Talkin' 'Bout Their Generation

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SO WHAT DOES the future hold?

Imagine electronically equipped jewelry and clothes, with cell phones embedded in the coat collar and an MP3 player in the sleeve.

Regan laid out a not-too-distant future in which sixth graders, in lieu of books, will be armed with digital assistants or digipacks, capable of accessing and editing reusable building blocks of multimedia content — books, videos, news streams. Students will use their digipacks to collaborate on group learning assignments, and both parents and teachers will be able to access the digipacks to assess students’ progress — progress that will be gauged not by tests but by continual online assessment of work produced on the digipacks. In high school and college, these advances will result in personalized digital libraries.

As anyone who’s seen Madden NFL or Guitar Hero realizes, computerized video games are becoming increasingly realistic. You’re looking at your future, says Regan, not just your children’s: “Boomers think that the virtual world is the gaming world, and when they see their own children playing games, they think they will grow out of it and that it has nothing to do with them.”

What Baby Boomers don’t realize, she says, is that Web 2.0, the emerging generation of fully interactive Web functionality, will be the way we learn and interact with people around the world. Sam Palisano, IBM’s CEO, believes already available three-dimensional virtual worlds may have the same level of impact as the first Web explosion.

To enter these worlds you create an avatar—a cartoonlike representation of yourself — to interact with others who have done the same. Somewhat simple examples of these 3-D avatars are the Webkinz® virtual pets children buy.

On a much more sophisticated level, Regan demonstrated how she goes online and uses avatars she has created to visit and interact with other individuals’ avatars in various “islands” — distinct, dedicated areas created by major businesses and universities—in a 3-D world called Second Life.

Corporations such as Cisco and IBM are using these virtual worlds for recruiting, mentoring, hosting diversity simulations and holding meetings with personnel situated around the world.

Meanwhile, colleges and universities such as Vassar College, the University of North Carolina, Bowling Green, Ohio State and New York University have recreated 3-D replicas of their campuses and buildings and are offering libraries, art exhibitions and literature and science material in their Second Life virtual worlds. Distance learning? Harvard Law School offered a Second Life course two years ago, and Ohio University offers instruction ranging from one-hour classes to entire courses on its Second Life site.

“The interaction and immersion in these worlds equals engagement, and the younger generation understands this from the time they are very young with Webkinz,” says Regan. “They are going to be very comfortable coming into a situation where this is part of the way you learn about science and literature and participate with others doing the same thing.”

Although Susquehanna is still examining the applicability of Web 2.0 features like Second Life, Provost and Dean of Faculty Linda McMillin says they offer “intriguing new possibilities” for SU’s future. “The faculty are already using technology in a variety of ways to enhance their teaching and research, and I am confident that we will find appropriate ways to integrate these new tools into our pedagogical practices,” says McMillin.

“But don’t expect us to become completely ‘virtual’ any time soon,” she says. “As is typical in a liberal arts college, we will always balance ‘high tech’ with ‘high touch’ in creating connections between faculty and students.”


Bruce Beans is a contributing writer from Warrington, Pa.

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