Education is wasted on the prematurely middle-aged

Three or four bits, connected in some way I haven’t quite figured out yet.

Last night I attended a reading at the downtown Vancouver library by Don Kerr, one of a handful of very special professors I studied under at the University of Saskatchewan. The book he was promoting (Earth Alive: Essays on Ecology by Stan Rowe) is a worthy one, and I enjoyed the readings, but my main motivation was the chance to see someone who had opened my nineteen year old mind.

He was exactly as I remembered him — warm, erudite and very funny. No problem holding the room’s attention without any media except a copy of the book. I attended with an old friend who had taken the same Introduction to Film course, so the evening sent us back on something of an undergrad mindset nostalgia trip. We even went for beers afterward and grappled with big imponderable existential questions, just like old times. We ran into Professor Kerr in the pub, and it was satisfying for me to thank him for a fine course that enriched my life when I was sorely in need of some enlightenment. He seemed pleased that both of us had gone on to complete graduate degrees in English, and gave every impression of someone who had benefited from teaching as much as his students did.

This morning I found myself in a studio space at UBC listening to an EDUCAUSE ELI web seminar on net gen learners. It was a solid presentation, and we followed up with an illuminating discussion afterward. It was heartening to share experiences with fifty people here at the University each making an honest effort to better understand their learners.

I did have my quibbles… mostly objections to what I see as an oversimplified stereotype of today’s young people. Maybe it was because my undergrad mindset was more present than normal, but when people make statements like “students don’t understand the value of research as a process in itself”, I wonder when typical students ever entered university with that awareness — I certainly didn’t have it… I never consulted a reference librarian until I was in grad school, I did not even realise that such incredible expertise was available to me. Isn’t a sense of the structures and inter-relationships of knowledge something that is learned in university? And speaking for myself, it was seeing what an agile, educated thinker such as Don Kerr could do with a book, film or idea that convinced me of the intrinsic value of learning.

My other objection was the avoidance of considerations of economic class. Where do net gen’ers who can’t afford snazzy laptops and cell phones fit in? In the profile of Professor Kerr linked above, he notes that the biggest change he has observed is “more students now skip classes, particularly in upper years. Many work up to 30 hours a week to put themselves through.” When we invoke caricatures of the younger set for wanting fast answers to difficult questions, or their propensity to multitask, we should keep that economic reality and the attendant pressures in mind. Could it be they are “Starbucks addicts” (cited repeatedly as a characteristic today) in large part because they aren’t sleeping?

I was interested to read excerpts from this article in my morning paper (dead tree edition, I’m old skool that way):

“Home and family have become more important to today’s teens,” noted Anna D’Agrosa, editor of The Zandl Group’s Hot Sheet. The New York-based research firm interviews hundreds of teens each year to track trends.

“Ten years ago, less than a quarter of teens listed home as their favorite place to be, compared to nearly half in 2006,” D’Agrosa wrote in an e-mail to The Times. One in four teens list family as the most important thing about their day-to-day life, versus one in 10 a decade ago.

Now, one study by something called the “Hot Sheet” is not enough to draw solid conclusions, but this is a blog and nobody listens to what I say anyway…

The study cites more sensitive parenting and bitchin’ home entertainment centres as the primary reasons for this shift. Perhaps included in the latter might be all those web goodies in which we worry our young ones are losing their minds. Danah Boyd, among others, often argues that MySpace, IM, etc constitute zones of virtual autonomy for teens, spaces relatively free of adult intervention. What strikes me about the Hot Sheet study is the suggestion that by facilitating social activities that may be engaged from home, the web may actually be part of strengthening family bonds…

Now a skeptic might reasonably argue that having a kid locked in her room surfing the web or chatting with strangers is a recipe for alienation. But isn’t it conceivable that boundaries can be established (like regular family dinners) that allow for a balance between teen autonomy and familial interaction? So while some fret about online predators, could our kids actually be safer, spending more time under a looser form of parental supervision? And might some families be spending more time together as the result of the internet?

12 thoughts on “Education is wasted on the prematurely middle-aged

  1. Interesting post. I would say that, for the most part, you are pretty close in your assumptions. You’re right that one little survey is not enough, but it would seem that children are spending more time at home, maybe because they can chat with friends without having to go out and don’t get in trouble for being on the phone! It could also be that there is less for them to do given the cost of various activities and the economic divide is creating a gap that is going unnoticed at the moment but will show up in the future. I agree that money does create a barrier in that not all students have the money for the toys but many are willing to work to get them and they forgo other activities, like sports, school activities and other such things, in order to have some of the toys, missing out on peer interaction because of the work. I also wonder, as parents become more technologically aware, will we see an increase of families using the technologies? Will there be greater discussions about what is going on on the computer? Will kids share their “cyber” life with their parents? Maybe you’re right, this could be one thing that brings some families together.
    Kelly

  2. Geez… I wish I was at the Pub with you. The discussion sounds, yes, existential. I agree with your sentiments about the internet actually bringing children home. I’m involved in a research project looking at teaching music online and during one discussion we hit on the same theme. Which is the safest place for your children. In most cases it is home. Not the mall, not playing outside, not going to and from school… The safest place is home. And if that home includes saring dinner together, even better. Great post, and we are listening…

  3. I’ve never liked the whole Digital Natives BS. Waaaay too much of an oversimplification and generalization. I hadn’t thought about the socioeconomic forces pushing young(er) students out of their mythical digital nativity…

  4. Hey two new commenters! (To me at least.) Welcome.

    Kelly – Lots of interesting questions. I do think more families are bound to become more technologically savvy… it will be interesting if this ‘generation gap’ in tech-skills (even if it is overstated now) will close in the years to come.

    Peter – We’ll have to pub it some other time! I do think it’s a shame we can’t think of more safe public spaces for kids. In a sense, I would prefer that the void for safe autonomous public spaces that the web is filling weren’t quite so vast and gaping… I would say that the fears around physical public spaces are also overblown, but as a parent I find myself as prone to letting fear (and the judgments of others) determine what I will allow my son to do as most people.

    D’Arcy – can’t disagree. The sheer scale of the generalization is the single most objectionable piece of the whole digital native mythology. There’s plenty to learn by paying attention to young people, but in a sense we’re just slotting them into another, if somewhat more positive, stereotype.

  5. Regarding your paragraph on considerations of economic class, you touched on a sore spot of mine (which doesn’t contradict your point at all). Students at my school are overwhelmingly upper middle class and above. Yet we are often told that we can’t expect much of them academically since they work 30 hours or more a week. I have nothing but sympathy for students who genuinely need to work their way thru school, but few of my students fit that profile. When I’ve explored their “need” to work, the majority explain that they need the spending money to pay for trips to Cancun, expensive apartments, cars and the like. It makes me wonder what they’re at university for.

  6. Steve, you’re right to make that distinction. I’d say those kids are at university to maximize their lifelong earning potential, and to meet hotties.

  7. Brian,

    I am very skeptical of the trend in ed tech (and beyond) to boil many of the over-arching questions facing the intersection of technology and learning to banal, prescriptive generalizations. I was at a conference at CUNY in December and the keynote speaker spent an hour making jokes about the differences between boomers, gen Xers, and millenials. I found the whole thing to be symptomatic of the current (and misguided) compulsion to not only categorize, but to quantify these categorizations in order to feign some semblance of a theory. What is the underlying logic behind this idea? That learning is always already predicated upon one’s age? Which generation is defining the the classification of “learning styles” for the others? How? This approach seems, at least at times, to consist of a number of loosely defined observations and characterizations that have been grafted upon some learning styles pyramid that has been recalibrated by age groups and generations.

    Educational technology, as I am experiencing it, is not about classifying learners. It’s about re-framing the spaces and possibilities through and in which students (despite their age) can imagine themselves as learners. Such an approach, carried out thoughtfully, considers and accounts for all sorts of factors that inform this complex process of learning, i.e., economics, race, gender, ethnicity, etc.

    Great post, I feel like I was right that at the bar with you.

  8. Jim, this isn’t the first time you’ve written a comment to post of mine that totally blows the original verbiage out of the water.

    Hope it isn’t the last.

  9. I think that if parents join their children online they will find that they have richer, more meaningful relationships with them. Additionally, I find that as a teacher when I joined my students online and we used social networking tools for learning that my relationship and ultimately their learning flourished.

    This is not about a new generation disconnecting it is about an old generation unwilling to connect. As adults and analysts, I think many people are viewing this from the wrong direction.

    Life is about change. The student we teach will change careers a multitude of times and will have to learn and relearn. Isn’t it about time that a mass exodus of adults INTO social networking/ blogs/ wikis/ Second life occurred so that we can relate instead of sitting back and wishing they’d call us on the phone more!

    GREAT article!

  10. Class is nearly an untouchable category. It falls between the cracks of several major discourse blocks: faculty culture, infrastructure, threats from cyberspace, institutional considerations.

    See you in Atlanta, perhaps?

  11. Nice to hear I’m not the only one dismayed by overgeneralizations and pseudo-theories gone amok.
    Last year at a webinar on adult learners
    http://www.educause.edu/AdultLearners/9415, Pam Tate pointed out that more and more 18-24yr old students have the characteristics of a non-traditional student, a category usually describing older, returning students, with jobs, familial responsibilities, etc.. It was a revealing and useful information for understanding student populations.

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