Orchard Hays Essay 2

Knowledge, Possibility, and the 21st Century Student Essay

A primary objective of researchers of higher education has been to determine who the 21st century student is and how she learns. Using terms such as Generation Y, Generation Dot Com, Millenials, and the ever-popular “Digital Natives”, researchers attempt to define and oftentimes distinguish from past generations the mindset of today’s students. There seems to be a rather prevalent preoccupation with the notion of 21st century students having a distinct intellectual makeup due to them never having “known a world without computers, twenty-four-hour TV news, Internet, and cell phones,” as Gary Small, M.D. of UCLA observes in iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. “These kids are different,” John Palfrey and Urs Gasser insist in their book Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. “They study, work, write, and interact with each other in ways that are very different from the ways that you did growing up.” Their language reflects an “us versus them” mentality that strongly distinguishes these digital natives from Generation X.

The numerous books written in the past five to ten years on the topic of what makes digital natives – today’s students – different from past generations often note an increased ability for “multi-tasking”, decreased social skills, shifts in the use of written language, rapid adoption of new technologies, constant connectedness and development of new shortcuts for accessing information, and lessening distinctions between concepts of public and private as well as of work and personal. Digital natives are argued to experience the world differently and, as Palfrey and Gasser observe, “relate to information differently.”

In his article, “Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students’ spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable”, Mark Edmundson, professor of English at the University of Virginia, argues that “…students live in the future and not the present; they live with their prospects for success and pleasure. They dwell in possibility.” Essentially, the article discusses how 21st century students “live to multiply possibilities”, how we aim to move faster and faster, how we’re Romantics who do not want to stop and think, but would rather keep making connections that lead to more possibilities. This implies that we never exist somewhere at one time; due to our hyper-connectedness, we are always wondering what’s out there and what’s next. We can and do dwell in multiple possibilities at once, all the time, and this is how we prefer to live.

Based on personal observation of my own attitudes and those of students surrounding me, I agree with Edmundson’s argument, for the most part. My refusal to commit to a particular subject over the years is perhaps the strongest reason for my position. Part of why I came to Virginia Tech had to do with it being a large school with plenty of things to get involved in and plenty of options for study. I found myself very uncomfortable declaring a major, and put it off as much as I could. Further, because of my fear of ruling out topics for study, I was very troubled when I learned that I had to pick a concentration within the English major as I declared it. Also, because my fellow students have a very fast trajectory and take on a lot in order to enhance their opportunities and possibilities, I certainly felt pressure to pick up more subjects in addition to my major. And I too was eager for more possibilities, so much so that instead of picking up another major, I picked up two minors. Two subjects seemed to cover more ground than one.

Through studies of his own students, Edmundson observed that actions of closure, such as setting dates, making purchases, and signing contracts are letdowns for us. One of his students said, “’It’s when I can see it all in front of me…that’s when I’m the happiest.’” I can truly relate to this statement; I am always thinking about what’s next, listing out what I can do five minutes from now, an hour from now, a week and a year from now. The only time I am comfortable, fulfilled, and happy and feel like I can enjoy the moment is when I know, at the back of my mind, that there's something else ahead with the potential for greater enjoyment and greater possibilities: a brownie in five minutes, seeing my fiancé in an hour, a shopping trip next weekend, and a vacation next year. However, I do not agree that any action that implies closure is uncomfortable for my generation because many of such actions open up new possibilities. For instance, declaring a major allowed me to discover new, more specific topics of study, and setting a date for my wedding allowed planning to start, which continues to yield a variety of experiences I wouldn’t otherwise have.

This idea is manifested in more commonplace and social situations as well. Edumundson describes how students at parties talk and text on their phones with other people about other parties, spending their time at the party planning what party to go to next. In response to this, I acknowledge that we as a generation are very aware that the possibilities for enjoyment are endless, and because we are used to being connected to these possibilities through technology, they are irresistible to indulge. Edumundson says, “The e-mailer, the instant messenger, the Web browser are all dispersing their energies and interests outward, away from the present, the here and now.” Indeed, for me and for many of my generation, the present has become a very difficult place to reside. With the occasional profound moment, the present, here, and now is rather vacant and boring – almost unsettlingly so.

Edumundson applies our connectedness to possibilities to a shift in how we receive and perceive information. “Music now comes personal,” he says, “a whisper in the ear, through the iPod, so that everyone can walk around with the soundtrack to his own movie purring.” Listening to music, especially while traveling, is my personal favorite way both to be somewhere else and to reinterpret my present state. These often happen simultaneously, creating a unique and complex personal journey out of something as mundane as buying a sandwich. By giving yourself and your life a soundtrack, you're adding interest and depth to it. With earbuds in and your personal playlists or Pandora stations streaming, you're reinterpreting and redefining your life all the time, giving in to the numerous possibilities of every moment. But a key feature of this sort of experience is the personalization of the music. Personal music can mean that the combination of sounds accurately speak to or reflect something intangible within yourself, but in a social context personalization can come from having bands that no one’s heard of. By possessing unique music, you're indicating that you're tuned into something beyond the mainstream and therefore your reach in taste and information-gathering capabilities are beyond average. It is often thought that the more obscure your connections, the deeper and more diverse they are.

There are often questions among teachers of how students handle their constant media connections in the classroom and throughout their studies. Edmunson’s students, like many, claim to be expert multi-taskers, even when it is becoming more generally known that there is no such thing as multi-tasking. Because it has been proven that the brain can only concentrate fully on one thing at a time, what students are actually doing is dividing their attention, switching focus rapidly between information. Some students will say that having a lot going on while studying – for instance, the TV on, instant messaging services open, people coming and going, and their phone nearby to receive texts – helps them concentrate because it keeps them alert. That is, they don't get bored enough to space out and are therefore more attentive to their work. Further, we are used to being able to have "mental breaks" where even just skimming our Facebook news feeds for a few seconds is a breather that helps us refocus. Edmundson reaches this same conclusion when he says, “The cellphoning comes as a relief: The students have been (give or take) in one place, at one time, pondering a few passages from Walden. Now they need to disperse themselves again, get away from the immediate, dissolve the present away.”

It is difficult to determine whether the implications of our need to refresh from the present by escaping to possibilities are positive or negative. “The classroom, where you sit down in one space at one time and ponder a text or an issue in slow motion, is coming to feel ever more antiquated,” Edmundson says. This runs contrary to what we are taught from a young age: that our ability to sit quietly for hours and rigorously study or analyze a single piece of text, a single perspective with a single outcome, lends greater value to our learning than lots of shallow information from a variety of sources that we don’t have to work hard to obtain. Naturally, given our way of life, we are resisting the former way of learning.

Hence, Wikipedia. Our need to escape the present affects our ability to focus on it, thus giving rise to the popularity of informational websites that are formatted for us to skim and skip to other subjects as we please. This reading is completely unrestricted, unlimited. It's tailored to exactly what we feel like learning on a whim and in an instant. Edmundson calls a computer linked to the Internet a “hookup machine”, which reflects how little commitment is involved when interacting with technologies such as Wikipedia. If you are bored by a topic, move on to another one in less than a second. Further, it is not a single perspective; on Wikipedia, we're getting the collective perspective on topics. We're learning not just what one other person knows, but what many know. Lastly, Wikipedia has the ability to change and grow any time; it is a robust realm of possibilities for learning.

Thus, Wikipedia embodies the nature of the 21st century student. We are using the technology we grew up with to enhance our learning in unprecedented ways. We absorb information shallowly while becoming much more adept at finding it. Knowledge that once required years of rigorous study is now at our fingertips, which is cause for reevaluation of pedagogical methods. And so, discovering what it truly means for us digital natives to “know things” is yet another possibility for our infinite exploration.

Works Cited

Edumundson, Mark. “Dwelling in Possibilities: Our students’ spectacular hunger for life makes them radically vulnerable.” The Chronicle of Higher Education: The Chronicle Review Volume 54 (2008). Web. 14 Dec. 2009.

Palfrey, J. and Gasser, U. (2008) Born digital: Understanding the first generation of digital natives. New York: Basic Books.

Small, G. and Vorgan, G. (2008) iBrain: Surviving the technological alteration of the modern mind. New York: Collins Living.

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