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How the Net Gen Learns

By Ben McNeely
North Carolina State University

Are you interested in knowing how Net Geners learn? Let me illustrate using my friends, me, and my grandfather.

Learning by Doing

Patrick Clarke, graphics editor for a student newspaper, sits down at a computer and launches Adobe InDesign. He opens a template for the news page and pulls in graphics, pictures, and text. He manipulates the blocks on the virtual newspaper page, moving back and forth between two other Adobe products, Photoshop and Illustrator. By the time the page is sent to the printer for printing, the elements on the page would have been manipulated, edited, and reedited at least a dozen times. Patrick is a creative and dynamic designer, but he is not a design major—he’s in computer engineering.

Chris Reynolds is a business major and wants to open a music store when he graduates. In his spare time, he is a DJ musician. He spins and mixes his own beats, using a computer, sound-editing software, turntables, and a keyboard. He teamed up with a friend to make a how-to video on spinning. They used digital video and professional editing software to create the video. Because he is a DJ, he worries about court cases involving the music industry. A recent case where the use of “sampling” was ruled illegal hit him hard, as sampling is widely used by DJs when they create their music.

Jake Seaton is a big arts and entertainment fan. He lives and breathes for music, movies, and anything Hollywood. He can tell you about film and music history and can quote even the most obscure lines from zombie movies (his favorite). He also is up-to-date on the latest in computer and console gaming. He chose a multidisciplinary degree in music journalism and has taken distance-education courses. In high school he won a state architecture award and has taught himself to use Photoshop and InDesign.

These are representatives of the Net Generation. They all use computers in their class work and in their hobbies. They have a wide range of interests, outside their chosen area of study. They are not locked into one thing, although all are highly motivated and pursue their interests with passion. They use the latest in technology, whether cell phones, computers, PDAs, MP3 players, or digital cameras. They expect things to work properly and work fast. They get bored if not challenged properly, but when challenged, they excel in creative and innovative ways. They learn by doing, not by reading the instruction manual or listening to lectures. These are the learners that faculty must reach.

When I first came to NCSU in 2000, I came to a public university dedicated to technology. There were numerous computer labs all over campus, and professors actively used assessment tools like WebAssign and WebCT in their classes. In an experimental psychology class, I used SAS statistical software to crunch data I collected from experiments. I used online message boards to post ideas and criticism in my opinion/editorial writing class.

In my technical document design class, I experienced the best use of technology in a class: hands-on, experimental, and interactive. This course covered the fundamental designs of technical documents: instruction manuals, memos, resumes, and so forth. Taught in a computer lab, the class sat one student to a computer. We learned to use Adobe Pagemaker, the most popular desktop publishing program at the time. With basic exercises from the instructor and trial-and-error assignments with broad guidelines, I learned not only how to use the program but also design fundamentals—by doing the actual design, not by reading it out of a book.

This is how the Net Generation learns: by doing. Many of my peers have emerged as the leaders of my generation. They will go on to become the leaders of our nation in many different roles—politicians, business executives, artisans, scientists, and journalists. Much like how we learn by doing, we lead by doing; that is, by practicing the art and science of our chosen paths.