published Tuesday, August 23rd, 2011

Web older than incoming college freshmen

Mention Amazon to the incoming class of college freshmen and they are more likely to think of shopping than the South American river. PC doesn't stand for political correctness and breaking up on Facebook is more common than any more personal encounter.

These are among the 75 references on this year's Beloit College Mindset List, a compilation intended to remind teachers that college freshmen born mostly in 1993 see the world in a much different way: They fancied pogs and Tickle Me Elmo toys as children, watched televisions that never had dials and their lives have always been like a box of chocolates.

Once upon a time, relatives of the current generation swore never to trust anyone over the age of 30. This group could argue: Never trust anyone older than the Net.

The college's compilation, released Tuesday, is assembled each year by two officials at the private school in southeastern Wisconsin. It also has evolved into a national phenomenon, a cultural touchstone that entertains even as it makes people wonder where the years have gone.

Remember when the initials LBJ referred to President Lyndon B. Johnson? Today, according to the list, they make teenagers think of NBA star LeBron James. And speaking of NBA legends, these kids didn't want to be like Mike. They fawned over Shaq and Kobe.

In their lifetimes, Major League Baseball has always had three divisions plus wild-card playoff teams, and every state has always observed Martin Luther King Day. The "yadda, yadda, yadda" generation that's been quoting Seinfeld since they were old enough to talk also has always seen women serve as U.S. Supreme Court justices and command U.S. Navy ships.

Then there's OJ Simpson. These students were still in diapers when the former NFL star began searching for the killers of Nicole Simpson and Ronald Goldman.

"Hmm, I know there was some scandal about him," said Alex Keesey, 18, an incoming freshman from Beloit. "I think it was robbery or murder, maybe both."

Comments like that can be a little jarring to older folks who imagine that everyone knows about the Simpson murder trial and subsequent acquittal. But if the generation gap has you down, get used to it. The list's authors note that technology has only accelerated the pace of change and further compressed the generational divide.

Older Americans who read previous Mindset Lists felt that life was moving too quickly, list author Ron Nief said, and now even younger people share that sentiment.

"I talk to people in their early 30s and they're telling me they can't keep up with all the advances," Nief said.

Nief's co-author, English professor Tom McBride, predicts the trend will only accelerate.

"If you look at the jump from email to texting, or from email to Facebook, it's been faster than the jump from typing to computers," McBride said. "These generational gaps are getting smaller."

Still not feeling old? Consider this: Andre the Giant, River Phoenix and Frank Zappa all died before these students were born. They don't know what a Commodore 64 was, and they don't understand why Boston barflies would ever shout, "Norm!"

Oh, and Ferris Bueller could be their father.

But the list isn't intended to serve as a cultural tombstone, its authors say, contending that the compilation also serves a practical purpose.

McBride and Nief say the main lesson professors should take from this year's list is that their incoming students have never lived in a world without the Internet. From the moment these kids were able to reach a tabletop, their fingertips probably were brushing against computers plugged into the World Wide Web.

And while that was largely true for the last few classes as well, the authors say teachers need to be extra-vigilant about where this year's students are going for information.

The Internet is great for finding facts, McBride says, but there's a big difference between facts and the knowledge that comes from understanding context behind the facts. He advises professors to teach how to supplement Internet searches with library research in scholarly journals, and to remind freshmen to dig beyond the first page or two of Google search results.

Sara Ballesteros, an 18-year-old freshman from South Beloit, said she's confident she knows how to do legitimate Internet research, by relying more on websites that end in ".edu" or ".gov" than in ".com" or ".org."

She also opined that adults worry too much about kids' Internet habits. She referred to item No. 7 on the Mindset List: "As they've grown up on websites and cellphones, adult experts have constantly fretted about their alleged deficits of empathy and concentration."

"For older people who think we use the Internet way too much for bad things, it really depends on the person, on their beliefs and ideals," she said. "Technology can be used in good ways. But adults don't always understand that."

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