A Critical Perspective on “A Vision of Students Today”

In setting the stage for a presentation and leading discussion in class recently, the 8:00am classpresenter, a forty-something mature age student, started off by stating: “I hate lectures”. He then led an animated and highly participatory and student-centered session. As I watched Michael Wesch’s (2008) “A Vision of Students Today” his comment was freshly embedded in my mind.

Wesch (2008) and his (200) students offer a critical view of the way teachers interact with students and teach to the Net Generation. Students, according to the video, read only half or so of the required readings for their coursework, and many, rather than paying attention in class, are looking at sites such as Facebook. Doodling, dozing off, general disinterest, not to mention failing to read all required course material, are hardly new behaviours. The student’s sign that reads “My neighbor paid for class but never comes” (Wesch, 2008) could just as easily been written when I was an undergraduate student in the 1980s. Wesch (2008), acknowledges this and cites the work of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner in that this is not really different from students a few decades ago. This commentary critically examines “A Vision of Students Today” and in doing so, considers how digital media may be affecting students’ learning and thought processes, and the changing face of universities.

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Central to Wesch’s (2008) argument is that there is a genuine digital divide between faculty and students, and that transmission-oriented (teacher-centered) education does not work in this day and age. Many educators would concur that universities are archaic in how they deliver knowledge, and that there are perceptible changes in students that are occurring in tandem with technological advances. In The Shallows: What The Internet is Doing to Our Brains, Carr (2010) argues that, just as Marshall McLuhan predicted, we are now in a key transitional stage between two very distinct ways of thinking: linear and networked. Networked environments, unlike Taylorist ones, offer an approach in which adjustments are made quickly through a process of continuous feedback and interactions (Harkin, 2009). Carr (2010) suggests that a key impact of digital media is how it is changing our cognitive processes and concentration ability. He posits that networked thinking, a result of using technology such as the Internet, is “staccato”-like (p. 7). Furthermore, Carr (2010) observes that his concentration is weaker and that “deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.” (p. 6). This is not dissimilar to Jakob Neilsen’s (2006) identification of the F-shaped pattern. Through eye-tracking, Neilsen found that the way text is read online differs from traditional print mediPositron emission tomography image of a human braina in that as we scroll down a page we read less and less and the pattern of what is actually read is F-shaped. In other words the way we both access and process information is changing. While Wesch (2008) does not look at reading per se, he is keenly interested in understanding the interplay between media, relevancy of learning and student engagement, and these are intertwined with reading, cognition and concentration.

Wesch’s (2008) suggestion that students have been indoctrinated not to question the importance of learning that takes place in universities is notable. As such, it is ironic that it is his students who indeed question the relevance of what they are doing, with more than half responding that they do not like school (Wesch, 2008, n.p.). In considering this, Noble’s (2002) thoughts on the commodification of education are relevant. He contends that universities have shifted priorities from addressing social need to a focus on potential return on investment. He posits that this commodification of education is undermining student experience and the building of knowledge. In a way, Wesch (2008) acknowledges this in his comments about the need he feels to entertain students. What he does not address is the changing polemic that finds an increasing number of students looking at university in market terms whereby they are clients and courses are products. Universities were historically elite, and it is in the past few decades that a process of both opening and widening of the roles of universities as well as the commodification of education have occurred.

Broken Wall

Considering the changing nature of many institutions along with how technology may be affecting students’ thinking processes it is apparent that the challenges that we, as university educators, face are significant. If the walls that surround classes are breaking with new technologies that free information from classifications (Wesch, 2007), then new approaches to engaging students in activating knowledge and thinking critically are paramount in order to make university classes more than an “information dump” (Wesch, 2008, n.p.). “A Vision of Students Today” indeed highlights many of the issues that university instructors face, but does not tell the whole tale. For example, faculty at the University of Southern Carolina (2010) respond to Wesch (2008) in how they engage and work with students and offer a wide range of ways that cover many of the criticisms highlighted in “A Vision…”. Yet, they, like Wesch, neither look at the impact of computer-mediated technology in how it changes reading or thinking, nor how both universities and students have changed. Taken together, these elements may be in some ways be seen as a perfect storm of converging elements. The issues faced by modern educators are diverse and complex, and we now are much more aware of the student-centered and participatory ways to better engage students and these can help address many of the issues that Wesch and his students identify. That said, some of the overarching elements highlighted in this commentary require make a case for a reconsideration of the fundamental way that information and knowledge is passed on/built in the post-secondary environment and the role of institutions themselves.

References

Carr, N. (2010). The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. New York: W.W. Norton and Company.

Harkin, J. (2009). Lost in Cyburbia: How Life on the Net Has Created a Life of Its Own. Toronto: Knopf Canada.

Nielsen, J. (2006). F-Shaped Pattern For Reading Web Content. Retrieved from: http://www.useit.com/alertbox/reading_pattern.html

Noble, D. (2002). Digital diploma mills: The automation of higher education. Toronto: Between the Lines.

University of South Carolina Center for Teaching Excellence (2010). A Faculty Response to A Vision of Students Today. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GM2TrMHAR4

Wesch, M. (2007). Information R/evolution. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/user/mwesch#p/u/6/-4CV05HyAbM

Wesch, M. (2008). A Vision of Students Today (& What Teachers Must Do). Retrieved from: http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2008/10/a-vision-of-students-today-what-teachers-must-do/

Wesch, M. (2008). “A Vision of Students Today”. Retrieved from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dGCJ46vyR9o

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