WHEN looking at how society will change in the 21st century, most people focus on the effects of digital technologies, particularly the Internet. But it is the confluence of these technologies with a new generation that will shape the institutions of society for decades to come.

The Net Generation is coming of age. Born between 1977 and 1997, these teenagers and young adults have grown up surrounded by digital devices and media. In 2010, the eldest of the generation turns 33. The youngest turns 13.

In the book Grown Up Digital, I describe the typical Net-Gener as having eight distinctive attitudinal and behavioural characteristics, or norms, that differentiate them from other generations.

They prize freedom and freedom of choice. They want to customise things and make them their own. They are natural collaborators who enjoy a conversation, not a lecture. They will scrutinise you and your organisation. They insist on integrity. They want to have fun, even at work and at school. Speed is normal; innovation is a part of life.

Reinvent the wheel

Around the world, this generation is flooding into the workplace, marketplace and every niche of society. Often, they are met with resistance, and one of the most glaring examples is at universities. If someone frozen 300 years ago miraculously came alive today and looked at the professions — a physician in an operating theatre, a pilot in a jumbo cockpit, an engineer designing a car in a CAD system — they would surely marvel at how technologies have transformed the world. But if they walked into a university lecture hall, they would no doubt be comforted that some things have not changed.

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It is a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process.

But students who have grown up in an interactive digital world learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast dating back to the Industrial Age. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities ignore them, they do so at their peril.

In the industrial model of student mass production, the teacher is the broadcaster. A broadcast is by definition the transmission of information from transmitter to receiver in a one-way, linear fashion. The teacher is the transmitter and  the student is a receptor in the learning process.

The formula goes like this: “I’m a professor and I have knowledge. You’re a student and you lack knowledge. So get ready, here it comes. Your goal is to take this data into your short-term memory and through practice and repetition, build deeper cognitive structures, so you can recall it to me when I test you.”

While this broadcast model has been enhanced in some disciplines through essays, labs and even seminar discussions and many professors are working hard to move beyond this model, it remains dominant overall.

The broadcast model might have been perfectly adequate for the baby-boomers who grew up in the broadcast mode, receiving their daily dose of television, not to mention being broadcast to as children by parents, as students by teachers, as citizens by politicians, and when then entered the workforce as employees by bosses.

But young people who have grown up digital are abandoning one-way TV for the higher stimulus of interactive communication they find on the Internet. In fact, television viewing is becoming a background media, much like muzak.

Sitting mutely in front of a TV set or a professor doesn’t appeal to or work for this generation. They learn best through non-sequential, interactive, asynchronous, multi-tasked and collaborative processes.

Remaining relevant

The professors who wish to remain relevant will have to abandon the traditional lecture and start listening and conversing with the students — shifting from a broadcast style and adopting an interactive one.

Second, they should encourage students to discover for themselves and learn from a process of discovery and critical thinking instead of just memorising the professor’s store of information.

Third, they need to encourage students to collaborate among themselves and with others outside the university. Finally, they need to tailor the style of education to their students’ individual learning styles.

Because of technology, this is now possible. But this is not fundamentally about technology per se. Rather it represents a change in the relationship between students and teachers in the learning process.