In today’s Globe: Gen D – the dumbed-down generation lives


Update: Not in a reading mood? You’re in luck. Here’s Devin with the spoken version. You know what to do…
[haiku url=”2012-06-27-DE-Post.mp3″]

Great minds think alike. One of those minds would belong to a “hip, articulate 36-year old computer whiz” name of Sang-Jin Bae. Thanks to Devin H for pointing me to a story about his views in today’s Globe and Mail: “Are we breeding a generation of app-loving, web-addicted digital illiterates?


In addition to being a big-time digital animator, Mr Bae teaches. And what he says about the students who turn up in his classes is pretty strong vindication for the unkind words I’ve had to say about Millennials and the malarkey about their being “digital natives”…

“When kids come into my class they divide into three groups,” he says. There are the pure geeks who love technology. There are those trying to understand. And then there is the biggest group: “Those who couldn’t care less.”

Remember, these kids have signed up for highly technical instruction on computer applications used for animation. Even with my cynical attitude, I’d have guessed that a group like this would not have prompted comments like the following from Mr Bae:

“The kids I have, and that is roughly two dozen of the brightest young digital artists a semester, often have no idea what Microsoft Word is. They can’t tell a Mac from a PC. And forget Excel,” he says. He struggles to get his students to use basic computing etiquette.

He goes on to note that Microsoft and many of the computer world’s other major vendors are in hot pursuit of OS’s and other software that is sufficiently dumbed down to suit the lazy-minded approach of many students – with “simple” being the supremely important buzz word for the marketing department. That in itself isn’t so new: everyone in the business says their product is for-dummies simple, yet incredibly fast, powerful, flexible, yadda yadda.

And, adds Mr Bae, his students can’t even manage to use email. It’s all txting, all the time. Myself, I have to take each new batch of students through a carefully explained set of reader-friendly protocols for email, all of which require effort. Like putting the actual subject in the subject field; deleting unnecessary text; acknowledging receipt; putting identifiers on attachments; etc. To say nothing of technical protocols. POP3 email? Fuggedaboudit.

Looks like a crisis in higher ed to me

I told the Pew survey of Internet experts last fall that Millennials come to my class – the one on the Internet and connectedness – unable to describe the most basic specs of their own computers (see post script below). We can’t discuss CRTC regulation of broadband right away, since 90% of them have no idea what broadband is – despite the fact they’ve spent years travelling in and out of Facebookistan on hi-speed connections. Worst of all, they don’t want to know how the Internet works – even when they finally come to understand how badly they’re getting ripped off by Bell and Rogers. That’s a revelation that also requires effort, since it means getting a grasp of bandwidth, data caps, contention ratios and the like.

If you have doubts about this “crisis,” have a look back at the series of 3 posts that addresses the “Dumb things you can do with smartphones.” In them I’ve taken an angle that’s slightly different from the Globe piece…

From last September…

Dumb things you can do with smartphones (1)

May 6…

Dumb things you can do with smartphones (part 2)

May 20…

Is multitasking a myth? (Dumb things, part 3)

I’ve been talking to my students lately about how the marketplace for graduating students has taken a distinct turn in the direction of “technical” skills. By which I mean having at least some basic numeracy skills, a grasp of what’s inside your computer, a willingness to tackle Web analytics and so on. And the people who’ve been telling me this are working in marketing, PR, advertising and related fields, which have traditionally been open to digital illiterates. Not any more.

Let me add what Globe reporter Jonathan Blum says about his interview with Mr Bae. Digital illiteracy is going to come with potentially huge costs for hardware vendors and software developers:

Next, as this new software generation loses touch with basics such as spreadsheets, the products based on those virtual experiences will lose touch with customers. Meaning at great expense. Google Apps, Microsoft Office, Zoho and dozens of others will have little choice but to eat the stiff capital cost of rebuilding their software to stay relevant with the newly ascendant digital illiterate.

Ottawa, it looks as if your ostrich-like approach to digital illiteracy may come back to hit you right in your plans for our so-called “digital economy.”


PS: Here’s the first part of my answer to the Pew survey question about what the rewiring of Millennial brains holds for the future:

“The idea that Millennials have a cognitive advantage over their elders is based on myths about multitasking, the skill-sets of digital natives, and 24/7 connectedness. Far from having an edge in learning, I see Millennials as increasingly trapped by the imperatives of online socializing and the opportunities offered by their smartphones to communicate from any place, any time. I can see this in the living experiment that takes place every week in the computer lab where I teach Internet technologies to fourth-year communication studies majors. Students everywhere have become relentless in their use of mobile devices for personal messaging. Even good students delude themselves into thinking they can text friends continuously while listening to a lecture and taking notes and, in the process, retain information and participate in discussions. But good research has shown that even especially bright kids are less productive when multitasking, a finding resisted by plenty of grown-ups as well.

“Our fondness for thinking positively about multitasking, especially among the young, gets a lot of reinforcement from two other assumptions: that Millennials have a special aptitude for digital media because they’ve grown up digital; and that ubiquitous, seamless connectivity is a positive social force. The first assumption is baloney; the second is fraught with contextual problems.”