It probably doesn’t come as a shock that technology is changing higher education, but you might be surprised by what Drake University President David Maxwell is talking about these days.

Maxwell is reading about neuroscience research that contends that the Internet is literally changing the way our brains are wired. Specifically, Maxwell refers to the book “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” by technology writer Nicholas Carr, which asserts that technology is changing the way we think.

That’s especially true with students who are entering college for the first time this fall – students who have been dubbed “digital natives” because computers have always been part of their daily lives. 

Futurist Bob Johansen told the Business Record in an interview last year that digital natives, or people age 18 and younger in 2014, have an ability to concentrate on multitasking in a way that older people just don’t understand.

“The kids who are digital natives now have literally been acquiring the vast majority of the things they know through screens,” Maxwell said. “They have different attention spans. They tend to think more laterally rather than vertically. ... They are not wired to sit in a classroom for 50 minutes listening to someone else talk.” 

Although the digital native generation will begin entering college this year, their learning style represents the next iteration of a trend that colleges have been watching for a while. Christy Roland, chief academic officer at AIB College of Business, said she has noticed a change in student learning habits in the past five years, since smartphones and tablet computers have become widely used.

Faculty at both Drake and AIB shared how they have adjusted and changed their teaching styles in recent years to more effectively teach this generation.

But first, a few clarifications: 

-Jennifer McCrickerd, a professor of philosophy at Drake, points out that our brains are always changing in response to our environment; technology’s role in the way students learn is just one example of that. 

-Danielle Edwards, associate professor at AIB, notes that some of the information isn’t specific to technology, but is simply a result of ongoing research in how humans best learn.

Nonetheless, here are some tips these educators have for more effectively teaching young students, or young workers.

1. Engage, don’t lecture

Perhaps the biggest change is how classes are actually taught. Lecturing to students for 50 minutes might never have been a good model, Maxwell said, but it’s probably perceived even more negatively by today’s students.  Said Roland: “I think the key word is ‘engaging.’ ”

At AIB, that can mean a short lecture followed by laboratory research and a presentation by students to end the class. 

“The younger generation likes to be entertained,” Roland said. “If you don’t embrace that and do some things that are engaging in the class, you’ll lose a lot of them. If the goal is to teach and have them learn, then you want (professors) to do those things to be engaging.”

At Drake, McCrickerd strives to make her classes student-centered. It’s so easy to get information about a topic outside class that it might be a waste of time to spend too much time lecturing. Instead, she tries to structure classes in a way that students talk to each other and work together. 

2. Give instant feedback

It’s hard to attribute this only to technology, McCrickerd said, but students today want immediate feedback. A person’s ability to learn has always relied on receiving feedback. For example, she said, if you stick your hand in the fire, you find out that it burns immediately, which is a much more effective teaching tool than finding out three hours later. If anything, the shift in technology has made teachers more aware of the need to give immediate feedback.

“That’s been how we always learn best,” McCrickerd said. “I think we as teachers have relied on students being really self-motivated, and now we have to do things that give immediate feedback.”

3. Use technology when possible

About 67 percent of AIB students choose to take an online class, even if they are living on campus. But all classes at AIB have some sort of online component. For example, many faculty members will create online lectures, and textbook publishers are now bundling physical copies of their books with online ebooks that have interactive quizzes and assignments. 

Students will sometimes use their smartphones to do research in class, Roland said, and sometimes to respond to questions during class. How that use of technology will evolve in the future remains to be seen, but such methods will probably have a place.

4. Understand where technology falls short

What a smartphone doesn’t teach, though, are common-sense skills, accountability or time management. And it doesn’t teach strong business communication skills. This is an extreme example, but Edwards has seen students put the letter “u” in formal writing as a shorthand for the word “you.” More common is the need to teach students how to send a professional, formal email, when students are so used to sending informal text messages.

5. Convince people that “long reading” is worthwhile

Students are used to being able to find information by typing an inquiry into Google or reading informational blasts on Twitter. But they still need the cognitive ability to read a book or a 30-page legal brief without getting distracted, Maxwell said. 

Technology can actually help, said Roland. She points to a literature course at AIB where the professor uses technology in the classroom to introduce a book, making students more inclined to want to go back and read the book outside class. 

McCrickerd said that today’s students are more inclined to question why something is important. 

“Why should I read the book when I can look it up on Wikipedia and get the same information?” she said. “You have to then be able to make the case that reading this book is going to get you something different.” 

One of her tricks to doing that is to purposely assign students reading assignments that leave them dissatisfied and wanting more information, in which case they are more likely to read a longer piece in search of more information.

One strategy that both McCrickerd and Roland mentioned: Teaching students to break longer readings into small pieces.
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Interested in more information about how the Internet is shaping learning, the workforce and our brains? Here are several books on the topic recommended by Jennifer McCrickerd, director of the honors program at Drake University.