It’s A Matter Of Approach

This morning Laura tweeted about an article by Danah Boyd. I was struck by this paragraph:

“I have become a “bad student.” I can no longer wander an art museum without asking a bazillion questions that the docent doesn’t know or won’t answer or desperately wanting access to information that goes beyond what’s on the brochure (like did you know that Rafael died from having too much sex!?!?!). I can’t pay attention in a lecture without looking up relevant content. And, in my world, every meeting and talk is enhanced through a backchannel of communication. This isn’t simply a generational issue. In some ways, it’s a matter of approach [emphasis mine].”

Besides surprising me with the little fact about Rafael (what a way to go, huh?) it reminds me of how I am a “bad student” too. The key thing to point out is that it has nothing, let me repeat that, nothing to do with being part of the “Net-Generation” (oh how I loathe that label). I had to teach myself to have the discipline to not goof off on my laptop and I had to learn to utilize the internet and its resources to better my education. I wasn’t born with this desire and I certainly didn’t learn it growing up. I learned it when I came to college and became involved with a community of people who loved learning and cared about the role of technology in learning. Being part of a caravan of life-long learners taught me a new approach to my education and it encouraged me to look beyond the basic things I used my computer for.

All of this reminded me of a post Martha recently wrote where she talked about the purple boxes that she had seen on the side of the highway. For her it was not enough to just take note of them, she needed to know what the heck they were. Martha said:

“And I had to know because I pretty much knew I had a way to find out the answer. I guess my point is that in this information-rich world, not knowing is simply not an option for me anymore. If I didn’t have access to the tools to find my answers, I think it would drive me crazy.”

This is the way I have certainly become and have been since high school. I’ve learned better ways to search on Google and if Google fails to help me I can figure out where to go next. While this may be true of me many of my friends don’t automatically think this way. I don’t know how many times I have to say to them, “Why don’t you look it up on Google?” and it is like the thought never occurred to them. These are students my age who aren’t taking this approach to the web, probably because they’ve never been pushed to think about it in that way before.

So can we drop the label “Net-Gen”? Or at least change the definition of it? If you call someone my age a Net-Gen kid you would be right in saying we grew up with the internet and probably spend a lot of time on it. I think it is wrong to say that just because someone grew up using it doesn’t mean they are tech savvy or think of new ways to use it. While the internet is radically different from a lot of technology in the past it is still a technology. Just because you might have grown up with a record player doesn’t mean you know how to work a turntable and DJ. Sure you know how to use a record player but, it doesn’t go much pass the basic. Just because someone grew up with the internet doesn’t mean they know how to make a mash-up or understand RSS; they can probably browse and create a word document though. That might be a poor analogy, I don’t know. I really wish we could forget the labels or actually think about what we mean when we say those things.

My learning has been augmented through the use of the web because people older than me pushed me to think outside my “browse the web & create word document-box”. Like Danah Boyd said, “It’s a matter of approach”. And personally, I have had to learn a new approach and make a concious decision to take responsibility for my education. I did not magically become this way just because I grew up with the internet.

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1 Response to “It’s A Matter Of Approach”


  1. 1 bill July 15, 2009 at 9:27 am

    A science fiction author once wrote that it was a challenge for him to introduce new technology in a story in a way that explained it without being pedantic. No one ever says, he wrote, that they ‘walked over to the switch on the wall, pushed it, and thereby made a connection between a power source and a lightbulb, thus allowing a flow of electrons which ionized a gas inside a sealed container and provided illumination’. You know how electricity works. (Well, you do unless you’re the philosophy instructor neighbor of Phaedrus’ in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.) More complex issues, you have a general idea about; no one writes about rocket ships blasting off; now, we assume that anti-gravity and warp drive are possible, though the details elude us. (I wondered for a while how gravitic engineering would even work; I didn’t get far on that.) The difference between when an author WOULD have had to explain electricity and now is that the reader is presumed to have a vast cultural base that not only informs her understanding of the world and its components but also provides a method of finding out more. Don’t know how to get a wine stain out of a silk blouse? Google it. Can’t figure out how to get to the nearest Pizza Hut? Mapquest it. Wondering what Congress is up to, legislatively? Look at THOMAS. Want to know how to yell Hey, Taxi! — in Spanish? Babelfish it. The concept goes further. The technique of Augmented Reality allows you to look at ordinary things and learn extraordinary things about them, from a schematic diagram of what the inside of that automobile engine looks like to where the closest WiFi signal is from that array of townhouses across the street. It works by linking first-generation information — what you see — with geotagged information stored in rapidly accessible databases. Not common yet, but its getting that way. We just EXPECT that information will be available to us as we need it, without having to take especial steps to acquire it.

    The flip side: we grow to assume that if the information ISN’T available easily to us, then perhaps its not available at all, or at least not without a significant amount of effort. Could I find out who the interconnected boards are for the companies in the top ten percent of the Dow rankings, and the ecological record of those companies as it relates to the tenure of the longest-serving members? Well, sure….but it takes a while to do. I’ll just make a guess, or find something else. Could I get a summary of Obama’s political agenda and what he’s doing in each of the major areas? Well, sure… but unless I happen to know of a writer who does that summary on an ad hoc basis, I’m going to say that it takes too much effort; I’ll just grab a couple of things. It isn’t that we don’t want to know; we’ve lost the ability to look. We can’t easily tell the difference between something that’s hard to find because it’s hidden or complex, and something that’s hard to find because we simply don’t know how to do it. At one time we would have said that librarians would become the treasure hunters of a vast array of previously unsuspected information; now we have to admit that most of them are as puzzled and perplexed as we are. Techniques such as the semantic web and data mining will help, but they’re awhile coming. Until then, we need to push the idea of how to do research, quickly — and hope that the payback encourages people to push on when the underbrush gets a little thicker and the machete is getting dull.


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