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The Digital Dichotomy

By Rosalie Evans, Professor, Capitol Technology  University

Many of my students are shocked when I tell them that there was no TV available until I was nearly 10 years old. And that my cousins and I sometimes watched the test pattern after school because there was nothing  else on. Worse yet, the test pattern was in black-and-white and only about nine inches square!  We were delighted when the horse racing reports from Laurel, Pimlico, and Bowie racetracks began about 4 o’clock  with the “win”, “place” and “show” dollars. We didn’t understand what the numbers meant, but it was better than the test pattern.

I was shocked to find, in my first year at Capitol in 1999, that students did not relate to events surrounding the assassination of JFK, which seemed like just yesterday to me, or to the Watergate scandal ten years later that toppled the Nixon administration. Now I am finding that the intense national reaction to 9/11 is just a vague memory for many of the this fall’s  incoming freshmen, most of whom were only four or five years old at the time.

Clearly, there is a generation gap of major proportions here. For me, communicating across that yawning chasm is one of the most rewarding, enjoyable, and, of course, frustrating  aspects of teaching at Capitol Technology University. In the last 15 years, this chasm has broadened to include not only cultural differences, but technological differences between myself and the tech-savvy students of the current generation.

An early indication of this digital dichotomy came quite a few years ago when I told a student that her conference was scheduled for “quarter of three”. Seeing the confused look on her face, I realized that this way of telling time made no sense to her.  Having grown up with digital clocks, fractions of an hour were not in her frame of reference. Instead, “two forty-five” brought a smile of relief and recognition.

A few years later I began using, in English Communications II classes, an article by Mark Bauerlein (2009) called “Why Gen Y Johnny can’t read non-verbal cues” that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Bauerlein’s theory, backed by significant research, was that young people were losing the skill of reading body language because so much of their communication was taking place online rather than in person. Some students adamantly opposed his theory, but others admitted that online communication was easier, less emotionally taxing, and preferable to face-to-face conversations especially for “giving bad news.”  Like learning to play the piano, less practice makes for less skill.

Having  students practice sending different emotional messages with just non-verbal facial expressions and hand gestures was cause for hilarity, but, indeed, revealing of some weaknesses as identified by Bauerlein. Further evidence for his idea was that given a set of photographs, students were not very astute at interpreting the body language of the people in the pictures.     

The most recent generational abyss to be addressed by my students and me is the “connectivity” issue. Some years ago, the sign at the front of my classroom said “Turn off all pagers.”  No beeps, please. Then for a couple years, it said “Please turn off all iPods.”  (One student tried to convince me that his earbuds were really hearing aids, but the chuckles of his classmates gave him away.)  Now the bright pink sign says “No cell phones in class.”  It often comes as a surprise to students to find that I am not a fan of cell phones, and consider responding to cell phone calls in class distracting to the student, disruptive to the class, and disrespectful of the professor.  It takes a couple weeks before students routinely put away their cell phones when class begins, and pretend that they are isolated from friends and family for 90 minutes. 

My classes are not complete technological wastelands, though. The English Communications II class depends heavily on student connectivity via their laptop computers. Students spend about 75% of their class time using the internet to carry out individual research, to share information and resources, and to contribute to collaborative research and writing projects.  Student papers are submitted online  to Turnitin.com for peer reviews, plagiarism checking, and electronic grading. The English Communications I students recently spent 3 weeks in class working in pairs on their laptops analyzing a data set, collaboratively writing a summary of the information it revealed, and putting together a 10-minute slide show for their peers.

I’ve even become a fan of video games, though Grand Theft Auto appears to be beyond my capability.

So, our generation gap is not as insurmountable or as detrimental  is it first appears. In fact, the gap encourages entertaining dialogue, develops intergenerational  insight, and fosters rapport as a result of sharing personal experiences. Each of us learns to appreciate and respect the other’s point-of-view. This process, it seems to me, is education in its broadest and best sense.