If this article in Innovate (registration required) didn’t keep hammering the “N-Gen” meme and all the requisite star-struck statistics and high-fallutin description so hard it would have been a lot more fun to read.  But the bottom line thesis is still important for all educators to consider:

Much in the same way that Rudolph Flesch’s 1955 landmark book Why Johnny Can’t Read criticized the American educational system for not teaching phonics, we suggest that today’s instructors are missing an opportunity by not learning to read the texts of the Net Generation. Failing to recognize these texts as valuable tools in the teaching and learning process, professors dismiss an entire constellation of literacy skills.

And here is the crux of the problem:

…while N-Gens interact with the world through multimedia, online social networking, and routine multitasking, their professors tend to approach learning linearly, one task at a time, and as an individual activity that is centered largely around printed text…Not having been raised in the world of the N-Gen student, then, presents some significant challenges for faculty members who must attempt to address the needs of a learning style they have never experienced, may know little about, and may be unable to comprehend fully because of their different skills in processing information.

What I like about the article is that it attempts to make a cultural case for educators to get up to speed, not necessarily an technological one (though, obviously, the two are tied.) Learning cultures have changed:

Many faculty members developed their writing skills in a print world where text took the conventional form of paragraphs on a page or was packaged as a book or an article, a story or a novel; its production was typically conceived of as a solitary act. Consequently, their previous experiences with and understanding of text are quite different from that of the N-Gen student, which may lead to profound misunderstandings. When instructors perceive linear, print-based texts as a benchmark, the N-Gen’s texts may, at first glance, fall quite short. However, these digital texts do not necessarily lack style, coherence, or organization; they simply present meaning in ways unfamiliar to the instructor. For example, a collection of images on Flickr with authorial comments and tags certainly does not resemble the traditional essay, but the time spent on such a project, the motivation for undertaking it, and its ability to communicate meaning can certainly be equal to the investment and motivation required by the traditional essay—and the photos may actually provide more meaningful communication for their intended audience.

Whoa. I can hear the screams now. Essay writing akin to collecting images on Flickr? Even I bristle a bit on that one. But the overall point is clear: We can do this all differently now, and to not get our brains around the shifts has some real implications, specifically in the ways in which it limits us from understanding what our students create and, more importantly, helping them to create and construct with the most effect. And, as has been observed many times here and elsewhere, one of the biggest shifts is the move away from individual knowledge to distributed knowledge built on collaborative and, I would argue, network literacies that are unfamiliar to most of us. (Not to say these kids are born with them, btw.)

Let’s face it, the percentage of educators that Johnny comes into contact with K-16 who are fluent at digital texts is maybe 10%. That doesn’t mean that Johnny won’t be able to figure it out on his own. (You know others have suggested that “literacy is natural,” though I do want to probe that idea bit further at some point.) But it does mean, I think, that we’re missing an opportunity to help Johnny make even more of his digital potential. And I’ll ask you, if you had the chance for your own children to have 100% of their teachers who understand these shifts, wouldn’t you want them to? I know I would. Doesn’t mean that we make everything that happens in the classroom digital or Web 2.0 or whatever else. There are plenty of things worth doing the way we’ve been doing them for a long while. But for my kids to have teachers who don’t have a choice in the matter because they just “don’t get” digital environments is unacceptable.