According to Marc Prensky, the author of Teaching Digital Natives, people born and raised during the digital age (people under the age of 30) are “digital natives.” That means that the majority of people running organizations today are “digital immigrants.” And, don’t kid yourself, there is more than your average communication gap between these two groups.
Technology has changed the way young people listen. Before the digital age, listening to lectures in school seemed like the lesser of two evils when compared to reading dense, dry textbooks. Today, students can learn more online in an hour than they could listening to most lectures of a similar duration. And, they know it.
Prensky suggests that teaching should be more of a partnership, with educators leading and students using technology to uncover information on topics that interest them most. One can imagine that individual guidance would be more engaging than general lecturing. The challenge will be to guide students through material that interests them while also teaching them the critical math and language skills required for jobs.
As schools work on solving this puzzle, businesses must communicate with digital native employees every day to remain profitable. Claiming that young people have shorter attention spans is a prime example of the generation gap. It’s obvious that young people can sit at the computer and do things that interest them for long periods of time. The specific complaint of their elders is that they don’t pay attention to things presented in a “lecture” format.
Lectures can also include long-winded instructions, demonstrations where the target audience observes, and videos. Digital natives need to interact with the information as they learn. They want to understand why things are done a certain way, because they can get those answers online. That’s simply the way they learn. They are not asking questions to be rude or express disbelief. The good news is, the more digital natives learn, the more interest they have in learning more and contributing to the discussion.
In our current work settings, it’s wise to “help” digital natives listen. Keep instructions short and allow for questions. Check for their understanding before they leave. If you send information in an email, verbally confirm understanding later. Communicate individually with your team, not always as a group. Set up individual challenges in areas where an employee holds a special interest. Ask employees if they notice areas for improvement. You may be pleasantly surprised with the results.
Prensky, Marc. (2010) Teaching Digital Natives: Partnering for Real Learning. Corwin. Thousand Oaks, CA.