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Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation

Part 6, Attribute #4: Digital learners prefer to network and collaborate

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.

Part 6: Attribute #4: Digital learners prefer to network and collaborate simultaneously with many others.

Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”  

—Ryunosuke Satoro (Japanese Writer, Poet)




Digital learners prefer to network and collaborate simultaneously with many others. Traditionally, many teachers prefer students to work independently before they network and interact with others in small groups and whole classroom activities.

As educators, when we were students, we were often expected to initially work independently when new information was being introduced. Outside of school, there were really only two ways we were able to immediately communicate with others – by phone or in person.

Our world was about movies, records, tape recorders, televisions, telegrams, radios, telephones, cameras, projectors, VCRs, and filmstrips.

Now, think about the world of today. Computers, laptops, tablets, smartphones, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, video mash-ups, Instagram, Snapchat, Skype, Facebook, texting, tweeting, social networking… The digital generations have grown up with literally hundreds of different ways to communicate. There are an amazing collection of different tools used for different types of communication to different groups. And these tools have been available to the digital generations their entire lives, so they have internalized their use and take these tools for granted. The Internet is a natural space for the always-on generation. It’s fully integrated and commonplace in their world.

Many in the younger generation believe the digital landscape doesn’t exist in isolation from the physical world. In fact, it’s so much a part of their lives that they live a hybrid existence – combining physical and virtual worlds into a seamless network of communication, information, entertainment, and sharing that many of the older generations never experienced before.

In her critically acclaimed book, It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens author Danah Boyd explains several factors that have led to this dramatic move toward social media by the digital generations. Many adults throw around the term addiction to describe the digital generations’ apparently constant need to be connected to their online worlds. It is important to emphasize that the digital generations are not addicted to online behavior or technology for that matter. They have a constant need to socialize using whatever outlets are available to them. First, consider the location of their friends in comparison to their homes. Oftentimes, the digital generations can’t simply walk next door to visit a friend or group of friends.

In a world where danger is seen to be lurking just around the corner, there is an increasing culture of fear. Parents are limiting the freedom of teens due to the belief that something bad might happen without constant adult supervision. Gone are the days of the ‘be back before dark’ mentality. The potential threat of predators, gangs, accidents, bullying, and youthful mischief are highlighted daily on the news; causing parents to increasingly lock down their teens’ physical freedoms. This lockdown has also occurred in the common social areas teenagers traditionally used to meet. Places such as malls, convenience stores, playgrounds, and schools often have strictly-enforced loitering laws that discourage social gatherings. The digital generations, in need of social interaction, seek socialization by the only means they have at their disposal. While in the safety of their homes or school, they have made up for their perceived lack of freedom by migrating their lives more and more to the digital landscape.

The digital generations are frequently criticized, derided, misunderstood, misrepresented and disrespected in the press. They’re often accused of being intellectual slackers and anti-social beings who lack even the most fundamental social skills.

For the vast majority of the digital generations, the digital world is far from being an isolating experience. Outside of school, they are immersed in a media-participatory culture built on physical or close relationships that allows them to interact not only with their friends, but also with people who are not geographically close to them. The emergence of collective intelligence, crowdsourcing, smart mobs, the global brain, and group IQ have emerged as an entirely new way of processing massive amounts of information by creating a shared pool of knowledge, where the collective whole is greater than the sum of the individual parts. The emergence of global networking has shifted power and knowledge from the individual to the group. In the Internet of things, everyone has become connected to everyone and everything else allowing individuals to work together to accomplish things collaboratively.

Global digital networks are pervasive in our society, so virtual interaction is taken for granted, which is having an enormous impact on daily life. Kids seeking information or playing games today are just as likely to interact with, compete against, and/or collaborate with people from Europe, South America, Africa, the Middle East, or Asia as they are to interact with people from their own country. The emergence of the new digital landscape has quite literally led to the death of distance. There has never been a time where distance has meant less than it does today. This holds tremendous implications for education. The new digital landscape provides both teachers and students with opportunities to go beyond the physical barriers of the traditional bricks-and-mortar classroom, allowing both digital and non-digital experiences to come to life and prevents student learning from being limited to self-contained, self-constrained physical environments.

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.  Students studying about civil war can talk directly with others in Syria experiencing it. Kids trying to understand the impact of extreme weather can communicate with students in the storm-ravaged Philippines or New Jersey. Tackling an environmental issue, students can discuss the consequences of the Fukushima nuclear reactor meltdown, or examine the after-effects of the Gulf oil spill by contacting and interviewing local residents. Students can work in virtual partnerships on projects with kids from across town or around the world just as easily as from across the room as they develop the essential skills required to operate in the new learning and working environments of the 21st century.

There are many strategies that can access the digital generations preference to collaborate and network with others. Google Drive is a powerful suite of online services available through a free Google account. Having much of the same functionality as Microsoft Office programs, Google Drive migrates common application types such as word processing, spreadsheets, and slideshows online and provides the means to share access to these documents with links and permissions. Students experience real-time collaboration and communication using collective intelligence to perform a shared task.

You can easily fashion online quizzes and exit tickets using Google Forms. In a few minutes, a teacher can generate a survey to capture student performance or attitudinal data. Once students have completed this task, their responses populate a spreadsheet for the teacher to view, download, and perform a data analysis they can use to inform future instructional decisions.

For a powerful, collaborative learning experience, provide small groups with an individual Google Document and watch as text, images, and other content populates the document. Teachers can easily scroll between each document to monitor the teams’ progress. Google also offers Slides, a slideshow generator that allows users to collaboratively create wonderful and creative multimedia products.

Skype and Google Hangouts are free services that provide video and audio internet calls around the world. Users simply sign up for a free account and develop a list of contacts to communicate with.

Using a computer, tablet, or smartphone connected to the internet, teachers and students can arrange Skype or Hangout conversations with experts or guest speakers; connect with classrooms in other cities, states, provinces or countries to explore diversity and develop new learning partnerships; while teachers can conduct online meetings, conferences, tutoring sessions, or offer virtual office hours.

Imagine students learning about impending storm from a meteorologist, poetry from a Pulitzer prize winning author, or earth science from an astronaut. Powerful, easy-to-use video conferencing software such as Google Hangouts and Skype eliminates the barriers of distance and time, and provides new opportunities for students to seek knowledge from new outlets.

Twiddla provides a really easy to use collaborative online whiteboard. This “no setup web-based meeting playground” is quick and easy – inviting others to collaborate by just hitting the green GO button to start a session and then use the Invite option. This app provides a great set of tools. You can easily add an image, web page, or document as a background to markup. There is a color palette tool, pen width tool, a shapes tool, and text can be inserted. There’s even a chat option built in.

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 to text on a page or on a screen in an F or Fast-pattern.

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

Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation – Part 5

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.

Author Further Reading

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

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