How Net Generation Students Work

By: Dave Roos
Essential Gadgets Image Gallery Net Generation students can text and talk on the phone at the same time. See more pictures of essential gadgets.
© Habur

Let's talk about the word "talk." If you're over 30-years-old, talking means speaking to a colleague on the phone or chatting face-to-face with a friend. To those born after 1982 -- also known as the Net Generation -- the word "talk" takes on a slightly different meaning.

A 10-digit cell phone text message now qualifies as "talking." So does an e-mail exchange, an instant message (IM) conversation and a message board discussion with complete strangers. That's because the Net Generation has grown up in a world so steeped in communication gadgets and software they don't even see these tools as technology.


The Net Generation focuses on the activity, not the specific technology, that enables them to do it. It's not text messaging, instant messaging and e-mailing. It's talking, collaborating and engaging.

The Net Generation is the largest in American history -- over 100 million and counting -- and its intuitive use of technology is quickly changing how teachers teach and workplaces work.

Right now, universities and corporate offices are still divided along generational lines, split between what Marc Prensky calls "Digital Natives" and "Digital Immigrants."

Digital natives include college students and young workers. They "speak the language" of technology fluently and spontaneously. They navigate the virtual and physical world seamlessly. Digital natives are as comfortable text messaging a question to a friend across the country as turning to the guy sitting next to them in class.­

On the flip side, most college professors and bosses are Digital Immigrants. They may share some of the characteristics of the Net Generation -- preference for e-mail, Google and buying tickets online -- but they'll always speak "with an accent." They'd never expose their daily thoughts and emotions on a blog. They can't write a sales report, instant message six friends and watch ESPN at the same time. And Facebook might as well be written in Greek.

For these two generations to communicate effectively takes real understanding of what makes the Net Generation college student tick. In this HowStuffWorks article, we'll explore how Net Generation college students learn and work. Then we'll explain how they communicate, how they view their world, and finally, how schools and companies are evolving to better take advantage of the unique talents of these multitasking, multitalented young minds.


How Net Generation Students Learn and Work

Net Generation students are used to multitasking.
© Wilton

The Net Generation college student works very much like the Internet itself. His mind resembles "hypertext," meaning that images, sounds and text link together bits of information. And that mind doesn't sit still for long.

Net Generation students are infamous for their multitasking skills and short attention spans. Growing up online, they're trained to quickly and simultaneously consume and process information from multiple media sources -- and to ignore anything "boring" or otherwise uninspiring.


As the Net Generation Survey found, 75 percent of students instant message while doing schoolwork. At the same time, the student is also playing and downloading music, watching last night's "The Daily Show" and talking on the phone, reports the survey.

The Net Generation quickly shifts attention from one project to the next, always putting a high priority on speed. Sometimes that speed comes at a cost. Educators and researchers have found that the Net Generation lacks depth in its research and critical skills. They'll often grab information from the first page that pops up on Google, without fully examining if the Web site is a credible source.

Research shows that Net Generation college students are strong visual learners and weaker textual learners. One study examined a library class at California State University - Hayward, where students frequently ignored lengthy text directions for homework assignments. When the assignments were rewritten using images first, student scores increased by 11 to 16 percent and refusal to complete the assignment dropped by 10 to 14 percent.

The Net Generation is not only adept at process information from multiple sources, but they are intuitively drawn to creating multi-media presentations. From a childhood spent watching MTV, movies and video clips online, they have a natural eye and ear for editing audio, video and text. And since they grew up around digital video cameras and simple editing software, everyone's a filmmaker. YouTube, anyone?

Net Generation students are also strong experiential learners. They prefer to learn by discovery, rather than simply being told that something is true. They're used to the online world, where Google answers every curiosity. They read and write customer reviews on books, games and gadgets, and they trust those peer reviews more than any TV commercial or "official" critic.

More than anything, Net Generation students are excellent collaborators. They're natural at networking and love to work in teams. For the Net Generation, collaboration can occur in the same classroom or with team members across the world. They're comfortable starting and maintaining online relationships and becoming "good friends" with people they've never met in person.

That's because, for the Net Generation, the lines between the virtual and physical world are blurred, if not invisible. Not surprisingly, the Net Survey found that 80 percent of college students have instant messaged someone in the same room.

Now that we know more about how the Net Generation student learns and works, let's explore how they communicate with peers, professors and even their parents.


Net Generation Students and Networking

Students stay connected using technology.
© Pomares

The Net Generation is constantly connected. Not just to the Internet, but to each other. What would instant messaging be, after all, without a buddy list? For the Net Generation, technology offers a way to constantly be in touch with old and new friends.

The powerful combination of cell phones, text messaging, instant messaging and e-mail means that Net Generation students are always mid-conversation with one or more friends either online, in person or both at the same time.


Social networking is a fancy word for a Net Generation way of life. The Net Generation Survey found that 69 percent of college students surveyed had a Facebook account. Let's not even get into MySpace. What these and many other Web sites offer is a quick way to post a personal profile and start reeling in the "friends."

Net Generation students are open and emotionally honest in their online communications. For many, their blogs are literally online diaries, where no topic is taboo. With the popularity of YouTube, more and more students are posting vlogs, or video blogs, that cut out the middle man by talking straight to the viewer. It's this emotional honesty that helps members of the Net Generation connect to each other so quickly and feel they are lifelong friends.

Social networks are not static creatures. For the Net Generation, they blend and crossover into academic and professional circles, adding new demands to old institutions, like the professor-student relationship.

Net Generation college students expect a deep and personal connection with their professors. They not only want one-on-one face time with their professors, they want to be able to read their professor's blog and know where she buys her favorite dessert. They want to be able to e-mail and text her and get quick responses in return.

For many professors, old and young alike, this level of access is impossible, but all agree that it's one of the powerful new realities of teaching the Net Generation.

One of the more surprising results of the Net Generation Survey is that, on average, the Net Generation college student speaks to one or both of his parents 1.5 times a day. Researchers have found that Net Generation students have very close, open relationships with their parents, with whom they share many of the same values.

Part of this constant communication can be credited to cell-phone technology. Net Generation students have had their own cell phone as long as they can remember, and they've been checking in with mom and dad ever since. Those parents might be disappointed, however, by a recent survey by the Pew Internet & American Life Project which found that 39 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds lied about their location when talking on a cell phone

Next, let's talk about how the Net Generation student views the world and his role in making it a better place.


Characteristics of Net Generation Students

Net Generation students participate in community service programs.
© Rhay

In contrast with cynical Generation X, the Net Generation is optimistic, positive and driven to succeed. High achievers, they crave rewards and accolades for their hard work. They're aware of the many significant problems affecting the world, but they're confident that through youthful innovation and ever-improving technology, these problems will be solved.

Net Generation students are no stranger to community service. Volunteer projects have been a part of their academic and extracurricular life since kindergarten. Because of this, they value work that has meaning and improves the lives of others.


Net Generation college students are strongly motivated by academic projects that have a real-world component, particularly those that address a major issue like the environment, homelessness or poverty. Net Generation students work in teams to research an issue, create a plan and put that plan into action within their local community.

Net Generation students consider themselves active "global citizens," participating in international study and service projects. They reflect the values of high-profile celebrities who have taken on international causes, and youthful billionaires who have embraced philanthropy. In 2005, the Peace Corps recorded its largest influx of applications in 30 years. Among the Net Generation, it's cool to be smart, successful and to "give something back."

Now let's examine how colleges and businesses are responding to serve this unique group of students and employees.


Working with Net Generation Students

Net Generation students use online tools for information gathering.
© H. Lewis

College campuses were some of the earliest adopters of ubiquitous high-speed wireless networks. That's because students expect to be connected anywhere and everywhere. To that end, many colleges are trying to make other essential student services available online around-the-clock. These services include adding money to meal accounts, making doctor's appointments at the student health center and renewing library books online.

Net Generation students expect the same availability from college administrators, staff and professors. They want to e-mail the director of the study abroad program and receive an answer quickly. Net Generation students work fast and make plans even faster. They need institutional infrastructures that can keep up with their pace.


For students who have grown up in a 24-hour news environment, they want to be the first to hear about events that affect them personally. In response to the Virginia Tech tragedy, more campuses are signing up for emergency notification services that send weather alerts, security warnings and class cancellations directly to students' e-mail addresses and cell phones.

College professors understand the traditional "lecture, read and test" method is failing to reach the Net Generation college student. Large lecture courses are regularly broken up into small group discussions. Microsoft PowerPoint presentations are popular, as are posting all presentations, lecture notes, assignments and syllabi online.

Many traditional college courses now have online discussion components powered by software and services like the recently merged Blackboard and WebCT. Students and professors are pushing for these online course components to include more of the multimedia Web experience the Net Generation is accustomed to -- the images, audio, and video that make the information come alive.­

But not everyone in academia is buying into the idea that the Net Generation represents a great departure from all previous college students. If anything, say some educators, it's the students who should adapt their attention-deprived learning styles to fit a traditional college education, not the other way around.

In an article in the Chronicle for Higher Education, American University linguistics professor Naomi Baron says that Net Generation students have confused effective communication for self-expression at all costs. Their writing and thought process lacks depth, since no time is set aside for proper reflection. There's something to be said, argues professor Baron, for the ability to sit still and think.


Net Generation Students at Work

Net Generation employees need the freedom to multitask at work.
© Showface |

Businesses are also scrambling to understand and work alongside a new breed of employee. Psychology professor Larry D. Rosen says that baby boomer bosses need to "give [Net Generation employees] a job, stand back and let them work." The focus should be on the product, not the process. Net Generation workers are still going to multitask. They'll have their iPod on, six browser windows open and three instant messaging conversations going while they're writing software code.

Author and Net Generation expert Don Tapscott emphasizes the importance of freedom to the Net Generation worker. Traditional office bureaucracies leave the Net Generation employee feeling penned in. He won't have the patience to draft a memo and send it up the chain of command to get feedback.


The free flow of ideas is essential. An entry-level employee should be able to instant message a senior executive with an idea and expect a response. Employees should be able to set up virtual teams within offices and across different locations to develop new ideas independently.­

Rosen says Net Generation workers are used to the awards and accolades showered upon them as overachieving high school and college students, and the workplace should be no exception. Net Generation workers expect quick feedback from superiors and incentives for jobs well done, like extra vacation time or prizes.

Net Generation workers want to telecommute at least a portion of their hours or create flexible work schedules that may not jibe with the traditional 9-to-5. They also have hobbies and interests as eclectic as their Web surfing histories. For many of them, work will never be the center of their lives, and they search out employers who understand the importance of maintaining a healthy work-play balance.

For lots more information about Net Generation students and related topics, check out the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Interesting Links
  • E-mail interview with Jeanna Mastrodicasa, co-author of "Connecting to the Net Generation: What Higher Education Professionals Need to Know About Today's Students."