Emory Report
February 28, 2005
Volume 57, Number 21


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February 28, 2005
EduCATE '05 greets digital generation of learners

BY Michael terrazas

The next generation of learners is coming--and they're wielding pocketbooks the size of Russia. That was one of the lessons John Seely Brown imparted during his opening keynote speech for the fourth annual EduCATE (Educational Conference on Academic Technology at Emory), held Feb. 22-24.

Sponsored by the Information Technology Division (ITD), this year's EduCATE theme was "Understanding a New Generation of Learners." Each year the event serves as part technology showcase, part hands-on workshop, part glimpse-of-the-future as faculty presenters from Emory demonstrate how they incorporate technology into their classrooms, while distinguished outside speakers offer their thoughts and expertise on where educational technologies are headed.

Brown, visiting scholar at the University of Southern California's Annenberg Center and former chief scientist of Xerox Corp., described how in order to better understand young people growing up in an increasingly digital environment, he immersed himself for a year in the gaming world. What he found startled him, as it likely would anyone else not familiar with online, multiplayer gaming.

For instance, the game EverQuest--the main server for which is maintained in San Diego--is solely responsible for roughly 30 percent of the server traffic in Southern California at any one time, he said. And the amount of money that changed hands per capita in 2003 among EverQuest players (the game requires a monthly fee, and players themselves exchange money through purchasing characters and equipment, wagers, etc.) equaled the per capita gross national product of Russia. Last year, he said, the electronic gaming market made money than the Hollywood film industry.

Brown's point was to demonstrate that "grown-ups" who dismiss the youth culture of gaming, instant messaging, e-mail and other networked innovations do so at their own risk. Today's young people, in fact, are developing a capacity for context-switching mirroring that of many corporate CEOs, he said.

"I work with a lot of CEOs; their average attention span is about 30 seconds. But they're able to switch contexts [instantaneously]," Brown said. "There's a difference between attending to something and being attuned to something. These kids may be attuned to a lot more than you think."

Brown delivered two lectures, one the evening of Feb. 22 during the conference's opening banquet, and another during lunch the next day. In between, and also on Thursday, Feb. 24, about two dozen Emory faculty and ITD staff shared their own experiences through workshops and presentations.

For example, Oxford's Camille Cottrell and Jim Brown talked about helping to develop the college's Teaching, Learning and Technology Institute; Yerkes' Stuart Zola and Timothy Duong, along with Rob Poh from the Center for Behavioral Neuroscience, led a panel discussion on shared databases; Daphne Norton from chemistry talked about using Blackboard to manage large-enrollment courses such as chemistry lab sections.

Don Harris, CIO vice provost for information technology, said it was gratifying to look around the room during the opening banquet and see faculty lab researchers sitting next to undergraduates, sitting next to librarians, sitting next to humanities professors.

"There's not too many things at Emory where you get that kind of group dynamic, with people from all parts of the University," Harris said. About 250 people registered for one or more portions of the conference. And though one of the panel discussions did feature some undergraduates, incorporating more students into the program is something Harris pledged for next year.

Indeed, this year's keynote speaker said, when it comes to technology, teenagers often are the most sophisticated consumers. "The surest way to label yourself a dinosaur is to be handed a new cell phone and ask for a manual," Brown said. "I did that, and my teenage son said, 'A manual?'"

Brown said, while he was at Xerox, he helped implement a program that brought 15-year-olds to Palo Alto during the summers to work on research teams. "They were there to ask the really stupid questions," he said, "except those questions often ended up being not so stupid."

Brown conceded that, while most U.S. teenagers are comfortable with technology, not all belong to the hyper-sophisticated subset he's spent his time studying. This, however, is not the point.

"What I'm really saying is, before you write all of this off, pay more attention to what your own kids are doing around the edge of this [interactive] world," Brown said. "Because it's the periphery that matters, not the center."

For more information on EduCATE, visit http://educate.emory.edu .