Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Educating Genertion Y, Contemporary Perspectives

Anoma Pieris assesses the impact of the media revolution’s offspring
and asks whether the books we know so well will eventually perish.

With the final film of the Harry Potter series released earlier this year, the phenomenon that changed a generation drew to a close. Voldemort is dead, author J. K. Rowling has made her millions and a cult equivalent to those that follow Star Trek or Star Wars is being studied by theorists and analysts. More significantly, at a time when e-books and websites are swallowing up conservative publishers, the book in hardcopy form made a comeback, provoking a resurgence in reading. But many of us ask, for how long?
The closure of Borders and its local partner Angus & Robertson in Australia provoked much discussion on this subject in a country that is known for its large number of independent booksellers. There are those who celebrated the departure of big bookstores that pushed out many small businesses with their lifestyle marketing concept; but at the same time, e-books will be the way of the future. University libraries, international journals and some international publishers have already made the shift.
Personally, I bemoan the loss of the hard copy. Although the only luggage I ever lugged around the world in the past two decades were book boxes; and they usually accumulate over time and are heavy to carry, but I must profess my true love of books. I love the smell of new books and the feel of old books. I buy most of my books second-hand.
Will these wonderful artefacts go the way of architectural drawing-boards and T-squares? It will depend on Generation Y.
The generation that grew up with Harry Potter is now in its 20s, entering universities or making inroads into the workplace, both environments increasingly dominated by digital media. In universities, courses are largely web-dependent with readings, lectures, assignments and submissions occurring through websites. Classes for 300 students, for example, can depend on the timely dissemination of material to individual students via the web.
As universities and even schools depend on students having laptop computers, education is far more structured and consequently more democratic in its reach. As China and India produce a large and education-hungry middle class, the demand for local universities will grow along with the technologies that will make the education of large numbers feasible.
These are the children of the media revolution.
Educating Gen Y has provoked the complete transformation of institutional culture. A generation ago, a lecturer could walk into a theatre and deliver a lecture based on prepared notes. He or she might put together a couple of slides or rely on diagrams presented on an overhead projector, which were prepared the previous night. Today, all my course material has to be uploaded two weeks before class begins. Students enrol and choose their tutorial groups online.
All my lectures are pre-prepared as digital presentations, with copyrights indicated on every slide – and they are recorded as I speak. Online discussion groups linked to my subjects makes learning simultaneously distant and intimate. The pressure to design, structure and deliver comprehensive learning material is tremendous. Indeed, the work that an average academic puts into teaching has grown exponentially, as have the numbers of students and their demands.
The media used in teaching has also changed significantly in the past 10 years. In school and in university, we used blackboards and coloured chalk. Today, we use Smart Boards which are connected to computers and allow us to project and draw on images. We depend increasingly on film clips, web links and online data which broaden the scope and delivery of subject material. The speed at which these media change is also quite staggering.
Twenty years ago, we used clumsy computer programmes, while today we work magic with the touch of a button. In architecture, the area in which I predominantly teach, advanced versions of digital modelling software are released almost annually, making 3-D modelling, laser cutting of physical models and publisher-ready layouts everyday student practices. The demand to teach these skills is overwhelming, and universities find it hard to deliver digital-skills training while providing intellectual stimulation.
Certainly, digital education has its shortfalls. Firstly, it means that your children spend a lot more time in front of a computer and are far less streetwise or hands on than children of previous generations. They are intellectually more literate and have access to more information internationally; but while this gives them breadth, they may be shallower learners. They may, for example, depend on sites like Wikipedia or worse still, blogs and news media for their knowledge of the world. They may find it harder to tell truth from fiction.
Certainly, this internet age is rife with plagiarism, and even as the speed at which work can be copied increases, the liabilities attached to plagiarism intensify. To elaborate, copying, quoting without attributing or citations or reproductions of any creative work without permission is illegal in a world where blogs, websites and even online publications freely reproduce both fact and fiction across the public domain. Reliable sources of information are hard to come by.
Generation Y is certainly more needy. Frequently being single or one of two children, and used to being the focus of the family environment, they are more demanding with greater self-confidence but display high levels of anxiety.
These are children who, lacking in siblings and growing up in a less-secure environment, were chaperoned from one scheduled activity to another. They are the product of super-parenting – comparatively older parents who have exerted all their energy on producing ambitious versions of themselves.
And yet, Generation Y, sitting in front of their computers, are disconnected from family life and plugged into the rest of the world. While you sit watching TV, your adolescent or teenager may be exposed to any number of people or sources of information you wouldn’t approve of. Recent incidents of cyber-bullying, group suicide and abductions related to chat groups point to the risks your child could encounter while at home – and your inability to protect them against such intrusions.
Educating Gen Y is difficult because of the competing sources of information that flood their everyday existence. Whereas we learned from school books and curricula, from parental advice and the instructions of teachers, this is a generation educated by a range of electronic devices that stimulate all their senses. The Gen Y child at homework can be likened to an earphone-wearing octopus, body swaying to and fro to music from an iPod while typing out an essay and clicking on and off a chat group with a wandering mouse. Or worse still – your Gen Y child maybe an Avatar on an ongoing virtual game site, battling avatars from other parts of the world. These Gen Y children have to be taken out of their bedrooms as a form of punishment!
Aye, there’s the rub! For even as exposure to Harry Potter and the wonderful world of Hogwarts may have created a generation of child-bookworms, it has also taken those children into a reality divorced from the real world. The cultural imagination that came to us incrementally over the centuries through oral traditions, mural paintings and epic works of literature is being reproduced and multiplied rapidly and artificially in a media-hungry world.
It gives us instant gratification, and makes avatars of us all, as we consume not just the story but its past, its consumer-driven future, its artefacts and its media hype – the virtual reality of the Potter phenomenon.
What this means for the education of Gen Y and those that follow is that we deal with a generation that is far more visually cognisant than any other before them; and depend on their eyes above all other senses for education, information and stimulation. They are a generation that are far more sedentary, since the use of the eyes requires no physical movement whatsoever. They are a generation who will need fewer bookcases and more power-outlets – in cafés, in libraries, in classrooms and in lecture theatres. They will socialise predominantly online and store their travels, their music, their homework and their lives in high-storage capacity external hard-drives – instead of scrapbooks and photo albums.
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