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Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation

Part 2: The Nine Core Learning Attributes of the Digital Generations: A Primer

by Ryan L. Schaaf

Series Synopsis: Due 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.

“To understand the world of the digital generations, we must be willing to immerse ourselves in that world. We must embrace the new digital reality. If we can’t relate, if we don’t get it, we won’t be able to make schools relevant to the current and future needs of the digital generations.” -Ian Jukes

Neuroplasticity at Work

Many educators are working with an entirely different type of learner today than they did in the past. On the outside, this generation looks similar to previous generations, but neurologically they are quite different. These on-going observations were shared in the 2010 best-selling book Understanding the Digital Generation: Teaching and Learning in the New Digital Landscape). The authors, Ian Jukes, Ted McCain, and Lee Crockett, described digital bombardment and discussed neuroplasticity, the process of ongoing reorganization and restructuring of the brain in response to intensive inputs and constant stimulation. Scientists and researchers such as Judy Willis and David Sousa (2014), Bryan Kolb (1998), Norman Doidge (2007), Gary Small (2008), and John Medina (2008) have separately concluded that neuroplasticity is not a myth. The constant bombardment of information in the new digital landscape has become the catalyst for the emergence of a new kind of learner.

Digital Bombardment

July 1, 1984: USS Iowa fires a full broadside of nine 16"/50 and six 5"/38 guns during a target exercise near Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. Note concussion effects on the water surface, and 16-inch gun barrels in varying degrees of recoil. Chronic exposure to video games, television shows, movies, websites, online videos, audio clips (music and speech), podcasts, texts, tweets, slideshows, photo galleries, Instagram messages, social media content, and other forms of digital bombardment have permanently altered the digital generation’s’ visual and mental processing abilities. As a result, they read differently, play differently, process information differently, socialize differently, communicate differently, and most importantly, learn differently. Parents, educators and politicians can’t ignore what’s happening in the new digital landscape, because it is having such a profound impact on everyone’s lives today.

Digital bombardment has transformed today’s learners into digital learners. And because of this transformation, the digital generations have developed new preferences for learning. Jukes, Schaaf, and Mohan (2015) identified nine key learning attributes of the digital generations.  It’s important to note that these attributes don’t apply equally to every learner in every location. There is a wide range of behaviors that are affected by factors such as culture, socio-economics, geography and personal experience that can affect the development of these tendencies.

The Nine Learning Attributes of the Digital Generations

Attribute #1 – Digital learners prefer receiving information quickly from multiple, hyperlinked digital sources. The world that digital learners live in today includes one of the greatest collections in human history – the internet. Students can access billions of interconnected web pages and resources and use them to construct their own knowledge. However, to effectively use the power of the Internet, students and teachers alike must be able to distinguish between the flash and substance of online resources.

Attribute #2 – Digital learners prefer parallel processing and multitasking. Multitasking has become a necessary skill of modern life, but we need to acknowledge the challenges and help our students adapt accordingly.

Attribute #3 – Digital learners prefer processing pictures, sounds, color, and video before they process text. Since childhood, the digital generations have been continuously exposed to, and bombarded by television, videos, computers, tablets and video games that put colorful, high quality, highly expressive, realistic, multisensory experiences – sight, sound, and touch (and likely in the near future smell, taste, and 3D) in front of students with little or no accompanying text. As a result, to the digital generations, images and video are powerful enough on their own to communicate messages to and for them.

Attribute #4 – Digital learners prefer to network and collaborate simultaneously with many others. The emergence of global networking has shifted power and knowledge from the individual to the group. Both students and teachers have the ability to leverage the socialized realm of the new digital landscape for effective communication and collaboration with each other and the outside world.

Attribute #5– Digital readers unconsciously read text on a page or screen in an F or Fast-pattern due to their digital viewing behaviors, habits, and activities.

Attribute #6 – Digital learners prefer “just-in-time” learning. They prefer to learn a topic or skill when they must or are motivated to do so.

Attribute #7– Digital learners are looking for instant gratification and immediate rewards, as well as simultaneously looking for deferred gratification and delayed rewards. Deferred gratification and delayed rewards say that if you study hard, and if you keep focused, and if you behave and if you attend class regularly, you’ll eventually be rewarded with a good letter grade, acceptance to a good school or the chance for a good job. But on the other hand, they must also see incremental progress, growth or success.  

Attribute #8– Many of the digital generations are transfluent. Their visual-spatial skills are so highly evolved that they have cultivated a complete physical interface between digital and real worlds. Because of digital bombardment, many of the digital generations have become completely comfortable using a wide range of media, and can seamlessly shift between their digital and non-digital worlds. They have completely internalized the use of digital tools, and as a result, take them for granted. For them, the Internet is a natural, transparent space, fully integrated into their lives. It does not isolate; it empowers them.

Attribute #9 – Digital learners prefer learning that is simultaneously relevant, active, instantly useful and fun. They must understand that there is a reason for learning with a sense of ownership, engagement, and wonder.

Now, for the rest of the installments in this series, readers will explore each attribute in more detail and explore some of the various tools and strategies available for educators to use with their students to align with each learning preference.

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