The professor was teaching in a computer lab and saw one of his students sending e-mail messages to someone during the lecture. The professor told him to pay attention.
"I'm listening," the student said.
"Well, I would like you to turn and look at me," the professor said.
"Why?" said the student. "I have an A in your course, and I can repeat back what you said."
That story is related by Richard Sweeney, the librarian at the N.J. Institute of Technology in a Chronicle of Higher Education article. It represents he says a cultural shift in how students relate to education, and he advocates that schools shift accordingly.
Born between roughly 1980 and 1994, the Millennials have already been pegged and defined by academics, trend spotters, and futurists: They are smart but impatient. They expect results immediately. They carry an arsenal of electronic devices -- the more portable the better. Raised amid a barrage of information, they are able to juggle a conversation on Instant Messenger, a Web-surfing session, and an iTunes playlist while reading Twelfth Night for homework. Whether or not they are absorbing the fine points of the play is a matter of debate.
Most important, Mr. Sweeney and other observers say, Millennials expect to be able to choose what kind of education they buy, and what, where, and how they learn. To meet the demands of these new students, they say, colleges must rethink how they operate. Imagine classrooms that incorporate more videos and video games, classes that meet electronically to fit students' schedules, students who choose to learn from each other rather than a professor, and courseware, search engines, and library databases that are animated, image-based, and interactive.
"Higher education was built for us" -- the baby boomers and previous generations -- "under an industrial-age model," Mr. Sweeney says. "That's not what they're about."
Not everyone buys this line. The article quotes Michael Gorman, dean of library services at California State University at Fresno and president of the American Library Association:
This sort of end-of-history approach is dubious to me," he says, "this idea that we have reached a watershed and we have to throw everything aside and come in with new approaches."
He points to a recent article in Educause Review, about generational differences, in which a Millennial says, "If higher education listened to me, faculty and administrators would understand that students today cannot be dedicated just to learning." The comment sounds "self-absorbed" and "inane," Mr. Gorman says, and educators should not have to pander to such views.
Naomi S. Baron, a linguistics professor at American University, says she too feels pressure to meet the demands of Millennials: "It is very common to hear people say, Here's the Millennial or the digital generation, and we have to figure out how they learn. Poppycock. We get to mold how they learn."