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LET’S IMAGINE A COLLEGE PROFESSOR arriving at 10am to teach her undergraduate course in Management Science to some 300 or so students. Bright young hoodie-clad men and women file in and sit in numbered chairs, all facing the stage where our professor stands slightly stage-left, pacing and chalking notes on a blackboard—or, if this happens to be a technology-enriched auditorium, fiddling with a mouse that connects to an interactive whiteboard.

As the professor begins to speak, she scans the room to see if students are alert and engaged or whether more than a handful are slumped in their seats, texting, Facebooking or otherwise disengaged from her presentation. Has she failed to capture her students’ attention? If so, why? Is it the theoretical subject matter? Is it the size of the class? Is she less than charismatic as a teacher? Not enough jokes and anecdotes? Or, perhaps it’s the context and format. Charisma or not, the notion of a teacher as a distant figure, lecturing more or less fluently from the stage, may be a failed model.

Distracted or indifferent students are nothing new. Texting is just a digital form of passing notes, reading comic books below the desk or doodling in the margins of a spiral notebook. But teachers, for the most part, Digital Immigrants, do face new challenges—such as learning to use technology effectively rather than just using new tools to do what has always been done. And, indeed, there is evidence that young students do suffer from short attention spans.

“I like a teacher who gives you something to take home and think about besides homework.”

- Lily Tomlin as "Edith Ann"

In many college classrooms, the role of the professor is evolving from lecturer to facilitator. Teachers facilitate discussion and act as mentors, while students engage in peer tutoring, role-playing and collaborating in small groups on problem-based projects. In some ways, this format is an adaptation of the ancient Socratic method in which the teacher walks among the students to encourage inquiry and debate as they test the logic of ideas and potential solutions to problems. It is a dialectic method, often formulated as a series of questions that help the student discover tacit but questionable assumptions, inquiry that leads to further critical thinking and understanding.

A corollary of the teacher as mentor, guide or coach is the student as a partner who actively participates in his or her own education. The Generation Z student does not see himself or herself as a passive vessel to be filled to the brim with the accumulated knowledge of the “sage on the stage.” And instructors increasingly realize the effectiveness of dialogue and the relevance of a “constructivist” approach, in which learners are actively involved and encouraged to be independent and responsible. Students work together on experiments, research projects, simulations and other activelearning projects, in which social skills and communication are emphasized as much as sharing ideas and information.

Breaking into small, active groups—rather than listening passively— improves comprehension and retention, especially important in STEM classes (science, technology, engineering and math) that traditionally favor the lecture format, but which is frustrating for many students and leads to high drop-out rates. One-third of students who enter college aspire to be STEM majors, but less than half complete a degree in STEM. According to an article in the Washington Post, some migrate to the Humanities while others simply drop out, promoting schools like Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and Harvard University in Boston to retool the lecture format, creating a more interactive classroom environment.[7]

Indeed, interaction and collaboration need not end when students leave the classroom. Today’s college campus provides sufficient digital support to allow learning to occur at almost any time and anywhere on campus. And, for Digital Natives, a shift to technology-enabled teaching and learning seems only natural. That said, some research indicates that students (and many teachers) see the classroom as the ideal place for collaboration and discussion—not technology—and view libraries or dormitory lounges as spaces that better serve focused study. The importance of the teacher in the classroom is not diminished; it’s a change of direction rather than degree.

Gensler, the global architecture, design, planning and consulting firm, undertook research to identify the key attributes of higher education environments. Their “Changing Course” whitepaper notes that, “If collaboration is an important part of the learning process, its place is in the classroom where teachers can facilitate and direct conversation— expecting students to do it on their own is unlikely given their preferences, and students often view out-of-class group work as less than productive.”[8] Students complain that group work is frustrating and unproductive when one or two students dominate discussion, while others are “free riders” or lead the group off-topic.

With everyone able to download content, the skill of the instructor may be even more important. And it is not necessarily a corollary that the “best” universities (often defined by the amount of published research) have the best teachers. Great teachers guide students by asking questions that lead them to think critically and develop their own conclusions. Good teachers realize that technology should be supportive, not the focus itself. Sometimes low-tech is more effective than bells and whistles. And technology becomes obsolete quickly, whereas a gifted instructor evolves with changes in pedagogy and advances in knowledge.

While many teachers find that technology is a boon to their profession, many also see it as a double-edged sword. Both Millennials and Digital Natives expect more guidance and feedback than earlier generations—Millennials from superiors at work and Digital Native students from their teachers. Students can email and IM teachers anytime, from anywhere—and they do, adding to the stress of time management for faculty.

According to an article in the New York Times, the attitudes of teachers towards technology and their Digital Native students are complex and often contradictory. Based on two research studies—one from Pew Research Center; one conducted by Common Sense Media—the Times article stresses that teachers’ views are subjective, but also significant as teachers spend a great deal of time observing, working with and evaluating students’ learning abilities.

“I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention,” said Hope Molina-Porter, 37, an English teacher at Troy High School in Fullerton, California, who has taught for 14 years. She teaches accelerated students, but has noted a marked decline in the depth and analysis of their written work.

“(Ms. Molina-Porter) said she did not want to shrink from the challenge of engaging them, nor did other teachers interviewed, but she also worried that technology was causing a deeper shift in how students learned. She also wondered if teachers were adding to the problem by adjusting their lessons to accommodate shorter attention spans.”[9]

Other surveys of university professors indicate a desire among many teachers to “turn off technology” in the classroom, as well as a concern that the use of technology from childhood on has led to a drop in cognitive ability and the willingness to spend time to think through a problem or delve more deeply into a subject. Kay Sargent, Vice President Architecture, Design and Workplace Strategies at Teknion, who has also taught a number of courses at the university level, notes that today’s “research papers” are often simply data dumps from the Internet “with little or no true research, original and critical thought, expansion of ideas or innovative conclusions.”

Technology has perhaps caused students to be, if not unable, then at the least unwilling, to perform cognitive tasks once considered basic. In the same way that the calculator eliminated the need to do long division, will spell-check eliminate the ability to spell and will:

• Email result in the disappearance of cursive handwriting;
• Texting inhibit our ability (or desire) to talk face-to-face;
• “Text speak” impair writing skills that meet academic standards or earn respect in the workplace;
• GPS create a direction-challenged generation; and will
• Google negate the need to rack our brains? After all, we can just “Google it!”

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