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This article is a quick breakdown of the BBC Radio 4 programme Analysis – Clever.com – broadcast 12 March 09 20:30-21:00

The programme addressed issues about whether the younger generation are only getting a superficial grasp of information, with their skimming techniques and superficial searching or are they actually becoming the most skilled and knowledgeable generation. Professor David Nicholas of University College London (UCL) seems to be in the former camp, while Don Tapscott (founder of the international think tank ‘New Paradigm’, and chairman of the nGeneration Innovation Network) is in the latter.

Stephen Fry, the famous comedian, actor, intellectual, raconteur and more recently the most famous British user of Twitter, compared the power available to someone with a computer or a mobile device with that of the greatest, most powerful monarchs of history, and concluded that we in society today have greater access to knowledge and understanding at the ends of our fingers than royalty and dictators of the past could ever hope for.

By viewing the logs of page accesses it is possible to see trends of people’s use of the web. Researches at UCL have used this approach to analyse people’s habits and are finding that searches tend to shallow across a large range rather than deep and concentrated. Prof Nicholas uses the TV channel hopping analogy. The commentator suggests that maybe this search process has become the enjoyable element, not the information itself. And Prof Nicholas concurs, thinking of his own approach he doesn’t go online to read, and there are many other distractions to capture one’s interest. Average time on a web page is less than a minute. Long articles just aren’t read.

Don Tapscott believes that after DNA the most important factor affecting how your brain is ‘wired’ is what you do during adolescence. The previous generation spent more free time passively watching television. The younger generation has traded in television watching for doing a range of activities on computers. It’s argued that this develops greater problem solving, engagement and other skills as interaction is increased, as they tell and retell their stories, as they work out strategies for game completion, and so on. [Rewiring in the brain is something that is happening all the time – connections and pathways are formed by experience, whatever the experience, learning to read for example.]

Jonathan Douglas the Director of the National Literacy Trust questions whether the perceived change in reading habits is a bad thing. He says that it might indicate that people are becoming more efficient in their reading approach. Stephen Fry thinks that it’s a misnomer to place the Internet at odds with books. He believed that they complement each other beautifully. And he points to similar arguments made when the novel was introduced; how novels would cause mass illiteracy, or at least a refusal or an inability to engage in serious study.

Don Tapscott thinks that the didactic model of the teacher standing at the front and pouring facts into the ’empty vessel’ of the students, who store it in short term memory until they are tested by the teacher is an outdated model: maybe suitable for previous generations where you left education and were set for life. Now, in his words, you are set for 15 minutes. But Professor Tara Brabazon of Brighton University disagrees. She has banned her first year students from using Google and Wikipedia. She believes they need to attain the standards required at university for reading and writing. She goes on to say that they don’t need Google because there is the library and online peer reviewed articles, which Google wouldn’t find, that they need to engage with. She believes that one problem with student centred learning is that students work within their boundaries exploring their own culture, when a well structured curriculum will cause them to transgress their boundaries and learn about other cultures.

When considering the question about whether the younger generation are best placed to utilize the digital environment, Prof Nicholas says that they don’t have the framework required to make the best use of it, they are unaware of the authenticity and authority of information, which hasn’t undergone the same rigorous vetting processes of (for example) the publisher. They aren’t therefore necessarily equipped to deal with this vast amount of information available to them. This is contrary to the popular assumption that the younger generation is better equipped than the older generations. Indeed, because the older generations do have an appropriate framework, they are the ones who are more empowered with greater access to a larger range of available information about which they can make informed choices.

So what about the ability of younger people to ‘multitask’? Well evidence shows that there isn’t actually such a thing as multitasking; there is the ability to switch quickly between tasks. And the research of Professor Martin Westwell of Flinders University, Australia shows that young people don’t have the ability to do this very well until they are in their 20s. So much of this available technology is actually acting as a distraction, preventing them from concentrating.

Prof Brabazon concludes by saying that the younger generation isn’t indulging in anything different than the rest of us; shallow, superficial users.

So, the presenter postulates, perhaps we should be less worried about the technology and more about the society we are living in that shapes the way we use the technology.

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