Each May we organize a year-end “Ocotillo” retreat for faculty and staff in our system to spend some focused time on instructional technology issues. This year, the theme was “Guess Who’s Coming To Learn?”:

What do we know about our students and their motivations for learning? Are our planning activities based on our own assumptions and experiences? There is plenty of literature about the various Gen-X, Gen-Y characteristics, but are we paying attention?To better understand the attributes, desires, expectations of our current and future students, we have invited an expert in organizational and social demographics to help us figure out Who is Coming to Learn at Maricopa.

To help set the stage, we created the word Association activity. This was a quick and simple survey a number of faculty collected from their students, where we collected their first responses to some common educational and technical terms.

The results were fascinating.

The students were asked to give their first response to:

  • Group Project
  • Work Ethic
  • Diversity
  • Office Hours
  • Extra Credit
  • Plagiarism
  • Textbook
  • Grades
  • Test/Exam
  • Instant Messaging
  • Mp3
  • Research
  • Portal
  • Help Desk
  • Distance Learning

and collected the responses either in paper or electronic form. We were able to gather several hundred responses in 2-3 weeks.

Then at the May 20, 2003 Ocotillo retreat, we asked the participants (mostly Baby Boomer generation) to do the same exercise on flip chart paper posted around the room.

The responses for say “Help Desk” are shown from students in grey in the first three columns, and the faculty/staff responses in green, the fourth column, and range wildly:

“Source of Assistance”
“Helpful to unintelligent people”
“Arrogant secretaries, bad faces”
“Person that help you with equipment problems, software problems”
“The place you go to where they tell you answers to questions you are not asking and to go find for your own answers ”
“Area in which people can get help from a professional and courteous staff”

Or for a past great educational technology term, “portal” there are numerous references to doors, Star Trek themes, web sites, and the voted favorite, “A secret passageway to the Playboy Mansion.”

The point is not to develop theories or explanations, but to underscore that there are a wide spectrum of internal assumptions and mental models for things or ideas we may have our own clear idea about, while the students are in a completely different perception space.

This is a critical lesson for instructional technology, where too often we aim for one size fits all solutions (Course Management Systems, PowerPoint as a lecture bludgeon, institutional web sites) that make perfect sense to the persons that created them but may be a baffling world to the people made to use them.

Now where did I leave that portal?

The post "Generational Word Association" was originally assembled from spare parts of a 1957 Chevy at CogDogBlog (http://cogdogblog.com/2003/07/generational-word/) on July 2, 2003.

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