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How is Technology Changing Learning in “Generation Distracted”?

Educators today are observing and engaging in a dynamic historical shift in the paradigm of education. Changes in educational paradigms are nothing new. Throughout history changes in psychological and learning theories, in sync with historical events, prompted the application of diverse theories of learning, such as the application of constructivist and cognitive theories in the 20th century (Edgar 2012). Yet, educators have often been slow to adapt emerging learning theories due to the complexity of education systems (Rogers 2003 cited in Edgar 2012).

Yet today, changes are coming at a much faster pace, as technology is infiltrating every facet of everyday life at lightning speed and profoundly changing the way we gather and process information. In addition, learning is becoming a globally-connected community enterprise, relying on a diverse array of tools, formats, and environments. Technological advances pose unique challenges and opportunities for educators. It is becoming harder to ignore these shifts in learning and adapting learning methodologies is becoming a pressing concern for many trying to engage “generation distracted”. In addition, the global economy is prompting educators to stay in tune with technology, to produce a new generation of innovative problem solvers and creative thinkers.

Cell phones, laptops, mobile software, and instant communication have created a new generation of learners that relies on a fast pace, quick feedback, and an instant stream of seemingly boundless information. Researchers, educators, thought leaders, and educational organizations and companies are passionately addressing the need for new instructional methods to reach a generation that seems visually motivated and easily distracted. Generation Y seems to be disengaged with traditional lectures and often reads less standard texts, relying on a varied collection of information, rather than just traditional texts (Oblinger 2005). In this way, technology has supplemented and enhanced learning in significant ways.

With these changes, come fundamental problems to the way learning environments are structured, and the way students learn in these new environments. A key problem educators often face is creating learning that is engaging and meaningful to a fast-paced, technology-focused generation. Research on learning environments suggest that learning must align with “knowledge, skills, attributes, and beliefs that learners bring to the educational setting” (Bransford et al, 2000 cited in Edgar 2012). Education must successfully create learning environments that focus on integrating assessment, knowledge, and community connections that engage the learner (Bransford et al, 2000). Technology can be adapted to fit these essential needs in the new generation.

The changes do not come without concerns. According a popular New York Times Article, “Growing up Digital, Wired for Distraction”, today’s generation is growing up differently and technology is influencing both focus and learning attention spans. The article goes on to point out how gadgets and “instant gratification” are changing learning and perhaps detrimentally influencing the way the brain develops. According to Michael Rich, executive director of the Center on Media and Child Health and Associate Professor at Harvard University, interviewed in this article,

“Their brains are rewarded not for staying on task but for jumping to the next thing,” . . . “The worry is we’re raising a generation of kids in front of screens whose brains are going to be wired differently.”

The changes seem to occur both ways-technology influences the way we learn, and in turn, new types of learning can perhaps even influence the way the brain develops.

While there are some alarming concerns with this trend, the end result is clear: Learning has been undeniably altered. The trend is not slowing down. Today’s generation is delving deeper into new ways to include technology in their daily lives, such as with smart watches, google glasses, and virtual worlds. Rather than fight this growing trend, educators can learn how to harness the new powers of technology and adapt best practices for using technology responsibly and effectively in learning. By balancing technology use in meaningful ways, educators can create new learning methodologies that effectively tap into the strengths of a new generation of learners. Staying on track with this learning trend can create an impact on how the educational pedagogy and best practices emerge.

In exploring this trend, educators and researchers have realized that students that grew up in this fashion may actually be intrinsically different. In fact, a recent study published in, suggests that technology has changed the way this generation processes information. In “Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Effects of Having Information at our Fingertips”, researchers found that human memory is actually adapting to technology use. Rather than relying on memorization, today’s students readily use technology tools to access information easily and employ it as a form of transactive, or external memory. In effect, computers have become in essence, an extension of memory, or learning itself. The synergy between technology and learning is undeniably, one of the greatest consequences of the technological revolution.

According to Marc Prensky, author of On the Horizon, in an essay titled, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”,

“. . Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our education system was designed to teach. . .A real big discontinuity has taken place. One might even call it a “singularity” – an event which changes things so fundamentally that there is absolutely no going back. This so-called “singularity” is the arrival and rapid dissemination of digital technology in the last decades of the 20th century. . . It is now clear that as a result of this ubiquitous environment and the sheer volume of their interaction with it, today’s students think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.” -Marc Prensky, “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” From On The Horizon, 2001

Rather than waiting to react to the growing trend, many educators are actively seeking ways to implement technology and change their teaching strategies. Educause, a non-profit organization focused on advancing and transforming higher education through the use of technology has done just this. They are performing research and initiatives aimed at addressing this growing need in education. A recent ebook published by this organization, titled Educating The Next Generation, explores how to engage students and apply technology in higher education as a learning tool. James and Diana Oblinger (2005) bring together key research and suggest that “Individuals raised with the computer deal with information differently compared to previous cohorts . . . A linear thought process is much less common than bricolage, or the ability to piece information together from multiple sources.” This ability to quickly bridge gaps between information and process complex information may be a strength.

The authors cite some key differences on how Gen Y is “wired” for learning (Oblinger et al. 2005):

Visual learning: They are insightful visual learners.

Strong visual-spatial skills: Perhaps due to integration of video gaming, they can easily integrate virtual and physical worlds.

Inductive reasoning: They learn best through discovery.

Attentional deployment: They shift their attention rapidly.

Fast Response Time: They respond quickly and expect fast responses as well (Prensky 2001).

In a similar way, research from The Clute Institute’s Journal of College Teaching and Learning suggests that there is a disconnect between learning styles of college professors and university students. In a 2007 paper, “Teach Me In the Way I Learn: Education and The Internet Generation” (Baker et al.) researchers propose that new teaching methodologies are needed to reach a new generation. The authors argue that today’s students have a hard time sitting through a traditional 50 minute lecture, becoming easily disengaged. The researchers suggest that new methods are needed in pedagogy that vary the learning pace and focus on their visual learning style (Baker et al 2007). According to this study,

“Their brains are “wired” differently than that of their professors, hence their development and experiences guide how they process information and experience the world. While most faculty process information in a sequential or liner fashion, students process information in a randomized or networked pattern which allows them to build concept maps (see figure 2). This seemingly random information processing alludes to the need for a variety of learning opportunities and methods.”

The researchers refer to prior studies that suggest that attention spans are smaller: the average student’s attention span is only 7 minutes long (Baker et al cited from Oblinger, 2006). The implication is breaking learning into smaller mini-lessons or 10 minute “chunks” of information while providing students time for reflection and interaction (Baker et al cited from Oblinger, 2006).

Researchers around the world see that students are beginning to approach their learning in new ways. A South African study, “Gen Y Students: Appropriate learning styles and teaching approaches in the economic and management sciences faculty”, discusses how aptitudes and attitudes in a media rich environment have also influenced learning (Steenkamp et al. 2009) Gen Y prefers interactivity, working in teams, clear structure, using inductive discovery and image-rich environments (Steenkamp et al. 2009). In many ways, Gen Y turns to what they are simply used to and the classroom is no different, especially since learning is about making connections to our daily lives. Based on these findings, the authors of this study suggest imbedding the following components in higher education classes (Steenkamp et al 2012):

Online communication

Social networking

Information sharing

Photo sharing sites

Video sharing sites

Software applications

These technologies can be implemented in various ways, such as by requiring team work using a social networking site or by posting lectures in a digital format (Skeetkamp et al 2012). These new formats also have interesting research implications. They can be used to directly collect information about learning communities. By accessing large sets of data as virtual learning occurs, data can be collected as students use technology in different environments that gives information about their preferences, learning methods, and dispositions (Todd Gibson 2014).

In all regards, learning is becoming a globally connected discipline that is rapidly evolving and changing, thanks to technology. In effect, “society has moved from a community of learners whose knowledge was closely tied to local community experiences to a world of globalized learners” (Edgar 20120). Educators must find novel ways to connect teaching to this emerging movement and rise to the occasion to adapt teaching to meet the needs of a new generation of learners. Once thought controversial, social learning theories are readily accepted and adapted in today’s classrooms. In the same way, educators need to establish a balanced pedagogy that includes both traditional instructional methodologies and considers fresh perspectives of learning theory.

Miriam Clifford is a freelance writer and education blogger. She holds a Masters in Teaching with Honors from City University of Seattle and a Bachelor in Science from Cornell University. She loves research and is passionate about new trends in Education. In 2013, she was recognized as a Top 20 innovation blogger, on Innovation Excellence, a leading global innovation website, for reaching thousands of global readers with her education blogs. You can find her at @miriamoclifford and on

Photo By Saad Faruque, flickr