Not So Native?

You may have seen a few news items recently about the millennial generation and technology. Last month’s issue of Sociological Inquiry published an article by Eszter Hargittai describing differences in internet skills among college students. And an article in The Economist last week quotes several scholars who emphasize that digital natives are not necessarily as familiar with new media technologies as we often assume. The post about both of these articles over at Prof Hacker makes many additional good points on the topic, as do the commenters.

I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of many of the generalizations about millennials and their technology skills. I’m fairly tech savvy despite being nowhere near college age, and many of my colleagues are, too. I also know many folks my age and younger who are reluctant (and less savvy) technology users. In my experience interest is a far more accurate predictor of technology adoption than age. Our students are familiar with the tech tools they use every day–cellphones, text messaging, social networking, etc.–in the same way anyone can grow comfortable with repeated use of common technologies.

However, I’m not surprised to see the reports that current college students are much less tech savvy than the digital natives moniker so often used to describe them would lead us to believe. I’m sure this is familiar to many of us from our interactions with students, whether at the reference desk, in instruction sessions or elsewhere in the library. Somewhat more disturbing (though not entirely surprising) are the results of Hargittai’s research which reveal that skillful use of the internet tracks closely to socioeconomic status.

Academic libraries have widely adopted new technologies across the spectrum of our services, and I see these reports as encouragement for us to continue along that path. For students who are tech experts, using current digital tools is a way to connect with them where they are and to make them aware of our resources and services. And for those students who are less comfortable or experienced with technology, the library can help expose them to these new technologies and the many options for their use. But I’d also caution that we can’t let the new sweep away the old quite yet. They may be old-fashioned, but there’s still a place in our libraries for posters and handouts alongside those newcomers Twitter and blogs.

Maintaining Your Instruction Mojo

This post is somewhat of a follow-up to my last one on the involved library administrator. In that post I identified some reasons why an academic library administrator should consider staying actively involved in public services. That includes teaching instruction sessions.

There are many dimensions to being a great library instructor. Teaching regularly can certainly help to keep those skills sharp, and it affords the needed opportunity to experiment with learners, to try new things, and to stretch one’s capabilities in the classroom. While I advocated that academic library administrators should endeavor to continue their teaching role (BTW, there are college presidents that continue to teach regularly), having fewer opportunities to do so isn’t without consequences. For one thing, you become a bit rusty. In addition, since moving into administration is something you typically do in the latter part of your career, you’re a bit older, maybe less energetic and perhaps a bit less eager to try new things. Oh, and the students look much younger.

I volunteered for a few freshman instruction sessions this semester and I got to thinking about whether I’m going to appear too old or out of touch to the students. Using a cultural reference to the sixties that no contemporary student would understand is not beyond the realm of possibility for me. I’m certainly older than most of the lecturers teaching the courses. I’d like to avoid coming off as out-of-touch. On the other hand I absolutely don’t want to seem like I am trying too hard to be cool. I got to thinking about this a bit more when I came across an article in the August/September 2009 issue of The Teaching Professor titled “Why Don’t My Students Think I’m Groovy“. (sorry – not freely available online). The author raises concerns about how to keep her teaching methods fresh so millennial students can connect with her.

The author suggests the five R’s for engaging millennial students:

1. Relevance – The big challenge is to connect course content to the current culture – learning has to be relevant to them.

2. Rationale – Today’s students were raised in a non-authoritarian manner. They won’t comply because the instructor is in charge, but will be more likely to do so when given a good rationale.

3. Relaxed – They thrive in a less formal environment in which they can interact informally with the instructor and each other.

4. Rapport – More than previous generations they are used to having adults in their lives and show interest in them. They appreciate it when instructors show interest as well or when we connect on a personal level.

5. Research-based methods – Millennials have grown up constantly engaged so they can tend to bore easily, so be prepared with active learning methods

These are good tips to keep in mind. Something else that can help is the ability to demonstrate comfort and flexibility with technology. Being a geek could potentially score additional points with today’s students. Again, trying too hard could be problematic, but showing some skills with the smart classroom technology or navigating the web could work in your favor. If you end up having to ask the students for help you may be in trouble.

So how have things been going for me? I now remind myself to dress more casually on days I teach an instruction session. For these groups, I don’t think a suit and tie makes the instructor appear as likable or approachable. I make sure I’m comfortable with the technology. In fact I downloaded our clicker software and spent time learning how to create slides that will work with the clicker technology we’re using in our instruction this semester. I can’t say for sure if I’ve got my instruction mojo working at full capacity, but things seem to be going well. No one fell asleep in the 8:00 am class I did last week.