Students Online: Three Encounters with the Generation Gap

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Until this afternoon, I thought I was out of my mind to think I could fly to Europe next Friday–the last day of classes– for three weeks. It’s not my way–I like to be around during exam week to help those students who drift into my office to talk about their poems and their portfolios; I like to help them move towards their final reflections (They reflect frequently during the semester, and then at the end they look back over the arc of the entire course and write a hypertext essay in which they talk about their journey through nonfiction, fiction and poetry by linking to their work and the their classmates’ work and to whatever else strikes them in the world or on the Motherblog as significant in their learning experience). I also like to be around for graduation, so I can tell the parents of my students just how incredible their sons and daughters are. I will be sorry to miss that opportunity. But I am headed to France to attend the wedding of one of my former-students-turned-daughter (yes, this is what happens when you mentor a learning community of reciprocal apprenticeships) and to meet up with my daughter who has been in India this semester. I wouldn’t miss it. Then I head to an offline week in Italy en famille, and then to the UK edublogging conference in London before making my way home. I will converse with my students online only while they pull their final portfolios together–this is a first. And until today, I didn’t realize that I was nervous about how that would go and that they were relaxed about it all — I didn’t realize how much I hadn’t REALLY taken in the fact that my students live their lives online in ways that I do not. My, things have changed in a matter of months.

A couple of moments today slapped me to my senses–ha–to think that I’ve been worried about my students, how they would take to this distance, this exclusively online relationship for one whole week, how they would cope with my being away from the phone and office. Ha indeed. Just five short years ago I pulled blogs into my classrooms because I was concerned about the deep divisions between the worlds my students inhabited outside the classroom and inside. They knew nothing about blogs, thought little about online lives beyond email and surfing the Net, and yet felt a tension between what was going on in class and out in the world. I helped them bridge those worlds through our classroom blogging. Five years later, it’s a whole new world–my students move fluidly between these realms while we are the ones who are, perhaps, struggling to integrate the various parts of our lives. And I thought I was keeping up by reading about the developments–I just wasn’t living all of them. They were OUT THERE somewhere, abstract yet, the things I thought about in the blogosphere but hadn’t really come into contact with directly. Not until today.

This afternoon at a reception in honor of a program I have directed for the past few years, I wanted to say a few words in tribute to our graduating seniors. I wanted to make sure I had the details right–their achievements, future plans, majors. I asked my colleagues for help, and pulled together a picture of sorts that pretty much corresponded with what I already knew on my own. Then we asked our head student worker to help (she had attended this program and was a senior, and so we figured she’d know the details.) She said, “Sure. Hang on.” And she sat down at the computer. In less than a minute she was telling me about majors and dreams and activities and club memberships. MySpace. And the Facebook. And there I was looking foolish as I stared at the screen, thinking, man, what a wonderful resource. Personalized CVs online as well as a network, a way to meet people, a way to connect, a way to get things done with the people who really matter to them. Even for school-related moments. Duh.

And then, during the reception, I let a student know that a member of a committee we both sat on had asked me to tell her that she had left her a voicemail message a couple of weeks back but had received no reply. She looked at me incredulously. “Voicemail?” she said. “I don’t use my room phone.” She went on to explain that no one uses their room phones–that it was a sure sign of a generation gap–people actually would get mad when their roommate’s phone would ring. It was disruptive. Intrusive. Rude. We laughed–and cringed–at how these differences were really having an impact on communications between faculty and students. Did faculty want to communicate via cellphones and IM? Would students use their campus email and phones? Well, I know that from now on I won’t be using campus phone extensions to get in touch with my students…it explains some things I’ve been wondering about these past months… And to think that I am one of the most “with it” profs when it comes to living online. Wow.

And then at home I found my daughter trying to rent an apartment this summer; she rejected the newspaper classifieds I pointed out in favor of Craigslist where all the good apartments were listed. And yup, she had found a great apartment, worked out all the details with the guy online, went to see it, and signed the contract before the local paper was even printed. Goodbye newspaper classifieds.

Got it.

I may know about how online learning communities affect traditional pedagogies, how blogs are powerful enhancers of the learning experience, but I am just now seeing how my students are actually weaving online living right into the inner fabric of their lives. It’s a very different orientation. I still celebrate the possiblities–they accept the realities. I talk blogs–they live MySpace. I marvel at Skype–they buy each other iSights when they go abroad.

When I look around the blogosphere this evening, it’s with a shifted perspective. I see even more clearly the importance of creating opportunities for students to explore and to understand how these networks deepen their learning–how learning to read images, text and audio critically, and to use them creatively and deeply is even more essential than ever. And to let all kids have access to the power of these tools. To do that, I have to keep venturing out into their world as I look back over my shoulder and keep in touch with where we’ve been. I’m no longer worried about going to Europe for three weeks. My students will be fine. They’ll get in touch somehow when they need me. And I’ll have more to catch up on, I’m sure, when I return.