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Generations X, Y, and Z: The Evolution of Learning in a Multimedia World: Perspectives from a University Librarian
Jill McKinstry, Director, Odegaard Undergraduate Library; Special Assistant to Dean of University Libraries for Undergraduate Education
University of Washington

Puget Sound Association of Phi Beta Kappa Fall Luncheon, November 2, 2010

Jill McKinstry

Good afternoon. It is truly an honor to be here today; to be speaking to a group for whom I have the greatest respect. You believe in the importance of education, you are accomplished and dedicated scholars, and you know to ask the tough questions (hopefully not today). I'm also honored to be here among my distinguished librarian colleagues from the University of Washington: Gerry Oppenheimer, former director of the Health Sciences Library at the University of Washington; Louise Richards, Fisheries and Oceanography Librarian at the University of Washington; and finally Nancy Blase, the former head of the Natural Sciences Library at the UW. You are well represented in this chapter by some of the best in our profession.

What does the world of scholarship and multimedia learning for university students look like today? How are the students going about it? How different is it from previous generations? Who is doing research? I'm going to be speaking primarily of our own experience at the University of Washington, but also drawing on national trends and surveys.

I want to ask you right now to think about your favorite place to think, to write, to work, or to do research or creative work, where would that be? Some of you may have been thinking of the Reading Room of the Suzzallo Library, or one of the reading rooms at the Seattle Public Library, or maybe some cozy spot by a window at home or in a coffee shop with others around engaged in parallel activity.

If the collegiate gothic Reading Room (Harry Potter Room to the undergraduates) at Suzzallo came to mind, you might have been reminded of many hours spent there preparing for a difficult exam or writing a paper that you would then hand in to your professor. No connections needed. The beauty alone might have been enough, along with the quiet and solemnity of the space. "Form often nourishes function. But, it also nourishes us." (Tyrone Beason, Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Magazine, October 17, 2010, 17.)

What nourishes students of today? Where is their comfort zone? Where are they most productive? It may have nothing to do with "a place" or it may have everything to do with "a place" and a "connection." What do they seek in a library and on campus? We'd better pay attention, we'd better observe and ask, as these are the leading scholars of tomorrow.

John Beck, President of the North Star Leadership Group and Senior Research Fellow at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future, is convinced that the gamer generation (Twixters, Generation C, Millennials, or Net Generation for those born after 1980), born after 1970 and raised on video games of one sort or another, is close to dominating society. He says that the experience of games has molded a generation with some very positive characteristics:

Gamer Generation Characteristics: Born after 1970 and 90 million strong:
  • Motivated: Gamers are competitive and love a challenge. Winning is very important to them ... They believe that anything is possible ... however, they do not have an appreciation for doing things "just because."
  • Resilient: Failure isn't the end of the world; gamers have each failed thousands of times on their way to success ... persistence pays off in the end.
  • Confident: Gamers think of themselves as experts and want to tackle problems head on. They are more flexible about change.
  • Sociable: Since a lot is done with friends and over the Internet, they are great team players and loyal to the teams and organizations of which they are a part.
  • Analytical: Gamers learn from the games they play. By sampling so many different realities through games, they become very good at seeking problems in a deeper, strategic perspective.
John Beck goes on to warn us: "At 90 million strong, organizations that don't understand or acknowledge them run the risk of becoming increasingly isolated or irrelevant." 
(OCLC Newsletter, January/February/March 2005; "The Big Bang!" pp. 7-8; "Staying in the Game!"

The 77 million Baby Boomers are approaching retirement, there is a cultural shift from being the dominant cultural norm from the '60s on, to make way for the gamers, those born after 1970.

Joan Lippincott of the Coalition for Networked Information has a famous chart about the "Net Generation Students and Libraries" (Educating the Net Generation). The net generation was born from 1982 to 1991 (age 11 to 30 now). "Given that this generation of college students has grown up with computers and video games, the students have become accustomed to multimedia environments: figuring things out for themselves without consulting manuals; working in groups; and multitasking. These qualities differ from those found in traditional library environments, which, by and large, are text-based, require learning the system from experts (librarians), were constructed for individual use, and assume that work progresses in a logical, linear fashion."

There can be a big disconnect between students today and libraries. Libraries have had to change to stay in the game.

And, libraries have been changing. In the '90s the focus was on getting technology into libraries. Now that technology is in the libraries, there is more focused attention on "learning spaces," a concept that might have brought to mind the "classroom" in earlier decades rather than the library which might have been referred to as "study space" or "research space." More learning is taking place outside of the classroom than ever before in virtual and real spaces.

"Library as place" is a term that you hear now. Before the digital age, that would have been a strange thing to say. Of course, a library was a place. But, today, we can access collections and resources from outside the library. We have new names for these library spaces, they are centers, they are "commons" – an information commons, a learning commons, a multimedia commons, and most recently at the University of Washington, a research commons, fostering interdisciplinary conversations to facilitate research. The emerging "commons" model, in addition to merging library and computing support, also incorporates other services like centers for writing and quantitative skills centers, grant funding and publication support. The integration into the academic process is the key to usefulness and students.

As the learning tools evolve, so must the library, making the transition from a repository for books and journals and individual study, to places for productivity and conversation. The libraries of today must have a variety of spaces – collaborative, individual study, instruction, and coffee to serve the needs of all students, and the need for a quiet space still remains high. Additionally, we have many more students at the university with diagnosed learning disabilities who require quiet, private, places to do work – away from too much sensory stimulation. According to the director of Disability Resources for Students at the University of Washington, out of approximately 850 students with disabilities, approximately 80 percent of those students have an invisible disability – to invisible health conditions, psychological conditions, learning disabilities and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Variety of space is key. It used to be that the advice in school and at home was to find a quiet place to do your work, stick to the place and to a schedule. Well, as it turns out, all that focus on routine, sameness, and lack of disruptions may not have been the most effective advice. According to Benedict Carey in a recent article in the New York Times (September 6, 2010) entitled "Forget What You Know About Good Study Habits," in recent years, cognitive scientists have shown that a variety of techniques can actually improve retention. "Instead of sticking to one study location, simply alternating the room where a person studies can improve retention."

In libraries, space for humans is being considered as important as space for collections. Furthermore, space and resources that foster social interaction in the physical and virtual academic environment is transforming the more traditional warehouse of knowledge. If we agree with the views of John Seely Brown that "learning is a remarkably social process. That it occurs not as a response to teaching, but rather as a result of a social framework that fosters learning," then the core of the learning and intellectual commons is the interaction.

The library offers a venue where academic work can be carried out in a social context – a context that is supported physically, intellectually, and remotely. What we have learned from Barnes and Noble and from watching the gate count in our different libraries is that students will seek out the most comfortable, most accommodating, and most wired space that they can find. The noise in an undergraduate library and the preference of students to study together was a characteristic that most undergraduate librarians would just as soon not have advertised or even admitted in earlier decades, but now, "studying together" or "being noisy" is not necessarily bad nor automatically equated with the non-academic or less scholarly activities. As students try on different disciplines, they need space to wrestle with the issues, and it may not be quiet.

Odegaard Undergraduate Library, where I am director, is open 24 hours, five days a week, is wireless throughout all floors, has a lecture hall, a computer classroom, 14 group study rooms, a 356-seat computer lab – or "learning commons," as it is called – another 50+ computers scattered throughout the building, a multimedia center, a drop-in tech help center for faculty and students, a research and writing center to help students with their writing and enhanced technology spaces that includes facilities to digitally edit audio and video, to capture and create streaming presentations, and to participate in video conferencing. And, just this fall, the University Book Store moved in while the student union building is under renovation. Odegaard has the highest gate count of any library on campus, close to 10,000 and over on any given day, with close to 1,000 students coming into the library between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

Those high numbers are due in part to the large number of workstations, the high-speed wireless network, the enhanced spaces for collaboration, the ready access to technical, research, and writing help and the long hours (24/5). But, there is also a feeling of "ownership" by the students. They are comfortable there, and while we are chagrined at times to see how comfortable they are, we are loath to set up more rules and regulations to try to inhibit the interaction and active learning that is going on. While 93% of UW students report owning a laptop, only one third bring one to campus every day – they are too heavy, there are not enough power outlets, or the fear of theft.

We have found that over the years the good ideas have withstood the test of time. No amount of promoting or pushing the use of a particular technology or innovation prevails, unless it is found to be authentically useful and make a difference in the ease and effectiveness of learning for students. To promote "technology in the service of learning" has been the goal. The challenge, of course, is that we often don’t know until after a technology has been introduced whether it is an enhancement or a hindrance in the learning process. You can't always be sure how spaces will be used. You are just creating the opportunities for things to happen. And we have had some failures, for sure. Joan Frye Williams, a consultant and library futurist, said that if you think of the library as a "third place," a handy metaphor is the "kitchen." "You are going there to do things; to use resources to make something."

According to Leonard Kniffel, publisher of American Libraries Magazine (October 15, 2010):

  • Library use in the USA is at an all-time high; 63% of adults in the U.S. have public library cards. [According to the Seattle Public Library, public library use in the city has soared 57 percent in the last decade; the 27 SPL branches got 14 million visits in 2009. Susan Hildreth says "we are the key bastions of democracy... We're providing the equalizer in society." (Seattle Times, Pacific Northwest Magazine, October 17, 2010)
  • More books are being published now than ever before – almost 300,000 separate titles a year in English alone.

And, you might have seen the headlines this summer when Amazon.com reported selling more electronic books than print. But, according to a recent study (ECAR), less than 10% of students own an e-reader and less than 24% have used an e-book on their computer. The Kindle DX pilot at the UW in the computer science and business schools was not a total success. Students wanted to be able to flip back and forth, to highlight, to share resources. Technology devices can be additive, not necessarily, reductive. It is not digital versus print so much. Digital might be the best option for reference tools, and databases that can quickly go out of date, but not perhaps for art books, children's books, or novels. As George Needham, Vice President for Member Services at OCLC, mentioned at a forum at the Seattle Public Library, "We tend to be in the binary mode of 'either/or' mentality. Discussion of either print or digital, when in fact, we want both. One does not negate the other."

Leonard Kniffel goes further and asserts that "it is a false dichotomy that you have to choose between books and computers. The choice between books and technology is not one that you have to make. Quite the opposite." The real question is reading, readers versus non-readers, regardless of format. According to American Libraries Magazine, one quarter of all American newspaper jobs have disappeared over the last 20 years. And, 19% of those between the ages of 18 and 34 indicate that they look at a daily newspaper. The average age of an American newspaper reader is 55. (ALM, October 15, 2010)

A recent (spring 2010) Project Information Literacy survey of 8,353 college students enrolled on 25 campuses in the U.S. found that even though many students may consider themselves fairly adroit at finding information, the students studied reported being hobbled by having to frame a research inquiry for course-related research... before they even begin. What's the context, what is the question? Students reported that their biggest difficulties were in determining the nature and scope of a research assignment and what it required of them, while trying to manage a staggering amount of information available to them on college settings.

At the University of Washington, along with the facilitation of access to technology tools, one of the greatest enhancements to an undergraduate education in the last 20 years is the focus on undergraduate student participation in research and new tools of public scholarship to help share that research beyond the university.

In 1998, the Boyer Report was published (Reinventing Undergraduate Education: A Blueprint for America's Research Universities, by the Carnegie Foundation's Boyer Commission.) There were 10 recommendations. There is not a university in the country that didn't adopt some of the recommendations, and they had a profound effect on the learning experience of undergraduates at large research universities. A few to highlight:

  • Make research-based learning the standard
  • Construct an inquiry-based freshman year
  • Small learning communities
  • Use information technology creatively
  • Culminate with a capstone experience

The Undergraduate Research Program at the University of Washington has created a remarkable program and opportunity for undergraduates to be engaged in research. What might have been reserved for graduate students before is considered an important part of an undergraduate's experience today. According to the Office of Undergraduate Research, in 1997 there were 653 undergraduate students involved with faculty in research and around 696 undergraduate students actively involved in experiential or public-service learning. Today, those numbers have increased tenfold, with 6, 490 students actively engaged in research with faculty and over 5,000 participating in community or public service. There is a wonderful video of the research symposium held this year where students are talking about their work. It is so inspiring. The center serves as a clearinghouse for faculty to list research opportunities and students can apply. The center supports applications for travel funding so that students can present their papers at conferences.

Technology tools have allowed new levels of creativity and exposure. With fewer gatekeepers to control "publications" more can be shared online. This is a different model from research papers of an earlier time. Who read the papers that you wrote in college? Was it just you and the professor?

Today students are often asked to read and comment on each other's papers. Then the class may take it a step further and publish their work outside of the class. In some respect, the ease of sharing and accessing documents after 1994 with the development of the World Wide Web has fostered this, but it is also about a change in approach to learning: teaching each other. They share online tools allow a new form of scholarship and sharing: a shared and collective knowledge. Take the example of Wikipedia, one of the greatest examples of collaborative and collective knowledge. I remember at the beginning, many in our profession worried about students using Wikipedia instead of Encyclopedia Britannica, the more authoritative source. But, I remember hearing a student say that she liked using Wikipedia because she didn't really know if it was true or not. It was edgy and would definitely require more research. As an aside, the University Libraries, realizing the enormous potential of Wikipedia, began to populate the site with pointers to collections in our digital repository and special collections. This access is bringing in users who might never think to look at the UW catalog. The new learning is collaborative and socially constructed. It is interconnected and contextual and happening in and outside of classrooms. (Klein, Thomas. "The Search for a College Commons." About Campus 7: 3 [2002]: 9-16.)

Two amazing examples of students contributing to a shared body of knowledge in a public way are found online, one local and one national. Dr. Edward Ayers, a scholar of southern history and currently president of the University of Richmond, when he was at the University of Virginia Richmond, Dean of Arts and Sciences at the University of Virginia, and a faculty member, was the inspiration behind the creation of The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War, which is a digital archive of primary sources that document the lives of people in Virginia from two different communities, from the north and the south; from John Brown's raid through Reconstruction. Thousands of original letters, diaries, newspapers, and census and church records were added to the digital archive, telling forgotten stories or personal accounts. Teams of dedicated graduate and undergraduate students at the University of Virginia produced and processed the material that makes up the core of the Valley Project. Their scholarship was made public.

At the University of Washington, one outstanding example is Professor Jim Gregory's digital Seattle Civil Rights and Labor History Project, a unique collaboration involving community groups, UW faculty, and both undergraduate and graduate students to create an online repository of oral histories, research reports, and photo and film collection about civil rights in Seattle, representing thousands of student hours in historical research under the guidance of Professor Gregory. Much of the work has been covered in the local newspapers, such as the racial restrictive covenants that still existed on the by-laws for Seattle's neighborhoods governed by homeowners' associations. In 2006, Governor Christine Gregoire signed into law Senate Bill 6169, which makes it easier for neighborhoods to rid themselves of racial restrictions that are still in their by-laws.

The Libraries have been trying to do their part in celebrating research projects of undergraduates with an initiative that was started in 2004 with the Library Research Award for Undergraduates. This program, now in its seventh year, has become one of the favorite initiatives of the libraries, as faculty work with librarians in evaluating the best research projects for the years and award monetary prizes for the most exemplary. Not only are the faculty and students thrilled with the prize, but we have learned a lot about how undergraduates conduct their research as they submit an essay about their process. We also display the photos and the project titles for the winning submissions in the learning commons hoping to encourage students to participate the following year and add all winning projects to the digital repository hosted by the library. As one student said, "Library research has been one of the most comprehensive learning experiences of my academic career. It has been a very valuable part of my education. It is one thing to read about the facts in a class; it's another to try and discover them yourself." A couple of the winning titles: "Convinced by Comparison: Lutheran Doctrine and Neoplatonic Conviction in Kepler's Theory of Light" (won by a freshman); "YES TO POLENTA, NO TO COUSCOUS! Constructed Identities and Contested Boundaries Between Local and Gobal in Northern Italy's Gastronomic Landscape" (an international studies student).

At the heart of the research university is inquiry, investigation, and discovery, whether in funded research projects or in undergraduate classrooms or graduate appointments. That shared mission binds together all that happens on a campus and has made a big difference in making advances toward a student-centered research university.

We've talked about changes in students of today, changes to the physical space in the library, to our new modes of delivery of information resources, but what has been a constant for libraries in my opinion is the commitment and passion to help make the connection between need and information; our mission at the UW Libraries is and has always been to "advance intellectual discovery by connecting people with knowledge."

What might be different today is that we're leaving the library, not waiting for users to come to us. As droves come in record numbers through our doors, we're also getting out. On e-mail, live chat, instruction and in customized delivery of information.

We have just started an Honors Librarian Mentor Program at the University of Washington. Each entering freshman is assigned a personal librarian for the four years at the university. It is a relatively small program given the size of the university, with an entering class of 250 students each year. Librarians each are assigned 20 students. In addition to serving as mentors, and research champions, they will also be working with the students to develop electronic learning portfolios as they build on a new curriculum, called "Thinking Across the Disciplines." We are not sure where this will lead us, or what the learning outcomes will be, but we do know that it is unique in the country for honors students, we are having a good time, and that it is a special opportunity to work with students beyond the helpdesk and classroom. This is the beginning of relationship that we can't even begin to imagine the strength of its power.

Do we need to worry? Probably yes, but we're not sure about what. Cognition scientists are discovering new evidence all the time to refute time-honored convictions (quiet, space) and how the brain and learning work.

The student of today may have more options or ready access to discovery tools, publishing and production, but the real contributions to new knowledge come about through hard work, diligence, critical evaluation, analysis and dialogue. There are no proven short cuts to that, but we do our best to facilitate the process by providing resources, space, and our expertise.


"Learning by Playing: Can Video Games Transform Schooling?" Entire issue is relevant. New York Times Magazine, September 19, 2010

Storey, Tom. "The Big Bang." OCLC Newsletter, January/February/March 2005: 7-8.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business School Press, 2000.

Lippincott, Joan. "Net Generation Students and Libraries." Educating the Net Generation, ed. Diana G. Oblinger and James L. Oblinger. Boulder, CO: EDUCAUSE, 2005

Designing Spaces for Effective Learning: A Guide to 21st Century Learning Space Design (PDF). Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a strategic advisory committee working on behalf of the funding bodies for further and higher education in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, p.4.


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