When I was growing up and my family had dinner table conversations, I was allowed, encouraged even, to express my opinion on just about any subject. As I became a teenager I grew to believe my opinion mattered. But as a teenager in the late 70’s I had strong opinions but lacked the information to back them up. My kids have opinions and ideas based on real information. If I want to debate who rode the bomb in the movie Dr. Strangelove, it’s a very short conversation. In my youth we could spend half an hour debating this topic. My kids don’t even take half a minute before they go to IMDB.com and tell me it was Slim Pickens. It’s not that they’re equipped with bigger brains or faster synapses. They are trained in information retrieval. They know 10 times more stuff 100 times faster.
This ability to access information faster than our 1976 Zenith TV could warm up means now we debate ideas rather than information. Information is at our fingertips so there is no need to debate it. Many in education argue that our students lack the experience to know what information is legitimate. We assume our children are not experienced enough to tell the difference between fact and fiction. Kids today are experts at discerning the difference between good and bad information. We certainly want to help them develop their BS radar but that comes with time. My generation is trained to accept the word of an individual who appears to be an expert. My children, however, know how to find the source of the information. They listen to the experts interpret what the President said in the State of the Union speech and then they watch the President’s actual speech. They may even read the speech online. This generation is culturally literate for modern as well as historically significant culture. On the one hand they’ll catch Charlie Sheen‘s Tweet where he claims to have invented Tulsa, their birthplace. Then they’ll turn around and look for examples of letters and other scanned documents from early historical figures and read contextually the parts they only see in quotation marks in books.
It is absurd to think professors will sustain the attention of a class of 200 students with a chalkboard and a clip-on microphone when students have wi-fi and a laptop in the classroom. Complain if you want, but it’s like saying teenagers shouldn’t think about sex. The pull of relevance is too strong and higher learning institutions must become relevant or die. This problem is just as pronounced in secondary schools but the compulsory nature of K-12 classes means change will come more slowly.
Universities are closely linked with the free market economy and the savvier students become, the more likely it is they will comparison shop. When they compare colleges, it is unlikely lecture-style classrooms will appeal to them. What a lecture provides in two hours sitting in uncomfortable chairs can be found by a resourceful student in twenty minutes sitting on a couch in the Commons. Perhaps this will be the educational model; a group of students sharing resources and developing projects while hanging out in their pj’s. What will that mean for the living and working environments of the future? Who knows? It could mean our kids will spend more time with their families. Maybe they’ll get back to sitting around the dinner table debating Dr. Strangelove.