The Student’s Perspective
sor—a relic of the Greatest Generation—did, indeed, surf the Web when it was
necessary. But he preferred the newspaper over CNN.com, the weatherman over
WeatherBug, and face-to-face visits over e-mail exchanges. He dusted off journals
from the 1980s and ﬂipped through their pages, and, if you asked him, he actually
knew how to load one of those microﬁche machines on the second ﬂoor of the
university library. He represented, for me, a world I could scarcely remember—a
world before driving directions on MapQuest, book buying on Amazon.com, and
making plans on Instant Messenger—a world when tasks were managed one by
one instead of all at once on multiple Web browser windows.
I am a member of the Net Generation. I’ve surfed the Web since the age of
11, and it has increasingly taken over every facet of my personal and academic
existence. I can barely recall making plans before the advent of IM and have rarely
attended a campus meeting without setting it up over e-mail ﬁrst. I get my news,
my weather, my directions—even my clothes—from the Web. And, as my peers
and I continue to ﬂood the gates of the nation’s colleges and universities, I am a
puzzle to many of the faculty and administrators who will try to teach me. They will
either try too hard to transform education into the virtual language I understand
or too little to accommodate for the differences between us. Just as with past
generations, however, all that is required is a basic understanding of what being
a Net Gener really means and how it translates to the classroom.
Meet Generation Y Not
It’s easy to call myself a Net Gener—to talk about the pains of growing old in the
Net Generation, to trade glib remarks with my peers about those fossils who
grew up tied to their landline existence. Deﬁning what all of it means, however,
is another story.
As a future historian, I’ve learned that everything in time must, eventually, ﬁt
neatly into a series of ages, categories, or generations: the Baby Boomers, the
Bronze Age, the Silent Generation, the Renaissance. So, naturally, countless hours
of history lecture were dedicated—in my head—to the role that my generation
would play in future history texts. Would students in 2105 ﬁnd us materialistic?
Self-absorbed? Would we be deﬁned by September 11 or the War on Terrorism?
Quite frankly, I didn’t know.
Luckily, where my history musings fell short, the social sciences dedicated
countless hours and volumes to dissection. And fortunately, the prognosis was
good. Though the youngest among our ranks are barely teenagers and the old-
Educating the Net Generation
est have just entered the workforce, it seems posterity will forever remember the
Net Generation as the Next Greatest Generation. Or, if we fail to measure up, the
Generation That Could Have Been the Next Greatest.
According to Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of Millennials Rising:
The Next Greatest Generation,1 my friends and I are nothing like our immediate
predecessors in Generation X. We are academically driven, family oriented, and
racially and ethnically diverse. We are committed to telling the truth and traditional
values, yet we refuse to accept our elders’ speeches or sermons at face value. We
are not politically active, but community centered. We truly believe we have the
tools and the desire to solve the lingering problems that our parents’ generation
has left behind.
In my own experience, both as a Net Gener and as a student leader and journal-
ist at North Carolina State University, Howe and Strauss and their colleagues are
not entirely off base. But the generalities require greater exploration, especially
in the role they will play for college faculty and administrators in determining how
best to reach the next generation of learners.
Driven to Succeed
Net Geners, for the most part, are not just driven by the notion of achievement—they
are consumed by it. Drilled by guidance counselors, parents, and teachers about
the importance of attending college in determining our own self-worth and success
potential, the race for the top began for some of us in middle school. We quickly
learned that a 4.0 grade point average is no longer sufﬁcient to get a foot in the
door of a good school and that every applicant would be able to claim honor roll
as an achievement. To distinguish ourselves, therefore, we load our schedules
with honors, advanced placement, and international baccalaureate coursework.
We take classes from community colleges. A portion of us even enter college
with sophomore standing.
And achievement is no longer limited to the classroom. College-bound students
learn early that extracurricular activities, leadership development, athletics, and
community service are not only to be enjoyed but exploited. In a world where
high school transcripts increasingly look more uniform in their perfection, a role
as president of SADD—Students Against Destructive Decisions—might be enough
to tip the scales in your favor. And you know it.
Even at the university level, we feel pressure that our degree simply will not be
enough. We’ve watched the economy falter and jobs disappear. We sat through the
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The Student’s Perspective
dot-com bust (feeling fortunate we were still in college, at least) and heard analysts
share horror stories about students with four-year degrees and nowhere to go.
Those fears have driven Net Geners outside the normal conﬁnes of the classroom
and made them desperate to add both value and experience to their degrees. Intern-
ships are taken during the summer, co-ops throughout the year. Clubs are joined
and community service embraced. It is enough, by junior year, to leave us wonder-
ing at what point all the preparation for life ends and enjoyment actually begins.
For college administrators and faculty, it means that each class of incoming
freshmen will be more stressed than the last. The average college-aged Net Geners
sitting in the back of the classroom will have more than the weight of a 15-hour
course load on their shoulders. Instead, most will be juggling a position or role in
a campus organization, a part-time internship, an independent research project,
and applications for summer jobs and graduate school. They will be masters of
multitasking and—by the time they graduate—will leave with a suitcase of experi-
ence and an ulcer lying in wait.
Driven by Compassion
Our capacity for community service and engagement is not entirely tied to our
desire to succeed, however. From a very early age, my peers and I have been
exposed to opportunities for service and examples of servant leaders in the com-
munity and in history. Community service is not just an opportunity to the Net
Generation, it is a responsibility.
The average American high school encourages community service through
service clubs, service awards, service requirements, or service-learning courses.
Religious groups and national humanitarian organizations, bolstered by the falling
prices of international travel, are taking youth on more trips around the world to
teach the importance of a “global citizen” and a dedication to worldwide service.
The nation and the media consistently praise and hold up examples of youth in
service. It has become increasingly “cool” to give back.
Beyond high school, colleges and universities have increasingly become com-
munity centers for civic responsibility and community giving. Beyond a host of
service organizations, most universities have departments on campus to coordinate
service projects, plan service trips for extended university breaks, and support
service organizations. Other student bodies, like that at NC State, coordinate
mass days of service that often draw thousands of volunteers to work with service
groups around the community.
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Educating the Net Generation
This acceptance of and emphasis on social responsibility has also changed the
way the Net Generation looks at careers. Priority within our ranks is placed less
on monetary value and fame than happiness and “doing something good.” We
join programs like the Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, and Teach for America in record
numbers and repeatedly express an interest in a career that will—somehow—impact
the future and other people.
Driven by Hope
It is true, as Howe and Strauss indicated, that the Net Generation is an overly
optimistic generation. We have not seen the corruption of power or felt the fear of
the Cold War. Instead, we’ve watched technology solve problems and alleviate the
rigors and stresses of our everyday lives. Just as society often views technology
as a vessel for progress, we see ourselves as the future navigators.
There is an unspoken sentiment within our ranks that the problems of the world
have largely been deposited at our feet. With the hole in the ozone layer growing,
peace shattering, and disease raging, many of us feel that older generations have
simply stepped aside to make room for our ingenuity and creativity. And, largely, we
feel that we are up to that challenge. In our eyes, our technological savvy makes
us smarter, easily adaptable, and more likely to employ technology to solve the
problems of past and present generations.
Father Google and Mother IM
Perhaps the greatest indicator of the Net Generation, however, has less to do
with our habits and values than our namesake: the Internet. I met the Internet for
the ﬁrst time from my second-row seat in Mrs. Kingsley’s fourth grade class. We
sat transﬁxed as a golden highway unfurled across the TV screen in a 30-minute
ﬁlm about the future of society. Soon, a voice promised, we would be able to talk
to children across the world, access medical advice from our home computers,
and search libraries across the country. The possibilities would be endless, the
vaults of knowledge limitless.
After class, two friends and I stood in awe at the single PC in the back of the
classroom. From that little box, we thought, we would soon access the world.
One friend picked up a yellow cable from the back. “Do you think this is it? Do
you think this is the highway?”
I rolled my eyes. “They said the highway isn’t complete yet. It’s like cable—you
probably have to wait until they dig the highway in your neighborhood,” I remarked.
The Student’s Perspective
It took years before I realized that the approaching Information Superhighway
was nothing more than an interconnected system of networks. It would take
many more before I realized the way the Internet had permeated almost every
facet of my life.
Growing up alongside the wheels of Web-based progress has instilled a feeling
within the Net Generation that technological understanding is a necessity for
current life and future existence. We cannot succeed in this world, we reason,
without an understanding and command of technological advances. This feeling
is reinforced by the emphasis on computer literacy in public school curriculums
and the nagging feeling that few jobs in the future will not rely on some form of
To keep pace, Net Geners have become some of the most technologically
adept members of society. Our cell phones often serve as Web browsers, digital
phones, and game consoles. We keep our schedules and addresses in Palm Pilots
and our music in MP3 players. We program our televisions to record movies while
we watch a game on another channel. We strive to stay ahead of the technology
curve in ways that often exhaust older generations.
This drive to keep pace with current trends is not fueled by society’s ability to
educate and teach these technologies. Instead, we are a generation of learners
by exploration. My ﬁrst Web site, for example, was constructed before I had any
concept of HTML or Java. I simply experimented with the commands until the
pieces ﬁt together. I have installed every addition to my computer myself, often
with just my instinct and eyesight to guide me. Likewise, many of my peers rarely
pick up the instruction pack to learn programming or a technique. Instead, spurred
by our youthful exploration of the Internet, we tend to learn things ourselves, to
experiment with new technology until we get it right, and to build by touch rather
Filling the Attention Deﬁcit: Reaching the Net
Generation in a Traditional Classroom
In middle school, my second-period health class took a break from memorizing the
food groups to learn healthy study habits. Flipping idly past images of red-shirted,
blue-panted stick ﬁgures seated upright in desk chairs in our text, we were told
that the best way to study was to isolate ourselves from the television, the tape
Educating the Net Generation
player, and the busy sidewalks outside the window. We were to clear a nice study
corner with a comfy chair, good lighting, and ample work space.
If Harcourt Brace were to evaluate my college study space, it would—no
doubt—be the antithesis of healthy study habits pictured in one of their textbooks.
There would be no clear desk, no silent cocoon, no harsh lighting. Instead, Law
and Order reruns would be playing in the background. To my left, a trail of jumbled
cords would stretch from my bedroom to a laptop on the couch cushion. My IM
buddy list would be minimized on the screen, but noise alerts would be turned on
to tell me when friends signed on or off the Internet. A collage of browser windows
would remain open, one directed to CNN.com to read the day’s news between
chapters, another to my e-mail to know exactly when the next piece of mail arrived,
and then another to Google, in case the text raised any questions. Somewhere in
the middle would be me and a history textbook turned to page 149.
My study space—which could be found in the average dorm room suite—is
characteristic of my life. With information and accessibility lying effortless at my
ﬁngertips, I have grown accustomed to juggling multiple tasks at once, at lightning
speed. In the average online conversation with a friend, for instance, I am likely
to be talking to two others, shopping online at Barnes & Noble, laughing out loud
at Friends reruns, and printing off notes from a chemistry lecture. It is only in the
classroom, therefore, that my mind is trained on one subject. To keep it in place
requires some ﬂexibility and creativity on the part of the professor and an under-
standing of the basic principles that guide the Net Generation.
Though online communication is often seen as the opposite of personal and the
antithesis of contact, for the Net Gen it is certainly not seen as such. Instead,
the Internet has become a vehicle for interaction. It allows us the opportunity to
communicate with friends, to participate in chat room discussions, and to stream
video from around the world. In short, it allows interaction with a variety of people
In the classroom, we crave much of the same. An online society may increase
the means of communication, but it does not diminish the human need for con-
nection. Instead, many Net Geners often leave the computer screen craving actual
conversation and interaction with their classmates. To capitalize on this need,
faculty should encourage interaction both within and outside the classroom.
Group work should be emphasized alongside required one-on-one meetings with
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The Student’s Perspective
professors. Students should be given the opportunity to interact with faculty and
researchers outside the conﬁnes of the curriculum and to develop meaningful
relationships with them.
Just as we want to learn about the Web by clicking our own path through cyber-
space, we want to learn about our subjects through exploration. It is not enough
for us to accept a professor’s word. Instead, we want to be challenged to reach
our own conclusions and ﬁnd our own results. Lessons last longer, in our minds,
if we understand the relevant steps to reach them.
Therefore, a need to explore is implicit in our desire to learn. Rather than dis-
cussing bias, for instance, a journalism professor once asked my class to analyze
several articles and discuss their diction. We arrived at the conclusion that the
authors’ bias was implicit in their work with little direction. We left class that day
with both a sense of accomplishment and a deeper understanding of the journalistic
themes the professor had hoped to explore.
In a world where technologies change daily and graduates armed with four-year
degrees are entering the workforce in record numbers, there is an increasing fear
among the Net Generation that a four-year degree will be neither relevant nor suf-
ﬁcient preparation when it becomes time to enter the work force. Consequently,
students are consistently looking for practical applications of their studies in a
Establishing relevancy in the classroom is not as simple as it sounds. It does
not equate to presenting a laundry list of future occupations or examples of a
ﬁeld in the news. Instead, more and more curricula are focusing on the notion of
extension, or applying the lessons learned in the classroom to real-life problems,
institutions, or organizations in the community. For the Net Generation, such cur-
ricula speak to two of its values: community service and interaction. Extension is
an opportunity to help a community while learning the real-world application of
taught material and acquiring relevant skills and experience.
As a history major, for example, I spent a semester researching a cultural
heritage site on the North Carolina coast. Beyond simply teaching documentary
skills, the experience helped glue together the pieces of four years of courses to
demonstrate how my degree would eventually translate into marketable skills.
Educating the Net Generation
Turn on the nightly news and it is clear that no medium is one-dimensional. Prose
is supplemented by song. Photographs are accompanied by video. Issues are even
turned into online polls and discussions. For the Net Gen, nearly every part of
life is presented in multimedia format. Even my study space, as I detailed before,
is a hodgepodge of digital, audio, and text information. To keep our attention in
the classroom, therefore, a similar approach is needed. Faculty must toss aside
the dying notion that a lecture and subsequent reading assignment are enough
to teach the lesson. Instead, the Net Generation responds to a variety of media,
such as television, audio, animation, and text. The use of a singular unit should
be kept short and alternating, producing a class period as diverse in structure
as it is in content.
In my four years of courses, the best example of a multimedia classroom
comes from a three-hour seminar I participated in on the Vietnam War. Though
the prospect of spending three hours in the same cramped classroom was daunt-
ing, the professor employed a variety of media to keep our attention. Class began
with a song from the period, and ﬁlm clips were used throughout to illustrate key
themes or replicate events. The lecture alternated discussion interspersed with
photographs, tables, and graphics. As a result, most of us were more alert and
interested in this class than in previous 90-minute classes, despite the consider-
ably longer class time.
It’s easy to deduce that all this technology has made the Net Generation lazy. We
don’t pick up dictionaries anymore—we go to Dictionary.com. We don’t walk to the
library—we search online journal databases. We wouldn’t know an archive if we
stumbled into it on the way to the fax machine. Though the Internet is attempting
to phase out these standard methods of research, they are important, nonetheless.
The average college student, however, has no clue how to navigate or inves-
tigate the modern library. Instead, students increasingly rely on Web sites and
Internet archives for information—increasing the likelihood that they will stumble
across and cite false or incorrect information. For those reasons, modern class-
rooms, faculty, and libraries must still teach and demonstrate basic research skills
such as ﬁnding journals, evaluating primary sources, digging through archives, or
even perusing library shelves. Today’s students may believe they can learn solely
on the Internet, but they cannot.
The Student’s Perspective
A Virtual Education: Crafting the Online Classroom
Philosophy: my nemesis. For ﬁve semesters I had cleverly evaded its call—pointedly
skipping over the requirement with the dim hope that a registration glitch might
ﬁll the spot without my actual participation. But as graduation grew closer, the
empty spot next to its name hadn’t budged. So, with a sinking feeling of dread, I
decided to budge instead.
My only consolation, as I dutifully joined the roll for Philosophy 205, was that
Introduction to Philosophy was ﬁnally being offered in a Web-based course. I
had never tried an entirely “virtual” classroom before, thinking such endeavors
were better suited to distance education students or those with full-time jobs.
But philosophy? That could be an exception.
The class was set up with sincere trust and respect for the student. Reading
assignments from an assigned text were listed on the course Web site. For grad-
ing, we were asked to periodically turn in homework questions from the text and
to take occasional quizzes and exams. Every exam was open note and open book
with a three-hour window of time. The homework was loosely graded.
For the ﬁrst exam, I read every chapter and highlighted the notes from the
study guide. I ﬁnished the test in less than 30 minutes. For the second, with the
full weight of a 16-hour semester upon me, I did the reading but skipped the high-
lighting. I ﬁnished in an hour. For the next exam, with two test experiences under
my ﬁngertips, I skipped reading altogether and simply searched for the answers
in the text. The test took nearly two hours. Each time, the grade was the same. By
the end of the semester, I couldn’t tell the theory of relativity from utilitarianism.
But speed reading? I was a master.
The professor had assumed, while crafting his course, that putting philosophy
on the Web would give his students more ﬂexibility to shape their own learning
experience. We could read at our own pace. We could respond to message threads
at our leisure. We could even take tests with the full support of our text, our notes,
and—in my case—our quick darting eyes.
What he hadn’t expected, perhaps, is that the advent of the Internet and the
opportunity of the online classroom had not diminished the need for traditional
educational principles like discipline, engagement, and interaction. Instead, my
online course had turned learning into exactly what I despised—a one-dimensional
exercise in learning and regurgitating facts.
Take, as a counterexample, a course in Latin American History offered on the
Web. Like my philosophy course, we were asked to read from an assigned text.
Educating the Net Generation
Instead of quizzes and tests, we were asked to periodically turn in essays and
papers. The main difference, however, was that each week we were required to
participate in online discussions relevant to our text or reading found on the Web.
Some weeks we were required to simply post our own responses. Other times,
part of the class was to counter the arguments made by another part. During some
weeks, we were to evaluate and critique our classmates’ arguments. Though it
seemed effortless at the time, the exercises were a thinly veiled attempt to hold
us accountable for the reading and to engage us in the material.
As technology improves and the “virtual classroom” becomes more popular,
there is a tendency on the part of institutions and students to turn to online courses.
They save resources and can accommodate more students. They are more ﬂex-
ible for busy schedules or commuters. But as these examples demonstrate, the
online classroom must be created with the same care and expectations as the
Students still crave interaction with their fellow students, even if they cannot
see them. Otherwise, the online classroom seems cold and disconnected. To keep
students engaged in the material and passionate about the subject matter, there-
fore, the professor must ﬁnd a way for the students to interact with one another.
Discussion forums are a natural solution and can be facilitated by posing ques-
tions for students to respond to or as simply a “free for all” for student discussion.
The professor must be an active participant and facilitator, however, or students
will diminish the exercises’ importance. Another solution is virtual group work.
Asking students to collaborate on projects or assignments forces them to meet
and exchange ideas with their peers and fulﬁlls their need for group interaction
without actually meeting in a classroom.
Students also want diversity in both content and content media, a desire that
should not be stiﬂed by the assumed one-dimensionality of online coursework.
While most online courses create a class Web site for posting assignments and
logging in to take tests, these sites could be used as portals for multimedia explo-
ration. One of the great beneﬁts of the Web is its use of multiple media formats:
users can stream video, listen to audio, and peruse photographic archives. It is
important, therefore, to incorporate a variety of formats into the online classroom to
keep content fresh and to appeal to the sensory habits of a variety of learners.
The Web-based course, unlike the traditional classroom, is also at an advantage
visually. Net Gen learners are more likely to respond to visual images than a form
of straight text. From childhood, we are bombarded by images on television, on
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