Rethinking How We Teach The 'Net Generation' According to writer and digital revolution expert Don Tapscott, the classic university lecture model is an outdated way of teaching a generation that has grown up making, changing and learning from digital communities.

Rethinking How We Teach The 'Net Generation'

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NEAL CONAN, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Few will argue that America's colleges and universities are critical to our economic and intellectual future, and by many measures that future looks good. Competition for places in the top schools is as fierce as ever. More kids are willing to pay ever-higher tuition. Employers put a greater premium on a college degree than ever before.

But Don Tapscott argues that universities must change or die, radically alter both the way they teach and how they develop a curriculum. A good start, he says, is to put the textbooks, lectures, professors' notes, exams, everything online for free.

So professors, administrators, deans, students, what needs to change amid the digital revolution? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to And click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the hour, the U.S. team dazzles on the way to the Women's World Cup Finals. Are you watching? But first, Don Tapscott, a business consultant, chairman of nGenera Insight. His most recent book, co-written with Anthony D. Williams, is "Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World." He joins us today from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Nice to have you back on the program.

DON TAPSCOTT: Well, it's great to be back, Neal.

CONAN: And Don Tapscott, some people would look at those statistics I mentioned earlier and say colleges and universities are doing awfully well. If it ain't broke, why fix it?

TAPSCOTT: Well, it's deeply broken, and there's growing evidence that the university is losing its monopoly on higher learning. And it's not just that more and more students are questioning the bang for the buck as college - as tuition fees continue to grow, and there's massive youth unemployment.

And it's not just that students around the world are increasingly choosing alternative models of higher education. You know, Phoenix University has 427,000 students enrolled. Most MBAs in the world are now done online largely because they come from Asia.

But there are all these more subtle indications. Students and faculty are refusing to pay for academic periodicals. They're sort of file-swapping like it's 1999. But the big ones are is that students are starting to boycott the model of pedagogy. The smartest kids don't go to lectures. The big thing is to get an A without having ever gone to the lecture.

I was talking to a youngster at Harvard, and he said: Why would I sit there and listen to a TA talking to 300 of us, teaching assistant. I can't even ask a question - the topic is Peter Drucker(ph) - when I can go online and interact with a real-time Peter Drucker.

So when you have the cream of the crop of an entire generation thinking that the model of pedagogy is deeply flawed, well, the writing's on the wall.

CONAN: So what needs to change in your view? In "Macrowikinomics" you talk about rebooting business in the world, one chapter devoted to colleges and universities.

TAPSCOTT: Well, there are two big classes of change. One is that we need to change the model of pedagogy, and the other is that we need a collaborative model of how content gets created.

CONAN: We'll have to take one at a time, first pedagogy, how we teach.

TAPSCOTT: Well, if someone were frozen 100 years ago and they miraculously came back today, and they looked at the professions, a doctor in an operating theater, a pilot in a jumbo jet, an engineer designing a bridge, they'd say: Wow, has the world ever changed, and technology has been at the heart of these changes.

If they walked into a lecture theater at a university, they'd look around, they'd say, well, I recognize this. I mean, the model of pedagogy has remained unchanged for centuries, and it's a broadcast model of learning. You know, as I said, I'm a teacher, I have knowledge, you're a student, you don't; get ready, here it comes. Well, this is a teacher-focused model, it's one way. It's one-size-fits-all, and the student is isolated in the learning process.

And we need to move towards a collaborative model of learning that's student-focused, it's highly customized and that is a model appropriate for a new generation that learns differently.

And if we don't do this, I think that the university is going to come into a period of very deep crisis very quickly.

CONAN: I was struck by the example you used in the book of a - you used a psychology professor who comes on and has to develop a course for his students, and well, you describe it.

TAPSCOTT: Well, there are a number of examples, but let me just give one that's quite personal and that really gets to the point. It was 1975, and I was doing a Master's degree in educational psychology, and I took a grad course in statistics. And it was all online.

We had a lab, and the prof was there to structure a customized learning experience for me. I went over things I didn't understand until I got them right. I remember thinking: You know, if someone was watching me right now, they'd think I was really dumb. But I did it until I got it. Things I did understand I went through quickly.

There were no lectures, but let's face it, the statistics lecture by definition is a bust, right? There's no one-size-fits-all for statistics. Everyone in the classroom is either bored or else they don't get it.

And you know, I got an A, and so did most kids, up from a B-minus, on the same class of standardized tests from two years earlier. This is 35 years ago. We know, and the research shows, that when you have a student-focused, self-paced collaborative model that's customized of learning, you just get - you get better results.

So some universities are working hard to reinvent themselves. You know, at Virginia Tech they have no math lectures. Students learn math the way that I did 35 years ago in a beautiful building called the Math Emporium. And it's a model where students get to collaborate, but also they learn math the way that they think and the way that they learn.

CONAN: You also cite an example of MIT, which has, well, taken the next step.

TAPSCOTT: Well, MIT's taken the next step but largely on the second big issue, which is how content gets created. I mean, how bizarre that there are thousands, I don't know, tens of thousands of statistics professors or math professors around the world teaching kids what an analysis of variance is, and they've all got their own notes and their own little tests and their own routines and their own PowerPoint and increasingly their own little software tools and so on.

I mean, this is bizarre. The notion of the ivory tower is really very deeply ingrained in the university. From the 19th century, you know, it's been used to designate a world where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from others and from the practical concerns of everyday life. And we need to break down these walls to create what we describe in "Macrowikinomics" as a global network for higher learning, and I'd be happy to talk about that one too.

CONAN: We will talk about that. We want to get some listeners involved in the conversation too. We're talking with Don Tapscott about his new book, "Macrowikinomics," and we want to find out from teachers, professors and students at universities and colleges - deans too, administrators - what needs to change in the digital age. Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us,

We have this email from Leslie(ph) in Longmont, Colorado: I'm a professor at a large public university. I'm on board with the need to address the Net generation. I'd like to ask how to use social media to teach actual content instead of just using it because it makes me look like I'm keeping up. What ideas can you share for using social media in the classroom without ending up having students Facebooking throughout my class?

TAPSCOTT: Well, in a sense, Neal, what we're talking about is social media. It's about applying social media to create social learning or collaborative learning. I mean, this is not a new technique. This is the new platform for learning for the 21st century.

And it's appropriate for this new generation. I mean, one of the reasons that the universities appear to be doing well is there's a giant demographic bulge that are in the universities. The children of the baby boom, the baby boom echo, were born between 1978 and 1979 inclusive, and they are the smartest generation ever, and understandably they want to have higher education.

But the thing is that these kids learn differently. You know, my generation, the boomers, grew up watching 24 hours a week of TV per kid. And these kids have grown up watching a lot less TV, and they've grown up interacting and collaborating.

You know, I came home and turned on the TV. This new generation comes home and they turn on their computer, and they're in three different windows, and they've got three magazines open, and they're listening to iTunes, and they're texting with their friends and talking to them. They may have a video game going - oh yeah, and they're doing their homework.

But this is affecting actual brain development, and overall the brain science says - this is still controversial - but the brain science that I've studied, and I did a $4 million research project on this - is that this is creating a brain that thinks and learns differently, and it's more appropriate for the 21st century.

I mean, let me just give you an example. I have parents come up to me and say: How is it that my 14-year-old can get A's, and she's doing her homework while she's also doing five other things at once? And I always ask them: Well, is she a really good student? Does she get out? Does she have friends? Is she a good kid? And so on.

If they say yes, I say: Well, look, we're not talking about a problem here. We're talking about something interesting, and what's happening is that she's actually not multitasking. She's got better active working memory and better switching abilities. So it looks like she's doing five things at once, but she isn't.

And she's grown up collaborating. So I grew up being broadcast to, and the whole broadcast model in the university was fine for me. I mean, I went to lectures, and that's kind of the way I learned. But this is a generation that's grown up interacting, and this is actually affecting the wiring of their brains.

Most - a third of the human brain gets built during extended adolescence, age eight to 18. And how you spend your time determines - after your DNA that's the most important variable determining what your brain is like.

So all these kids that have grown up collaborating and thinking differently walk into a university, and they're asked to sit there and passively listen to someone talking about Peter Drucker when they could go and interact and collaborate and just learn much better about him.

CONAN: So even if that broadcast model served you and me and a lot of other people well enough, it is not going to do well enough now.

TAPSCOTT: Well, that's a huge driver on why we need to change the model of pedagogy, is we have a new generation of student that learns differently.

CONAN: We'll talk more with Don Tapscott about his proposed global network for higher learning after a short break. Stay with us. We want to hear from college students, professors, university administrators. What needs to change in the digital age? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. College classroom as we know it is obsolete. Boiled down, that's Don Tapcott's argument. The smart students, he says, often don't bother with lectures at all, they learn online and in many cases still get good grades, the best grades.

And if colleges and universities don't adapt and soon, they will not be able to compete with online programs that are cheaper and more often more effective.

Don Tapscott has studied technology for decades, co-wrote the book "Macrowikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World." He writes about the ways technology transforms everything from government to education and the U.S. financial system. You can read more about that in an excerpt on our website. Go to, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Professors, administrators, deans, students, what needs to change amid the digital revolution? 800-989-8255. Email You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

We'll get to more of your calls and emails in just a moment, but Don Tapscott, I wanted to ask if you could outline what you call the global network for higher learning.

TAPSCOTT: Well, it makes a lot of sense to - for the university to open up and embrace collaborative knowledge production, really breaking down the walls that exist between these higher education institutions and the rest of the world.

And it's a pretty sensible idea. It's got, very quickly, five levels that we describe in "Macrowikinomics," but the first would just be content exchange. And professors park their teaching materials online for others to freely use. And this is already well underway with MIT's meta-university concept. Their whole Open University is a wonderful initiative.

The second is content collaboration, where you actually get teachers starting to discuss and share insights regarding the efficacy of materials online. The third would be where they co-innovate and collaborate to share ideas, create new teaching materials, using wikis, other tools, and a lot of what they'll be creating is software, because increasingly we'll need software for the new model of pedagogy.

At a fourth level, teachers and students use this platform to collaborate and create whole new knowledge beyond courseware, and in doing so start to change the way that scholars research, collaborate and generate knowledge that's going to be required for a new century.

And at the fifth level, really you can see the university starting to change from being a place to being more a node on a global network where students and institutions learn collaboratively.

Now, let me add, though, that I still think there's a role for the campus. This is not about online learning per se. For that matter, it's not about technology. It's a change in the relationship between students and teachers and the learning process and between teachers and the way that content gets created.

And when it comes to the campus, as one educator said to me, there's a great role for the university, Don, it's a place where young people can go for four years and get older.


TAPSCOTT: But if all the university is is a summer camp, and there are way better ways of learning, then eventually it is going to become bypassed.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation. We'll start with Omjad(ph), Omjad with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.

OMJAD: Hi, thanks for having me on your show. I teach at the University of Arkansas. I teach critical theory and some art history classes. And I'll tell you that your guest's comments about how this kind of individualized curriculum needs to become front and center I think is absolutely part of the problem.

I think that what needs to happen is that students need to become less self-absorbed, less self-interested and stop assuming that everything in the class has to be wrapped around their interests and their expectations of what that class should be.

I think that students these days, at least my students, have an enormous amount of self-entitlement. They have a sense of entitlement and that everything needs to be handed over to them on a silver platter, and if they have to work at it, then you know, it's absolutely unnecessary, because like your guest says, they can go online and you read about it on Wikipedia.

If I ask a student to read 30 pages of a book, they're not going to do it. They're maybe going to look something up on Google and have absolutely no relationship to the material whatsoever. It will be the most superficial, self-interested and unnecessary kind of information possible.

And I regret to say that I disagree with your guest at all costs, but you know, I'm 32. I'm not even an old codger. You know, I come at this from a wellspring of wonder for knowledge, wonder for reading and engagement, and I don't believe that going on the Internet is going to solve any of these problems. So I'm happy to take my call off the air and let you guys knock me down out of the air.


CONAN: Okay, Omjad, thanks very much, appreciate it. I won't, but maybe Don Tapscott will.

TAPSCOTT: Well, first of all, the notion that students are self-absorbed, this is a popular idea. There's a book called "Generation Me" that says we've created a little army of narcissists, and narcissists don't care. But unfortunately, there's no evidence to support this.

Youth volunteering, for example, in the United States, has been growing year over year for 15 years, both in high schools and universities. It's a generation that has a sense of self-entitlement? Well, what does that mean? You know, perhaps. Is it self-entitlement, or is it legitimate expectations that we should have effective and rational models of learning, not models that date back centuries.

I mean, we have the very best model of learning in the schools that 17th-century technology can provide. Kids want to have a superficial view of things. You know, I don't know. If I could take a couple of minutes and just tell a story about a youngster. Am I able to do that, Neal?

CONAN: A couple of minutes, but we want to give some more people a chance if...

TAPSCOTT: Yeah, sure. Okay, so I was giving a lecture to the - a talk. We were having a discussion at Florida State University. This is a couple of years ago. And I explained my views of how the university needs to change. And they had a group of all the senior managers there and a youngster, whose name was Joe(ph).

And they asked Joe, well, what do you think? And he said: Well, I think these views are resonating with me because as a generation, I think we do learn differently. Let me give you an example. I don't read books, he says, 22 years old, a senior.

And he says: I think I'm knowledgeable, but I go online to get my information, and I have a good BS detector, so I know what's good and what's not good, and if I need to read a book, I don't read it like a book. I don't follow someone else's narrative. I'm online, I'm back in the book, I'm in the table of contents. I don't read books.

So the dean of the film schools says: Well, Joe, I don't know if this is really interesting and exciting or if it means the end of civilization.


TAPSCOTT: But anyway, I got to know the guy, and I spent some time. I interviewed him, actually, and I said: Tell me about yourself. What kind of student are you? He says: Well, I'm a good student, straight A's, 4.0. I said: Do you do anything else? He says: Yeah, I'm the president of the student council here, I have 18 committees, I chair 12 of them. I've got a $10 million budget. That keeps me busy.

I said to him: Anything else? He says: Well, my girlfriend's from Katrina - sorry, from New Orleans, and when Katrina hit, we went down there to see what we could do. There's no health care clinic in the Ninth Ward. So I set one up. I said: You set up a health care clinic?

He says: Yeah, you have the Internet, you can do anything you want to do. It's called the Ninth Ward Health Care Clinic. It still sees 9,000 patients a year. So I asked him: Well, what are you doing next year? He says: Well, it's great. I'm going to Oxford. I'm going to study philosophy. I'm going to have the British health care system. He says: We just never went to the doctor when we were kids.

And he knows all about the British health care system, he knows about Maslow's hierarchy of needs, he knows about Ronald Coase's theory of the firm. He's as knowledgeable as anyone I've ever met.

And so I said to him: Well, you're going to Oxford, that's awesome. Did you get some financial aid? And he says - because I knew he was poor. And he said: Yeah, I got this scholarship that covers everything. I said: Great, where'd that come from? He said: It's called a Rhodes Scholarship.

The Rhodes Scholar from northern Florida in the year 2008 doesn't read books. So you know what? Bob Dylan, there's something going on here and you don't know what it is. And I think that we revert to traditional ways of everything.

This is, as we say in the book, we have an industrial age model of all of our institutions: mass education, mass production, mass media, mass marketing, mass democracy. And we need to move towards a new collaborative model. And it's now possible to do that.

CONAN: Let's get Mandolin(ph) on the line. Mandolin's on the line from Rockford, Illinois.

MANDOLIN: Hi, how are you guys?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

MANDOLIN: Just briefly, I'm 22 years old. I'm a recent graduate, and I now work full-time. To address the idea of the entitlement, I'm sure that it's present in some people my age, but I got my first job when I was 14. I put myself through college, paid for the whole thing. And so it just doesn't resonate super-well with me sometimes when I hear stuff like that because I have worked very hard.

I graduated on a Saturday, and I started work on Monday. But just to go - to touch on the idea of what can we be doing, you know, how are teachers responding as professors - because I had a wonderful college experience.

But I noticed that my professors would kind of get irritated. You know, don't have a laptop open unless you're taking notes. So I just had two dual screens up, be taking notes, listening to them but doing three other things at the same time. And so I think there's a different perception of I couldn't possibly be paying attention to them when I can still get A's.

CONAN: So this is an instance of what Don Tapscott was talking about, the different way your generation learns from his or mine.

MANDELIN: And what I find interesting is how that's translating from my college experience into the workforce, and I work in marketing and community relations. And so I'm almost - I've been working for a month or two in one company, and I'm almost nervous to be not work on just one project because I think what if my boss comes in and I'm working on a couple of different things and I have a couple of tabs open. Twitter is going - what if they take that as a sign that I'm kind of goofing off when in my mind that's how I function best?

CONAN: Well, I think you're going to be fine as long as one of them isn't Battleship.


MANDELIN: Oh, goodness. Yeah. Well, I just wanted to share my (unintelligible). And honestly, I had a wonderful college experience, but the professors that realized that we tend to multitask well did the best of us and they did short lectures and we had groups and we talked. When we updated things online, we used blackboards. Those professors I resonated with, but the professors that just wanted to I mean fight almost we're going to do a PowerPoint, you will sit and listen to it. And they wondered why they had such a hard time with us. But that was just our natural response. It didn't really work for us.

CONAN: Well, Mandelin, thanks very much for the call. Good luck at work.

MANDELIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's a couple of tweets we have. This from Pat. I'm a senior in college. I use I find the videos much more concise, clear and accessible than some of my professors. And this question from Daniel. What about schools such as Sarah Lawrence where the structure is much more about individual learning. Will that structure hold? Don Tapscott, what do you think?

TAPSCOTT: Well, that's exactly right. And just to Mandelin's point, it's great to hear from a student, by the way. You know, the entitlement idea is a little ironic right now because this generation is going to have a tougher time in the workforce than many previous generations. I mean youth unemployment in the United States is 23 percent. And entitlement? The competition to get into the good universities is unlike never before. SAT scores, GMAT scores are at all-time high.

These kids are now competing with young people all around the world. I know my son, who graduated from a good liberal arts school, actually, Amherst College, he's now working in the financial business, he just did his CFAs, certified financial analyst - he was sitting in a room with 4,000 people in one city, and he's competing with hundreds of thousands of people all around the room because they're going to fail 70 percent of them. And on the math stuff, he's competing with kids in China and India.

So there's just no evidence to support this entitlement notion. And what Mandelin was talking about is a prof who's still teaching in the old way. He or she is lecturing, and he's questioning whether or not the kids should have their laptop open. And what's wrong with this picture? Like everything, what he should be doing, let's say if he's teaching, you know, math or something, it should be a self-paced interactive thing using computers or a small group discussion where kids get to collaborate and where it's not - the question is not whether or not is the laptop is open.

You need the laptop as a key part of the delivery model for learning. And I don't mean to sound too critical here because, you know, as the last tweeter just mentioned, there are all kinds of schools and universities that are embracing these new approaches, and the results are just better. And I think we owe it to our kids. You know, we allow - we can't afford to change schools. We can't afford to transform the university. You know, I mean, we can't afford to let our children have their birthright, which is to participate in a huge revolution in learning and to have the communications revolution of their time? I think we do young people and ourselves a great disservice.

CONAN: Don Tapscott is the author most recently of "MacroWikinomics: Rebooting Business and the World." We're talking about one of the chapters he co-wrote with Anthony D. Williams. It's called "Rethinking the University." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And let's go next to Nathan. Nathan calling from Berkeley.

NATHAN: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

NATHAN: I'm an independent new media producer, and one of my clients is a major university textbook publishing company. And one of the projects we've been working on is companion videos to an introduction psychology textbook that goes out to all the universities across the country. And specifically, I was given the task of being able to connect with the Net generation as far as making these companion videos. And I thought about it for a while, and I watched my kids, how they interact with Facebook and YouTube.

And the idea came fairly quickly to me that the old paradigm of making documentary-style videos or scripted videos using actors is just gone by the wayside. And what I decided to do was find people with the disorders in certain chapters that we were profiling. So for example, bipolar disorder, depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and if you go on YouTube these days and you type in those disorders, you will find people speaking about their own problems candidly, frankly.

They're not shy or bashful about it. And the Net generation is very open about their challenges. So what I did is I just harvested those videos, contacting the people, asking them if they would be interested in being part of this project, and I was met with incredible enthusiasm. And for example, one girl who was bipolar...

CONAN: And I'm sorry to hustle you along, Nathan, but we're running out of time here.

NATHAN: Of course, so just a quick example is a girl who's bipolar talked about her problems, filmed herself with manic episodes, and we used these videos. And the feedback and the professors has been really, really good. So it's just a way to kind of connect with the Net generation. It's a new paradigm.

CONAN: Don Tapscott, new paradigms like that are going to be necessary across the board and, well, a radical rethink of not just the teaching methods, the pedagogy and the content, but business models too.

TAPSCOTT: Absolutely. I mean, what we just heard was a teacher acting as a curator rather than a content creator. And imagine if we had this global network for higher learning, there was a platform where all university faculty and educators could cooperate together where we could reach out into the public Internet to curate a lot of this content, like some of it obviously won't be good, but some of it is spectacular, as the caller just alluded to. And you know, we can do this. It just requires some leadership.

CONAN: Nathan, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it. Good luck with it.

NATHAN: Thank you.

CONAN: And, Don Tapscott, we thank you for your time today. The new book is "MacroWikinomics" with Anthony D. Williams. And he joined us today from the studios of the CBC in Toronto.

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