Communicating with millennials in the newsroom and classroom

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Shifting preferences for technology use, abbreviated word choices

By Carol Terracina Hartman
CMR Managing Editor 

Molly Ivins’ earliest collection of essays, titled “Molly Ivins can’t say that, can she?” (1991) highlighted an era of communication in which we questioned the manner and mode of commentary about public officials and each other.

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Now with the growth of a generation in our classrooms that is less inclined to speak to or call each other by phone and more inclined to “snap” or “tweet” each other, communication styles and mannerisms direct this question toward our classrooms: “can they say that?” and conversely, “can we say that?”

We attribute the changes in politeness and acceptability to technology use – and abbreviated word choices – and decrease in oral communication. Doesn’t everyone say “please” in a text?

We’ve addressed this trend in multiple CMA sessions the last three national fall conventions. Jane De Roche, of Mira Costa College, raised this question in a 2016 CMA session in Washington, D.C., asking, “how do we respond to millennials in class when they say ….?”

Defined as having a birth year 1981 – 1997, a millennial, according to Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends (2015) shares some common characteristics. Many of these characteristics are key for educators, including a digital divide:

  • 73% don’t receive emails;
  • 64% record video;
  • 34% consume news on Facebook;
  • 45% consume news via Twitter.

The biggest gap? professional use versus personal use of personal devices in terms of skill set. So while students might easily capture a screenshot and text it to someone to use for directions, those same students struggle to take notes for research to prepare for an interview or a press conference. They don’t know how to compose a photo for a news article.

In April 2016, U.S. Census Bureau data showed millennials had surpassed Baby Boomers as the largest percentage of the nation’s living generation,  numbering about 75.4 million. That growth suggests educators need to pay attention to what’s happening in the classroom. And adjust.

Roehling, Vander Kooi, Dykema, Quisenberry, and Vandlen (2011) note that as digital natives, millennial students have had information, entertainment, and social interaction at their fingertips; for Generation X, a computer, iPad or iPhone is a tool, a device for work, for communicating with colleagues, for finding directions. A Generation Xer still views electronic devices as “functional” rather than “fun” and likely a tool to do a job better, faster, and perhaps differently (Oblinger, 2003). Millennial students, research shows, value individuality more than prior generations, and are generally more confident than prior generations of students, whether their answer is right or wrong.

So those students who won’t raise their hands in class or who refuse to wait while a classmate is speaking to shout out a question? Yeah, those are the students who need not only direction on professional classroom behavior, but also direction outside the classroom when they head out to gather news.

So, how to manage our classroom? How to reach these students so they can separate personal from professional behavior?

The authors offer a broad set of guidelines, stating that it would be wise to engage a class in setting ground rules for daily discussion (and they advise discussion and small-group work or lecture and Powerpoint-themed class sessions).

  1. Develop a list of desirable behaviors (raise hands, wait to be recognized, respond positively to another’s comments “I understand your perspective but I disagree with one point,” for example);
  2. Use that list to build ground rules for discussion;
  3. Consider ice breakers so students get to know each other before introducing topics that tread on sensitive or difficult material;
  4. Begin class with a “news update”: students offer a news item and the source from which they obtained the information; ask them to read and respond to the news coverage;
  5. Moderate those difficult discussions and keep students on track;
  6. Maintain enthusiasm for the topic;
  7. Applaud new ideas;
  8. Embrace independent thinking;
  9. Link one student’s thoughts to another’s when appropriate, so students can build connections.

But while creating a comfortable atmosphere for debate, it’s important to maintain a level of respect and not let students take charge of the flow of discussion, or, if in small group exercise, circulate and ensure students are productive and not isolated in smartphone research without sharing  their findings with classmates.

For students who are less engaged with personal device use, consider adding academic social media usage, for example a news tracker assignment in which students follow a news outlet and write commentary on their personal blog. Each student would be required to include hyperlinks, hashtags, and “you might also like” links to similar news sites. Such an assignment would even out the students who are active users but primarily recreational and add professional skills to their skillset.


References

  • Ivins, Molly. Molly Ivins Can’t Say That, Can She?. New York: Random House. (1991).
  • Oblinger, Diana. “Boomers gen-xers millennials.” EDUCAUSE review 500, no. 4 (2003): 37-47.
  • Passel, J. S., and D. Cohn. “Pew Research Center Social and Demographic Trends.” Washington, DC (2015): 2005-2050.
  • Roehling, Patricia Vincent, Thomas Lee Vander Kooi, Stephanie Dykema, Brooke Quisenberry, and Chelsea Vandlen. “Engaging the millennial generation in class discussions.” College Teaching 59, no. 1 (2010): 1-6.

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