The Net Generation:
The 'Virtuality' of their Virtual World
Once, I needed to take an out of schedule class at Economics, Jahangirnagar on a very short notice. I called the class representative. His response told me how times are not changing like the Dylan song. Times have changed. “No problem, Sir. We have a closed group in Facebook. I'll notify on the wall. We'll be at your class”. The writing on the wall was more than just another brick. Almost everybody turned up!
Mobile telecommunication and the Internet have made the Net Generation (Net-Gen) visibly different from all preceding generations. The Net-Gen lives and socialises in a 'virtual world'. The key to this virtual world will virtually unravel a glimpse of tomorrow's world.
The Net-Gen uses online resources wisely. Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
The stereotype Net-Gen is a young person fidgeting with their fingers over the keypad of their mobile; conversing with one person; texting with another; and networking with others all at the same time. Elders and others find this behavior annoying, unsocial and even anti-social. PAUSE. This is the surface only. It is not that the Net-Gen is not polite. There are a few seconds lag between switching from their virtual world to their elders' real world. The vehicle of the virtual world is faster than that of the real world. At the surface there is a generation gap between parents and teachers who may perceive online spaces as threatening while the Net-Gen sees them as a vital outlet to express their thoughts and creativity.
Time has frozen. 'Hell Freezes Over' to let us enter the virtual world of the Net-Gen.
All social networks- Facebook, MySpace; Twitter; YouTube; Flickr; Blogs etc- have two common characteristics. They are social in nature; and the Net-Gen is a member of at least one. Social networks have more benefits. First: they open a world to communicate. A striking feature is its anonymity. Social networks allow shy people to be more outgoing in expressing their views.
From my personal experience, I have found my students who are shy and quiet in class come up with innovative and intelligent responses on an online platform.
Second: social networks automatically encourage collaboration. Students form study and discussion groups; discuss and share homework and assignments; and collaborate on group projects. They share a lot of content for public consumption in social networks than we would like to think.
Third: through social networks, the Net-Gen creates written, audio and visual content, many of which have educational and aesthetic value. Just do a random search right now with 'Bangladesh' in YouTube and Flickr to see countless artistic and spontaneous contributions. Moreover, the Net-Gen is reading and sharing contents in Facebook and Twitter from newspapers like The Guardian, The Times, Washington Post, New York Times, India Today, Dawn, Al-Ahram and from where not and what not? When we were growing up, we knew the names of these newspapers only. Although it was possible to read them at the British Council, USIS, Indian Culture Centre and cultural wings of other embassies, only those in Dhaka and at best Chittagong could avail this opportunity. The Net-Gen is also contributing written thoughts in English and Bangla Blogs. The Net-Gen is exposed to and utilising opportunities like never before.
At the surface the Net-Gen may be fidgeting with their mobile devices all the time. Now scratch the surface. The Net-Gen is not spending idle time just gossiping on Facebook and other social networks in their virtual world. They are also making positive and constructive contributions in this world. This is a generation that is more aware of its Bangla roots; and its responsibilities as a global citizen than we would like to think. STOP. REWIND. PLAY.
Isn't this all a boon? Educators throughout the world complain they cannot get students to focus especially on writing. PAUSE. The Net-Gen is writing. It's just that the medium has transformed. What education institutes need to realise and address now is: the vehicle of the virtual world has become much faster than the vehicle of the classrooms in the real world. It's the education institutes that need to step up a gear or two.
Where and how do universities fit in? Although the WWW may have become a physical library multiplied by a billion in the virtual world, to find the 'needle in the haystack' still requires skill in siphoning out unwanted and irrelevant information and then analyzing and presenting that extract critically. This is of paramount importance because today's Net-Gen is consuming humongous information from the Internet, Media and Television. Education institutes can help students by addressing crucial questions like: who created this information and why? Is the source authoritative? Who is the target audience? What is the literal and hidden meaning of the information? Finally, what part of the story is not being told? Not everything in the Internet is credible. It is also true that the Internet does have credible sources of information.
Here is an example why the above is of importance. Wikipedia is the most popular source of reference today. In spite of all the good intentions of Jimmy Wales and its contributors, Wikipedia is still not an encyclopedia that commands the authority of encyclopedias like the Britannica or Banglapedia. Also, not all sources from the Media, Internet and TV are relevant for the Net-Gen. This even includes some entries from Wikipedia also. Discretion to determine credible sources is where the challenge of the university lies today.
If we want our children to compete in today's world, education institutes and parents both need to invest by planting seeds of Internet and media literacy in the education place and also at home. With proper guidance the Net-Gen can become a beacon of light for future generation of learners. If we fail to win this battle the outcome is obvious: we will be left with a generation that is fidgeting on its mobile devices and becomes a wasted generation not because they did not have the potential to do better, but because their predecessors failed to catch the train of opportunities the Internet and mobile devices could have made in blossoming their talent.
This brings us to the prelude of the next and last Post Campus of this series. Having established the Net-Gen is different and faster than their predecessors the question naturally progresses to: what challenges do education institutes face in tapping into the potentials of a very creative generation? The Net-Gen is a global phenomenon. Bangladesh is not immune from it. Sooner or later, universities in Bangladesh will need to address these questions.
Source: “Rewired: Understanding the iGeneration and the way they learn” by Larry Rosen, Mark Carrier and Nancy Cheever. Palgrave, Macmillan 2010.
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)