - all defining characteristics of the digital world of both today and the swiftly-approaching future.

Based on the award-winning book, Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation: Strategies and Apps That Work, this 12-part article series will provide a comprehensive profile of nine core learning attributes of digital learners, and the core teaching, learning, and assessment strategies that can be used to appeal to their digital lifestyle and learning preferences. Readers will gain a clear understanding of various research-based strategies to optimize learning for the digital generation in the new digital landscape.

Part 5: Attribute #3: Digital learners prefer processing pictures, sounds, color and video before they process text.

“Learning in the classroom where a textbook is the only resource is like looking at a travel brochure and calling it a vacation.”

-- Justin Tarte (Teacher, Tech Enthusiast)

For generations, graphics were generally static illustrations, photos or diagrams that accompanied the text and provided further clarification after the fact. Most of us can remember reading a paper-based Encyclopedia Britannica or a Webster’s Dictionary when we were younger. Back then, the primary information was provided by text, and the images were merely intended to complement the text. But for digital learners, the relationship is almost completely reversed. Increasingly, the role of text is to provide more detail to something that is first experienced as an image or a video.

Due in large parts to advances in and the prevalence of digital technologies and media, the digital generations have grown up in a remarkably visual world. Images have the ability to communicate meaning quickly. Burmark states (2002) that the eye processes images 60,000 times faster than the eye processes the content of text. From an early age, the digital generations have been regularly exposed to television, computers, tablets, videos, and digital games that put colorful, highly expressive, high-quality, realistic, multi-sensory experiences such as sight, sound, and touch -and in the near future smell, taste, and 3D - that contain little if any text. As a result, many of the digital generations prefer to process pictures, sounds, color, and video before they process text. It’s a natural conclusion that they prefer their media in the same way they use it at home.

Members of the always-on generation are completely comfortable seeing and conveying information in visual formats. And because they were born digital, right before our very eyes, the digital generations are taking control of critical elements of the communications revolution. All you have to do is play a video game against them and get annihilated to realize that their visual-spatial skills are so highly developed that the research seems to indicate that they have cultivated a complete physical interface between digital and real worlds.

Meanwhile, many people of the older generations continue to struggle trying to understand the fundamental differences between the visual generations and their own, because this is not the world the older generations were born into. Previous generations were paper-trained growing up. They were trained to communicate primarily with words. They were trained to communicate in a linear, logical, left-to-right, top-to-bottom, beginning-to-end manner. Meanwhile, the digital generations are light-and-sound trained, which is a completely different cognitive process than the one older generations use.

And the digital generations are not just consuming content; they are simultaneously creating it. They are transfluent - they are fluent in a wide range of media. And because they are transfluent, the digital generations find it much more natural than older generations do to begin communicating with visuals, and then to mix in text, color, sound and graphics in richly meaningful and creative ways. They are completely comfortable interacting across a wide range of platforms, tools and media.

What readers need to take away from this trend is that the digital generations are driving a clear and probably irreversible shift from written media to visual media. So increasingly for the digital generations, expressing ideas is just as likely to involve creating a simulation or digital mash-up as it would be for them to be writing an expository essay. They are evolving with their new technologies, so the digital generations will need to be able to communicate as effectively in graphical storytelling modes as older generations were taught to communicate with text.

There are many strategies that can access this learning attribute of the digital generations. First, identify a few powerful examples of visual media that represent the key concepts of the lesson. Identifying the right visual prompt will ensure that it stays in students’ minds for months or even years; which will serve as a powerful visual reference to help students recall key information.

YouTube could be one of the greatest resources for a connected educator. The sheer volume of available videos is staggering. A simple search can retrieve dozens of potential videos to enhance the learning experience for any subject. If a teacher is studying the water cycle, a simple search uncovers thousands of potential video segments to integrate into instruction. If a class is studying Shakespeare, they have access to numerous productions of each of his plays, sonnets, and poems. In Social Studies, students have access to famous speeches such as Abraham Lincoln’s The Gettysburg Address or Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I Have a Dream Speech. For the digital generations, YouTube is perfectly packaged for their consumption. It’s visual, social, diverse, mobile, adaptive and broken down into bite-sized chunks in ways that promote engagement and consumption. With more than 100 hours of new content uploaded every minute, and 4 billion views daily, YouTube is an amazing video repository of potentially valuable video clips.

Another strategy involving multimedia is Audio Bytes. Teachers and students can take a short video clip and remove or mute the audio. Independently or collaboratively, students can create their own narration based on the clip or content. Depending on the video clip, students can be guided to perform a wide variety of audio byte activities. In Science, teachers can mute the video of an animal show and have the students create their own Discovery or National Geographic documentary. In Reading, students can perform voice-overs of favorite stories such as The Three Little Pigs or The Twelve Labors of Hercules that were originally produced as plays or movies. Just about any video with educational content can be stripped of its audio content, allowing students to take an active role in learning the content of the video or writing personalized scripts for narration.

For additional strategies, please consider purchasing the award-winning book Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation: Strategies and Apps that Work. In our next installment of the series, we will explore the digital generations’ preference for processing pictures, sounds, color and video before they process text.

Read additional articles in the series:

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation - Part 1

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation - Part 2

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation - Part 3

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation - Part 4

Ryan Schaff was one of hundreds of educators and experts to speak at FETC 2018 in January. Registration for the 2019 conference opens in June. Sign up for the FETC newsletter to be notified.

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This post includes mentions of a partner of MindRocket Media Group the parent company of edCircuit

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