Friday, April 29, 2011

Bridging the Generation Gap

15 years ago I discovered AOL. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it came to my house in the form of a CD-ROM and I had my father upload it to our PC, enter his credit card info and we had our own dial up account to the internet.  Except, to get on the web, I had to choose a screen name, and interested in anonymity, I chose my screen name “spottingu” out of my love for the film Trainspotting. For fifteen years “spottingu” has been my personal online identity for email, instant messenger, accounts, twitter, etc, if only I had realized that everyone presumed I had an interest in online stalking.

Today, I began the process of “growing up” and established a gmail account, with the hopes of transitioning out of my AOL identity in order to establish a new online identity more befitting my 32-year-old self.  Not wanting to completely obliterate my less than professional presence online, I chose a new moniker that reflects my childhood nickname, and will now be “yakhoffman”. Please do not think that this is not a big deal.  Being “Spottingu” fostered my growth and development of both my online and adult identity. I met my wife in an AOL Jewish Chat Room (anyone remember Jewish Chat 18-15? ASL anyone?), not to mention many good friends as well.  All of my family and friends have always known me and communicated with me online as “Spottingu”. I applied to countless jobs as “Spottingu; what was I thinking?

I bring this up as I read Marc Prensky’s seminal works “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” Part I and Part II and Don Tapscott’sGrowing Up Digital”, within which both authors articulate a clear generational divide between those that are digital natives or from the net-generation, respectively, and the digital immigrants and baby boomer generation.

In Growing up Digital, Tapscott comments on the Net Generation (N-Generation):
The generation of children who, in 1999, will be between the ages of two and twenty-two, not just those are active on the Internet. (P.3)

The N-Generation now represents 30 percent of the population, compared to the boomers’ 29 percent. For the first time, there is another generation large enough to rival the cultural hegemony of the ubiquitous boomers. But what makes N-Geners unique is not just their large numbers, but that they are growing up during the dawn of a completely new interactive medium of communication. (P. 15)

Some have suggested we describe today’s youth as Generation Y. I am not convinced this is the best term to use and I think it important to get it right; terms acquire meaning and they share our thinking (my emphasis). No one is clear what Generation Y really is. Most of those who have raised the term use it to refer to the youth of today, those who were born at the end of the 1970s when the birth rate began to increase after he baby bust years, but beyond that the notion is fuzzy. More important Generation Y also builds on the confusion sown about Generation X, which isn’t a generation at all but the last few years of the boom. I believe that N-Generation is a better term in that it codifies in a unified term the power of demographics with the power of new media analysis. (P.33)

While I have always felt comfortable with Prensky’s designation as a "digital native", fluent in the digital language of computers, video games and the Internet, I found the “Digital Natives” designation to be too broad, since I found people much younger and older sharing this fluency. I always became frustrated that I seemed to have to arrived too late to be a part of Gen-X. I love my grunge, but I came onto the scene in my later teens after the hype had already died down. I too felt too old to fit into the characteristics of Generation-Y.  Tapscott’s designation of the N-Generation seemed to fit me much more comfortably, as if I finally found a designation that fit both my age (I just made the cut, being 21 in 1999) and my early adoption and engagement in the Internet and the New Media and its impact on me.  While I may have missed my professional opportunity to engage in (and cash in on) the Dot-com bubble, I am now appreciating the value of being an educator in the 2010s as one of the elders of the N-Generation.

Reading Tapscott’s “Growing Up Digital”, published in 1998, took me on a wild nostalgic ride to the days when chat rooms reigned and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, a member of the N-Generation, was still in high school dreaming of going to Harvard. Tapscott did not foresee social networking, let alone Napster and its impact on file sharing and piracy, which wrecked havoc on traditional media outlets.  Tapscott did prophesize the explosion of self-expression, see youtube and myspace. He foretold key characteristics of the N-generation (acceptance of diversity, broad curiosity, assertiveness and self-reliance).

On education, Tapscott wrote, "We need to understand the purpose of the schools-the ends of education, not just means." Tapscott already recognized that the rise of the N-Generation would lead to many Baby Boomers to react by trying to infuse technology into schools and to try to maintain the status quo of socialization and acculturation that satisfied their generation.  Yet, as has been proven, the N-Generation demands more from their educational efforts, and we must still address Tapscott’s truism to understand the purpose of schools in the new age.

My Jewish identity and learning developed distinctly because I received, to my “Spottingu” email inbox, hundreds of emails a week offering me direct Torah study, list servs and web resources through which I expanded and diversified my Judaic understanding, providing me with the pluralistic and complex diversity of understanding that allows me to serve as a Rabbinic educator today. I fell in love with the study of bible/Tanach, due to the range of sources available online. As an early adopter of the Internet, I met my wife online before J-Date existed, I found Jewish learning and community online and create new material to share with others.

While I was not necessarily born into the digital age, I came of age during the rise of the Internet allows me to serve as a unique bridge between the Baby Boomer generation and the Net-Generation (and between Gen-X, Gen-Y, and Gen-Z).  As an educator of today’s generation in their formative teen years, I can provide a bridge between the knowledge of the past, the processes of the present and a vision of the future. I can share with today’s youth their characteristic passion to explore new worlds, to express themselves and to solve real world problems now. While I did not go through adolescence with a super computer in my pocket (I got my first cell, ne’ car phone, in 1996), I relate to the need to be connected at all times to others digitally. 

Yet I also appreciate the concerns of the Baby Boomer parents, academics and administrators still struggling to grasp how quickly the world has changed. Even I wonder if Tapscott’s 1998 is just 13 years ago. Four and a half years ago my first daughter was born, before I had first signed up with Facebook. I can’t even imagine how I notified all of our friends and family of her birth, let alone share pictures, prior to Facebook. I wonder if the point isn’t to be nostalgic of a long ago past, or to believe we can prophesize what the future holds, but to appreciate that this May, as hopefully our second daughter joins us, I will have amazing digital tools, such as Facebook and text messaging, to celebrate with others, otherwise I may have had to rely on phone trees and the post office.

I hope to explore further how my unique vantage point, as an elder member of the N-Generation, provides me with a unique perspective on educating today’s youth for the digital world we live in, as Jews, American citizens and humans.

1 comment:

  1. In high school I worked for Cartoon Network and ACLU on AOL. That was how I paid for my internet. And - to make you feel better, my screen names were ALWAYS song titles from Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers. YerSoBad, FreeFalln - I had a ton of them because of my free accounts!