Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Digital World Revolution

Let me start with this comment: my step-dad, now 81, does not use a computer and never has. This is all the more amazing when you consider that he was a small business owner, a man who ran 2 army-navy surplus stores with close to 6,000 items in the store. He did inventory by hand, using a paper ledger to track sales of items. My brother now manages the store, and as a 49-year-old, he finally computerized the store, installing a tracking system with SKU numbers on all items. His life is easier. For him. Not for my step-dad, necessarily.

I mention this because we are now teaching a generation of students who grew up with digital technology and cannot comprehend a world in which it did not exist. However, email, for example, has been a present factor in our lives only since around 1998. The internet, as we use it, was born sometime around 1990 as an outgrowth of particle physics; Tim Berner-Lees created the hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) while working at CERN, which is the world’s largest particle physics laboratory. We now have instant communication, which is both a blessing and a curse. Notice how that during your recent 3-day break you still might receive an email message asking you for a response, as if the break means nothing and you are to be available 24 hours per day, 7 days per week?

I remember when the mail I got came in an envelope. I paid (and pay) my bills by writing a check and mailing that payment back to the company. I am seen as archaic, because I do not use an automatic withdrawal and payment via the internet. Outlook organizes our time down to minute increments. We can go to a conference and find that a speaker is scheduled to speak from 12:12-12:21. Outlook allows us to read messages, organize schedules, and so on.

And this is the world of our students. Think of the technology we now have in place- smart podia, PowerPoint slide sets, wikis, websites and web links, Facebook pages, twitter, podcasts, blogs, and students who walk into class with smartphones, tablets and computers. They learn differently than we did; they don’t buy nor read textbooks, since they can find what they need on the web. They don’t subscribe to journals; it is all free all the time on the web. We are challenged to be creative as a result.

It is worth thinking about. We need to change how we teach; we cannot continue to do what we have always done. Our students do not learn the same way we did and we need to recognize this. We have work to do.

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