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Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dumbing down the web for today's students

Today, The Chronicle posted a short story about a Ph.D. candidate who was shocked by the fact that college students were less plugged in than he was (video of the lecture is included and I think it's pretty interesting). I'm more saddened than shocked. More students are online than ever, but so very few seem savvy about what they can do with the web. None of the students in the lecture had blogs. None seemed to know what RSS was. The students expressed doubt about the importance of online learning. How creative will the next generation of marketers be if they question the importance of the web?



A few years ago, an absolutely brilliant engineering student at one of my former institutions came to see me. He nervously clutched a spindle of blank CD-Rs and shifted his weight from one foot to the other. I couldn't imagine what was making him so anxious. He softly asked "Dean J...could you teach shins to me?"

I was almost in shock. "Shins" is how a certain type of file extension (.shn) is pronounced by those who use it. Along with FLACs (.flac files), they are used by tapers and traders of live music. Trading live music, encouraged by a whole range of bands, changed from mail based to Internet based in the late 90s. I assumed that all teenagers were familiar with .shn and .flac files and converting them to audio (.wav) or MP3s. The fact that my extremely savvy engineering student didn't know about these simple files or how to get them through Bit Torrent (which, unfortunately, has since become popular with sharing copyright protected music and movies) was pretty shocking.


That little incident made me realize that while students are more "plugged in" than ever, many are only familiar with technology that's packaged in easily digested bits. It used to be that social interaction on the web was done by newsgroup and IRC (Internet Relay Chat). I believe listserves came along next, making messages come to the user instead of requiring the user to go to the messages. Then Prodigy and AOL came along and created "environments" that sat on the web, but didn't require users to actually go to the web. Around that time, I remember seeing a lot of students writing down their email addresses without an "@domain.com" because they only interacted within AOL, where that wasn't required.

I could go on and on with the time line, but as I stated earlier, what we arrive at is a time when the majority of students are online, but the minority of students are truly savvy about the web. Ask a student to personalize their MySpace or Facebook page and they can put together a page full of bells and whistles. Ask them to create a website and some would need explicit instructions for registering a domain name.

Students, for a while, were the teachers when it came to the web. Perhaps we're approaching a reversal of that.