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Rethinking How We Teach The 'Net Generation'

Author Don Tapscott says it's time for universities to adjust to students digital habits — not the other way around.
Author Don Tapscott says it's time for universities to adjust to students digital habits — not the other way around.

Few will argue about America's colleges and universities being critical to our economic and intellectual future. And by many measures, that future looks promising: Competition for places in the country's top schools is fiercer than ever, more families are willing to pay higher tuition, and employers are putting a greater premium on a college degree.

But Don Tapscott, co-author of Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business And The World, argues that universities are woefully behind the times.

Tapscott — who has studied the digital revolution — tells NPR's Neal Conan that the traditional lecture model in American universities is no longer appropriate for a generation that has grown up making, changing and learning from digital communities.

"My generation — the boomers — grew up watching 24 hours a week of TV per kid," Tapscott says. But, he adds, today's young people have had a very different experience.

"This new generation comes home and they turn on their computer and they're in three different windows and they've got three magazines open and they're listening to iTunes and they're texting with their friends," he says, "and they're doing their homework."

With such a networked approach to work and leisure time, Tapscott says the traditional university classroom is starting to feel less appropriate.

A Harvard student studying the corporate management expert Peter Drucker once summed up his disillusionment with what Tapscott calls the "broadcast model" of learning: "Why would I sit there and listen to a [teaching assistant] talking to 300 of us," Tapscott recalls him saying, "when I can go online and interact with a real-time Peter Drucker?"

"The big thing is to get an 'A' without having ever gone to the lecture," Tapscott says. "All these kids that have grown up collaborating and thinking differently walk into a university and they're asked to sit there and passively listen to someone talking."

He says that if someone from 100 years ago miraculously came back and found a modern engineer designing a bridge, it would be clear how much technology had changed things. But if that same person walked into a university lecture hall today, it would be entirely familiar.

"We need to move toward a collaborative model of learning that's student focused, [that's] highly customized and that is a model appropriate for a new generation that learns differently," says Tapscott. He warns that universities are ignoring the changing needs and desires of young people — and they're doing so at their own peril.

"When you have the cream of the crop of an entire generation thinking that the model of pedagogy is deeply flawed," he says, "well, the writing's on the wall."

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