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Wim Veen of Delft University Ponders Networked Education and Rise of Homo Zappiens at Cisco Event


Pupils have learnt from teachers since time immemorial. But soon that could change-and educationalists may learn from the students of the 21st Century, believes one of the world’s most respected thinkers on learning and IT, Professor Wim Veen of the Delft University of Technology.

One of the speakers at last year’s Cisco®-sponsored Public Services Summit at Nobel Week, Prof. Veen startled delegates with a virtual tour of the mind of a modern school kid as shaped by the networking technologies being introduced by companies such as Cisco Systems, Inc.

It was a picture that few of the senior education officials present would have recognized from personal experience. “Today’s generation is focused on images, not text,” says Prof. Veen. "Kids do not make a distinction between virtual and real characters.

“They can correspond over instant messaging with 10 other individuals at a time, while listening to music in the background. They are even inventing their own language. And they see school as a place for meeting friends, not learning.”

Prof. Veen believes that today’s youth has integrated technology so seamlessly into life that it almost represents a new stage in social evolution.

He has coined the term ’Homo Zappiens’ to describe the generation growing up in the era of digital networks and is keen to emphasize that education must take account of these social and technological changes.

“There are two time slots in the day when kids do not consume digital media,” he says. “And they are the morning and afternoon sessions at school.”

At other times, he says, Homo Zappiens is likely to be spending as much time in virtual environments as in the real one.

Today’s teenagers interact with each other not just face-to-face or over the phone, but also through mobile text, instant messaging, games such as World of Warcraft (which has 8.5 million players), virtual environments such as Second Life or online communities such as 43 Things.

“One of my sons recently attended a funeral, online, for someone he had never met, but who was a member of his guild in World of Warcraft and who had died in real life,” Prof. Veen relates.

“When we see young people glued to a screen, we worry that they are not communicating, but in fact there has never been a generation that communicates so much.”

So what does all this mean for schooling? According to Prof. Veen; “Kids who have grown up with technology are a force for change in education. They are using technology in multiple ways and have learnt to be in control of information and in control of the learning process.”

He says educationalists should not make the mistake of thinking that digital environments do not stimulate learning: “World of Warcraft is all about strategy and problem-solving, like chess or Monopoly before it. What you see on the screen is not important-it is what is underneath.”

In addition, he states: "The techniques used by tagging sites like 43 Things or Flickr can be used for education, for example by applying them to research articles.

“This generation wants to determine its own keywords and gets used to doing this at age seven or eight, so naturally its members expect to locate information in the same way.”

After studying Homo Zappiens, “I came to the conclusion that this generation cannot be doing everything wrong,” says Prof. Veen. “So I started to look for useful skills that they could be developing.”

From this study, he unearthed the following learning attributes of today’s digital teens:

* Iconic skills. While parents in Western cultures tend to scan pages from top left to bottom right, searching for words, a young person may scan in a completely different way, for example focusing on images, icons, symbols, colors and particular typefaces.
* Multi-tasking. While it may seem impossible to adults, many of today’s teenagers are in fact able to listen to music, call up friends, surf the Web, carry out an instant messaging conversation and do their mathematics homework all at the same time.
* Processing discontinuous information. Young people find it relatively easy to switch between TV channels and recreate the story lines being played out on each from relatively small snippets of information. Information may be summarized by mind maps rather than stories.
* Non-linear learning approaches. Young people search for information using search engines and typing in keywords. Their approach is just-in-time learning: an active attitude about searching for something you want to know. Contrast this with parents who have been trained to learn by absorbing, with teachers telling them what they should know.

“If these skills are so different to those that have preceded them, should we not recognize the fact in our teaching methods?” questions Prof. Veen. "Does it make sense to still have students lined up in front of a teacher?

"If there is a digital divide, it may end up being the one between us and our children growing up with technology.

"All learning theories so far have focused on the internalization of understanding by the student. Now learning is happening through the externalization of information, returning to the social constructivism of Socrates.

“If we do not respond to this development, we won’t just alienate students, but schools will become irrelevant. And that is even worse than being hated.”


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