Every fall, as the new academic year begins, countless articles and blog posts remind us that the incoming crop of first year students came of age in a different historical era than those of us who are teaching them. The granddaddy of them all is The Mindset List, which Ron Nief and Tom McBride of Beloit College have published in various forms since 1997. Indeed, this old-timer is old enough to remember when these lists were disseminated as forwarded e-mails! The list is always a collection of pop cultural references, mostly drawn from the adolescences of the incoming students and the adolescences of the Baby Boom generation. This year’s list, for example, reminds us that we ought to avoid references to Dean Martin or Windows 95, as these will go over our poor students’ heads. We should instead gain our street cred (is this still a term I can use? better check the list) by dropping references to Lady Gaga and the movie Chicken Run.
As silly as these lists are (their fundamental premise is that the sum of our entire historical knowledge consists of events that occurred between our tenth and eighteenth birthdays), they do remind us of one thing: experiences and expectations change over time. The important point of the Mindset List is not to remind us that we need to avoid references to Don Shula or floppy discs. Rather, it should remind us that, as we work to educate the class of 2016, we need to make sure that we understand that they grew up with a fundamentally different means of interacting with information.
Our students’ generation is often referred to by the term digital natives. Unlike us digital immigrants, they grew up in cyberspace. They grew up in an era in which information has always been fundamentally interactive. In a piece that I wrote reacting to the announcement of the first iPad, I noted that:
Our students—until further notice let’s just call them Generation i—have been writing on each others’ Facebook walls, filming video responses to YouTube videos, and assembling their avatars with friends and strangers for raids in World of Warcraft for years now. That student sitting in the back row with his smart phone in front of his face isn’t texting his friends during your lecture; he’s blurring the boundaries between the production and reception of content.
What does all of this have to do with undergraduate research? Well, one of the responses to the casual relationship that these students have with information might be to train them in traditional methods of locating and evaluating resources, as Lynn Marie Kutch nicely argued in a column on this site. I agree that it is important to demonstrate to them that things can be done differently than they had assumed and to introduce them to the still-valid rigorous practices of good old-fashioned research.
But the reverse is also true: we should allow them to teach us that things can be done differently than we had assumed. I learned to research in an era of scarce information. The first problem to overcome was how to track it down. Our digitally native students grew up in an era of abundant information. Their first problem is to learn how to manage and evaluate it. I grew up in an era of knowledge hierarchies in which relatively few had the opportunity to disseminate knowledge. Our digitally native students grew up in an era of democratization of knowledge. We can learn from each other. They can learn that perhaps someone’s opinions expressed in the comments of a blog post might not carry the same weight as those of someone who has devoted years to studying the issue. We can learn that perhaps dynamic, free-flowing knowledge has some advantages.
In a piece I wrote a couple of years ago about research in the information age, I identified four central principles of what I call WikiResearch:
#1: We no longer need to concentrate on teaching students how to track down scarce information; rather, we need to teach them how to manage an abundance of information.
#2: The democratization of knowledge is not only a challenge to researchers; it is one of the greatest positive developments in the age of WikiResearch.
#3: We need to make our publications more public—and that means putting them on the open internet.
#4: Most of the fundamental principles of good, scholarly research remain unchanged.
Even though, when I developed these principles, the class of 2017 was still in Middle School and Reading Rainbow was still on television, I think that they still hold. As we engage in research with these digital natives, let’s remember that research can and should be—as Lady Gaga once tweeted—”an interactive jewel case.”