Meeting the demands of the Net Gen

27 October 2005

Students mix work and leisure in Manning House
Students mix work and leisure in Manning House

Chris Rodley writes about what Sydney is doing to meet the demands of the new generation of technology-dependent students.

They grew up with Hotmail accounts, iPods and mobile phones, and wherever they go, they expect information and communication on demand. They are students of the Internet generation, who rely on digital media whether they want to be entertained, study or socialise.

Meeting the expectations of Net Gen students is one of the biggest challenges facing universities. What needs to change? And what might the University of Sydney campus of the near future look like?

According to Professor Peter Reimann from the Faculty of Education and Social Work, we can expect to see traditional spaces such as lecture theatres and seminar rooms transformed by technology.

Net Gen students are likely to come armed with a range of portable hardware, including laptops, tablet PCs and hand-held devices incorporating phones, cameras, organisers, MP3 players and Internet access. They expect, Professor Reimann says, to have access to digital materials and communication channels wherever they go.

In response to their needs, the campus of the future might permit students to download whatever is projected by the lecturer, either as an audio file or a video file. Similarly, says Professor Reimann, notes from seminar discussions could be captured in a file, annotated then distributed and reused as an information resource. Technology might also be used in lectures and seminars to help students collaborate and interact with each other and the lecturer.

Classroom instruction is also likely to be supplemented by online learning. Professor Reimann points to the hybrid approach adopted by the University of Milwaukee, where face-to-face classroom time is reduced by 25 to 50 per cent, and students instead participate in a range of online activities.

But does the rise of online learning mean that we can expect to see the scrapping of lecture theatres in favour of virtual classrooms conducted wholly in cyberspace? Professor Reimann says no. “I am fairly sure that the lecture room and in particular the seminar room will stay with us for years to come. Both formats have survived about 600 years of change, and we are not even close to bringing about virtual forms of communication and co-operation that surpass the quality of face-to-face interaction.”

Also, says educational planning consultant Dr Kenn Fisher, there are dangers in some online course models, such as a course offered by the University of Phoenix in Arizona with an enrolment of 213,000 students. Dr Fisher believes courses taught solely online are not as effective at teaching students skills such as problem solving and critical thinking, skills which are particularly important at research-intensive universities such as Sydney.

Changes are also likely in student spaces such as the Wentworth Building. Dr Fisher believes these informal spaces will become important centres of learning for Net Gen students.

“Coffee shops and lounges are places where digitally wired students can work and interact using their wireless laptops and PDAs,” Dr Fisher says. “Net Gen students need places where they can come together, talk and work, without being forced to buy a coffee. They need places on the boundary between eating and drinking and being in a computer laboratory.”

Net Gen students need places
Net Gen students need places "on the boundary

These informal spaces, according to Dr Fisher, represent only 5 per cent of the total learning environment on campus; by comparison, 80 per cent is devoted to traditional classrooms and laboratories and 15 per cent to collaborative spaces including computer laboratories. For Dr Fisher the education potential of informal spaces is seriously under-recognised because it is so hard to measure. Now and into the future, he says, it is important to ensure they flourish.

Other changes at a future University of Sydney might occur away from the campus itself. Professor Ed Blakely, Chair of Urban and Regional Planning, says that one way the University might stay relevant to future students is by reaching out to the broader community.

Professor Blakely suggests establishing a metropolitan area laboratory that might be dedicated to developing expertise in subjects relevant to Sydney and its people, such as water conservation. “Located out in the community, such a lab would have a long-term agenda, building a strong capability by bringing cross-disciplinary expertise together, leveraging the science talent the University already has,” he says.

Such a scheme would significantly increase the impact and profile of the University, Professor Blakely says, playing a similar role to off-campus research centres such as Silicon Valley or Route 128 in Boston.

One final change we might expect in the campus of the future is in the students themselves, who will need to adapt to new ways of learning. According to Professor Reimann, Net Gen students will need to be more aware of their own thinking and learning, and their strengths and weaknesses in processing information.

“Only with this kind of self-awareness will they be able to deal with the sheer amount of information available, and the number of opportunities for interaction and communication,” he says.

Professor Reimann, Dr Fisher, Professor Blakely and a range of other experts will discuss their ideas at the Crafting Sydney’s Future  symposium, to be held at the University of Sydney on 14 November.

The convenor is Professor Judyth Sachs, Pro Vice Chancellor for Learning and Teaching, who says she hopes to engage academics, staff and students in the process of planning for the University’s future.

“IT has changed how we generate knowledge and learn, and students of the Internet generation are noticeably different to previous generations in the way they learn and balance work, study and leisure commitments,” says Professor Sachs.

“The symposium is a way of capturing the experiences of a variety of stakeholders who are actively involved in responding to these changes. It is an exciting initiative: a kind of town hall gathering to take a reading on where we are, where we want to be and what we have to do to get there.”