Meet the Millennials

Net generation at UB lives and breathes technology with an ease that amazes their elders

By Nicole Peradotto
A sea of laptops in the Undergraduate Library is a common sight on a campus that cultivates and encourages the digitally minded with IT resources and support.

A sea of laptops in the Undergraduate Library is a common sight on a campus that cultivates and encourages the digitally minded with IT resources and support. (Photo by Douglas Levere, BA '89)

If JAMES AND JASON Phipps ever need reminding of the generational gap that divides them, all the father and son from Lockport, New York, have to do is start swapping college stories.

For James, who attended UB in the early 1980s, registering for classes meant queuing up inside Alumni Arena and steeling himself for a two-hour wait. His middle son, a UB sophomore, doesn’t wait on line to register—he registers online.

During lectures, James Phipps, MBA ’85 & BS ’84, took such furious notes that every semester his fingers developed calluses.

Jason doesn’t bother with notes. Instead, before class he downloads and prints out copies of his professors’ PowerPoint presentations.

And though both men selected the same major—business—they each discovered remarkably different means of earning extra cash as teenagers.

On weekends, James would dig worms out of the ground and sell them to fishermen for 50 cents a dozen.

Jason has an approach to baiting customers that doesn’t require getting dirt under his nails. Every Sunday, he up-dates allfunnystuff.com, his Web site devoted to jokes, games and other diversions. At the end of the month, the banner company that advertises with him sends him a check based on the number of visitors to the site. Usually, it’s in the neighborhood of $2,500.

“It was just a hobby at first,” says the self-taught Web designer. “But once I found out I could make money from it, I really started to get excited about it. It’s pretty intense.”

Meet the Millennials. Practically nursed on information technology, their attitudes, aptitudes and learning styles have been shaped by the Digital Age. On campus and off, they’re relying on a host of high-tech tools to keep themselves constantly connected to their friends, their family and their studies.

Because the Net Generation grew up with computers in the home, music downloads and cellular phones, technology has permeated their lives. Far from being intimidated by it, they’re hardwired to use it. While their elders—from the Greatest Generation right down to the Gen Xers—watch in amazement as they sync, download and IM, they’re barely aware they’re doing it.

“Everything I do is online,” affirms sophomore Svetlana Yusim. “I do my banking online, any student aid forms I need—anything you can do online, I would rather do online.”

“We don’t even have a phone in our dorm room, because we just use our cell phones,” says Ece Yildirim, a sophomore pursuing a BS in psychology. “Even my friends who have a landline don’t really use it. It’s just there if their moms can’t reach them on their cell phones.”

Before she even changes out of her pajamas, senior English major Elizabeth Page starts each day by reading her email. In between classes, she can be found editing copy at the Spectrum, all the while listening to Evanescence or Three Days Grace on her iPod. As she puts it, “Technology is in every single aspect of my daily activities. I’m so accustomed to it, I couldn’t imagine going back to the way things were.”

So far, no one on campus has asked her to do that. On the contrary, UB has cultivated a welcoming environment for these gadget-wielding undergrads. From lecture halls to libraries and just about every space in between, technological enhancements abound, all with the goal of creating a cutting-edge college experience that engages the millennial mind while remaining focused on the traditional values of academic excellence.

Indeed, the university is a leader in this regard. Using such benchmarks as the annual Campus Computing Survey Project, which receives responses from more than 600 campuses, and the core data survey conducted by EDUCAUSE, the premier nonprofit organization promoting the intelligent use of information technology in higher education, UB shows itself to be in the top tier of institutions providing students a rich set of IT resources and support.

“I think one of the things that has helped UB stay on the upper side of the technological curve is its focus on research,” says Thomas Slomka, managing director of projects at UB’s Educational Technology Center (ETC), which helps faculty and staff effectively incorporate technology in their teaching and scholarship.

“In the process of funding research, you end up funding things that tend to be on the cutting edge. The result is that it trickles down into the teaching and learning that goes on in the university.”

Like father, not-so-like son James and Jason Phipps have far different experiences for how they’ve learned at UB, but agree on the need for people skills

Like father, not-so-like son James and Jason Phipps have far different experiences for how they’ve learned at UB, but agree on the need for people skills (Photo by Mark Mulville)

All of these innovations have made UB a dramatically altered campus from even just a decade ago. In some classes, students who miss a recitation can download the video and replay it on their laptop, at their leisure. Or, they can track down a classmate on Facebook, the popular online social network.

Quizzes can be administered online, as can entire courses. Master’s theses are enhanced with sound and video. Some professors hold virtual office hours. Students can check syllabi, assignments, grades and reference materials at “UBlearns,” the university’s centrally supported online course management system.

“I do believe that students benefit from these things, and they see the benefits, but I don’t know if they recognize the benefit as something special,” Slomka says.

“When you talk to Baby Boomers, they’re sort of surprised by the technology that’s available to today’s students that wasn’t there when they were at UB,” Slomka says. “But at the same time, the Millennials at the university almost take it for granted. Because it’s in their lives, there is no ‘wow’ factor. It’s just part of their life.”

Digital days on campus

Just how much? Let’s put it this way: To Daniel Kirchberger, spiral-bound day planners are so last century. Each day, the junior informatics major syncs up his smartphone to his computer so he can check his work schedule, look up contact numbers and organize his day.

Although he serves as a part-time clerk in the sports department of the Buffalo News, his first source of news comes from Google and the New York Times’ Web site. When he needs to research a paper, he combs through the UB libraries’ online database of scholarly texts and journals.

“I can’t remember the last time I was actually in the library,” he says. “I think I went there once last year, but the computer system was down so I couldn’t take out books.”

Kirchberger relies on instant messaging to keep in touch with out-of-town friends, and private chat rooms to make plans with the in-town ones. The iSight camera attached to his Apple PowerBook allows him to have video-chats with his older sister, a law student in Philadelphia.

As a hobby, he takes photos with a digital SLR camera, edits the images on his computer and uploads them to Flickr, an online photo sharing community. And when he needs to unwind, Kirchberger pilots strike boats and conducts other stealth ops in the name of national security.

“There are some kids in my class that are big into games, but I only play once or twice a week,” says Kirchberger, who uses his Xbox to play NCAA football and his PlayStation for Socom 3, a strategy game based on U.S. Navy SEAL missions.

Kirchberger is fulfilling his academic mission with the help of technology, too. This summer he won’t have to choose between accepting an out-of-town internship in Washington, DC, and taking a required class for his minor in management information. That’s because the course is offered online.

“Distance learning can be a little difficult,” he acknowledges. “If you have a question you want immediately answered, you don’t have someone right there. But scheduling would be such a hassle without it. When you can knock off a class online, you don’t have to worry about how it will fit into your schedule.”

Last semester, Kirchberger took a course in technology research that included a cell phone as one of the required course materials. Once a week, the professor, D. Logan Scott, visiting assistant professor of informatics, sent an impromptu text message to the 11 students, asking them to observe how people around them were using everyday technology, such as an ATM machine or a supermarket price scanner.

The students had to respond immediately by voice mail. Scott then transcribed their responses on a Web log, which he used to initiate class discussions.

“The text message allows students a certain amount of spontaneity,” says Scott, director of the undergraduate informatics program. “They’re so used to reading the book and answering the multiple choice questions, but we didn’t want them sitting at home, thinking through the ‘right answer.’ We wanted the immediacy of the real world.”

Using cell phones helps students recognize that technology research doesn’t necessarily require a lab and white coats, Scott adds. Observing the way people interact with technology as they go about their business is fundamental to thinking like an IT researcher.

“We’re trying to bring home the fact that research is a human activity, and we build on our expertise as normal people having normal experiences. The philosophy is that we wanted them to learn to be researchers—not just learn about research.”

Learning with technology

Of course, you’d expect professors to leverage technology in informatics, a discipline that prepares students for jobs in such fields as electronic communication, database design and data mining. But it’s also being integrated into pedagogy across a broad spectrum of departments in the humanities and the sciences.

According to Chris Barr, who’s pursuing a master’s degree in media studies, faculty who choose to do so have to distinguish between creating a meaningful educational enhancement and merely trying to play “catch up” with the digital natives in their classes.

“I’ve heard a lot of talk about universities moving into these areas where students are interested, like using pod-casts because that’s the hip new thing and it would get students engaged,” he says. “I have to personally disagree with that notion. I think that once you coopt their cultural spaces, their cultural spaces become unhip and they move somewhere else.”

Barr speaks both as an instructor—he teaches an introductory undergraduate course in new media—and at 26, as an elder of the Net Generation. In his capacity as a graduate assistant in the Educational Technology Center, he has been pleased to see how many faculty members are striving to incorporate useful high-tech tools into their instruction.

“It’s really gratifying when these faculty members who may not know much about the Web can put together a really nice ‘UBlearns’ site that students can really interact with, and that really adds to the class.”

“Those kinds of things are becoming expected by students, and faculty interest in them is high,” adds Slomka, noting that one of ETC’s most popular workshops is a primer on streaming video, social networks and real-time interactive content. “We see faculty of all ages in here, from the card-carrying, tenured faculty members to the new, up-and-coming faculty members.”

SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor Clyde “Kipp” Herreid falls into the first category. On the faculty of the biological sciences department since 1968, and academic director of the University Honors Program, Herreid admits that his graduate students “dragged” him into the computer age. From there, he became a campus pioneer in creating course Web pages.

In 2005, Herreid began using a high-tech device to increase participation among the 450 students who enroll in his evolutionary biology class: radio frequency “clickers,” handheld remote controls similar to those that audience members use on the TV show Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

With the clickers—also known as audience response systems—students can respond to questions or polls without so much as raising their hand or voices. During the course of the lecture, Herreid may offer an impromptu quiz based on assigned reading or information provided during class. Once students record their answers, they appear on a large screen in the form of a pie graph or histogram.

“With this, the teacher has the instant feedback of the students,” says Herreid. “If I see that half the class answered a question wrong, I instantly decide on the spot to grab my microphone, wade into the audience and ask students to give their reasoning. This allows you to know where they’re going wrong in their thinking and to correct it right away.”

Another advantage? Better attendance, even during the traditional mid-semester slump. “You get larger numbers of students coming to class because they’re engaged in the process,” Herreid says. “Instead of just sitting in a lump—passive, occasionally taking notes for 50 minutes—they now have to participate.”

Whenever he polls students about the clickers—using clickers, of course—Herreid received overwhelmingly favorable responses. “I think this fits their style altogether. You couldn’t ask for a better generation of students for this. They love gadgets, and this is nothing more than an extension of that.”

When face-time matters

For all of technology’s educational advantages, professors are quick to point out the downsides.

Herreid had to prohibit students from taking cell phone photos of experiments because it was compromising his lab. With the vast tangle of information on the Web, plagiarism is a constant concern. And with just as much easily accessible misinformation, instructors have to be more explicit than ever when instructing their students about acceptable sources for research papers.

For their part, the Millennials don’t gloss over technology’s shortcomings, either.

Page, the senior English major, once had to retake an online exam after her laptop froze just as she was finishing it. Sophomore biology major Tom Fadial learned the hard way that clickers added no depth to his education—only a little more weight to his backpack.

“They rarely worked the way they were supposed to, and it almost certainly took more time away from class to get things to work properly,” says Fadial, who used them in two classes (neither of them Herreid’s). “Ultimately, both professors had to revert back to papers and hands.”

And then there’s this: When technology works, students may elect not to. For a generation that has been defined by its distractibility, constant connectivity provides endless opportunities for procrastination.

So many of her friends instant message Yildirim when she’s trying to finish her homework that the psychology major posts an “away” message on the computer, even when she’s online. “I’ll take it down if I’m eating a snack and want to take a break.”

Yusim contends that online socializing doesn’t compromise her studies. “I like to talk to my friends for five or 10 minutes before I get back to work. It does take longer to get things done, but I think it’s more positive to have contacts and a life than to be sucked into school 24/7.”

For Fadial, who works as a Web assistant at UB’s Office of Creative Services, thriving as an undergraduate in a high-tech era comes down to availing himself of the best the virtual world has to offer without isolating himself from the bricks-and-mortar campus experience.

“In many cases you can re-create the entire class without actually going,” he says. “But for me there’s nothing equivalent to sitting in the classroom, seeing the professor go through it. It just seems like the best way to directly learn something.”

Page agrees. “I enjoy going to class—sometimes not actually sitting through the class, but being out in the academic community. If you’re sitting in a dorm room, are you really going to be motivated to watch an hour-and-a-half lecture online? You’re inclined to procrastinate, so you put off watching them to a later time and you’re scrambling at the end of the semester. It organizes your time better when you have to go to class.”

Jason Phipps wouldn’t have it any other way. In fact, he even gets to class a few minutes early to chat with his peers. The way he sees it, he’s boning up on interpersonal skills that will serve him well in the business world. Sure, there’s value in knowing how to design a Web page. But, as his dad likes to remind him, no amount of technological savvy can trump a firm handshake, good eye contact and the ability to hold up your end of the conversation without a computer keyboard.

That’s why, when he leaves home for campus, Jason leaves his iPod at home.

A former reporter for the Buffalo News, Nicole Peradotto is a freelance writer/editor.