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Broadband, Social Networks, and Mobility Have Spawned a New Kind of Learner

Students are different today because of technology. Every educator knows this, of course, but this change is about much more than agile thumbs, shriveling attention spans, and OMG'd vocabularies. According the Pew Research Center, the combination of widespread access to broadband Internet connectivity, the popularity of social networking, and the near ubiquity of mobile computing is producing a fundamentally new kind of learner, one that is self-directed, better equipped to capture information, more reliant on feedback from peers, more inclined to collaborate, and more oriented toward being their own "nodes of production."

"These three elements together have changed the context of learning," says Lee Rainie, director of the Pew Research Center's Internet and American Life Project. "Today, knowledge is literally at your fingertips."

Rainie spoke to attendees at the 2011 State Educational Technology Directors Association (SETDA) Leadership Summit in Washington, DC. The Pew Center's Internet and American Life Project is a non-profit, non--partisan "fact tank" that studies the social impact of the Internet. Rainie is a co-author of Up for Grabs; Hopes and Fears; Ubiquity, Mobility, Security; and Challenges and Opportunities--books focused on the future of the Internet. He's also co-authoring a book, expected to debut in early 2012 from MIT Press, on the social impact of technology.

"I don't have to have an opinion," Rainie joked during his keynote. "I just have to find out what's true."

The Pew Center conducted its first survey of Internet behavior in 1999 and watched what Rainie called "the broadband revolution" unfold.

"We watched as the world moved from a dial-up world to a broadband world," he said." The spread of broadband made it possible for students to become content creators. We know that three-quarters of Internet-connected teenagers now create content and share it online. It's not necessarily profound stuff--it's not War and Peace. They're sharing status updates; they're telling stories about their lives; they're reacting to things; and they're rating and ranking things. But that's the way people are using these new tools to tell stories about themselves."

According to the Pew Center, 95 percent of teenagers now use the Internet, while 78 percent of adults use it. And 82 percent of teenagers (ages 12-17) have broadband at home, as opposed to 62 percent of adults.

Broadband also inherently facilitates new forms of information dissemination, Rainie said.

"Links have now become a central aspect of text," he said. "There are clear ways now that students assess and use information in the context of the links embedded in text. They will check primary sources, go back to original documents, and do a little bit more work to get there. Links have changed the way knowledge is presented; it's no longer linear. It's sometimes disrupted, scattered, and related to multimedia. There are ways now in the linked environment to pack more information into textbooks and other learning vehicles. You can do story telling in ways now that you never could."

The proliferation of broadband helped to facilitate the rise of the social network, Rainie said. Students now turn to their social networks to help them in three ways:

  1. To act as sentries or early warning signals about what's going on in the world and what's the news in their social environment;
  2. To act as evaluators of information (Is it true? What does it mean? How much weight should I give it?); and
  3. To act as an audience.

"We've all got audiences now on Twitter and Facebook," Rainie said. "Everybody can be a publisher and broadcaster; students in particular are taking advantage of that. Predictably, young people have an acute sense that they're sort of performing for the people in their social network, particularly the people who don't know them very well. They want to increase their reputation, increase their status, and build communities. Social networks are now primary places where people can kind of show off and strut their stuff."

According to the Pew Center, 80 percent of teenagers who are online (76 percent of all teenagers) now participate in social networking sites like Facebook, though just 16 percent participate in Twitter, which is actually a microblogging service. Meanwhile, 65 percent of adult Internet users (50 percent of all adults) are now using social networking sites; 33 percent of those who are 65 and older and use the Internet now participate in social networking sites.

The advent of broadband combined with the popularity of social networks has also given students the means to publish pictures and video, which is changing students in another important way, Rainie said.

"When people start sharing pictures online, they become radically different social beings," he said. "They're thinking chronologically about their lives and sharing specific moments with their friends. This kind of information sharing has become a deeply rooted expectation. The visual element in social networking--posting pictures after a party or concert--is now almost as important as the texted information."

Pulling these two "revolutions" together is the spread of mobile computing. Rainie cited some statistics from CTIA, the wireless trade lobby, which reported last year that there were 303 million total wireless subscriber lines in the United States. Just this quarter CTIA reported that that number had grown to 322.9 million.

"There are more cell phones in America now than there are people," Rainie said. "And we're not the first to this party. Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea, and a couple of Scandinavian countries have more than 100 percent penetration of cell phones. And the numbers are only going to get bigger."

Currently, about 30 percent of teenagers have smart phones--iPhone, Androids, etc.--that provide Internet connectivity; most teens have so-called feature phones, which allow them to send text messages, but not surf the Web.

What's important about mobility in the context of education, Rainie said, is that it changes the way people think about the availability of information, knowledge, and learning.

"It alters the places where learning takes place and expectations about where learning can take place," Rainie said. "When something is perceived to be available all the time, anywhere, on any device, it changes the way that anybody, but particularly students, thinks about how they can access the information and media they want on the schedule they want."

Among the consequences of this confluence of trends is a massive inflow of data, which the enterprise refers to as "Big Data." These are datasets that have grown so large that they're hard to work with, that traditional database management tools can't handle.

"Because the broadband environment has so increased the volume and velocity and variety of information in people's lives, analytics has become much more important," Rainie said. "We are entering the age of Big Data, and it's one of the trends we are going to be tracking at Pew. The big question is, how are we going to figure out what all these data are telling us about our students.

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance journalist and author based in Mountain View, CA.