Volume VII, #17
One of the best comedy sketches about higher education is a Saturday Night Live gem from 1984 about Winston University. In the sketch, Billy Crystal plays an admissions officer visiting a high school class. While the teacher is in the room, the pitch is plain vanilla to the point of boredom: “This is the science building, and we have excellent laboratory facilities on campus…”
But when the teacher leaves the room, he gets down to brass tacks: “I’m about to tell you something. It’s a secret. If this secret ever leaves this classroom, I will find you, and I will kill you.” The secret is that when parents pay the annual $12,000 tuition, Winston keeps half and gives half to the student. There are no classes. Most campus buildings are fake. Students are handed their diploma upon arrival. But if they show it to anyone for four years, “we will find you, and we will kill you.”
When one student (played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus) asks whether they can really get away with this, the recruiter says remember our motto:
Aside from foreshadowing certain colleges prioritizing the material desires of students over education, Winston University spoke to the aspirations of early Gen-Xers entering university at the time. College was about getting away from parents and starting life. So Winston students would get $24,000 for four years. “We don’t care what you do with the money. We don’t care where you go. But you must be back on campus visiting day. If you’re not back on campus visiting day, we will find you, and we will kill you.”
If SNL updated the Winston University sketch today, it might not be a university that hands students money for travel and adventure, but rather one that allows students to sit in their room on their iPhone.
Jean Twenge is a psychology professor at San Diego State and the author of a new book released this week, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood—and What That Means for the Rest of Us. As excerpted in The Atlantic, Twenge sets out a compelling case for how students entering college this month are transformed from the new students colleges saw as recently as five years ago.
Due to smartphones + social media, “the experiences [teens] have every day are radically different from those of the generation that came of age just a few years before them.” Specifically, today’s freshmen spent much more of their teenage years sitting in their room interacting with their phone than the seniors who just graduated. According to Twenge, high school seniors are now going out less often than 8th graders did as recently as six years ago. And the number of teens who get together with their friends nearly every day dropped by more than 40% from 2000 to 2015.
One teen quoted in Twenge’s book said “I think we like our phones more than we like actual people.” And a 23-year-old commenting on Twenge’s work in The American Conservative noted that anti-social tendencies now have “a respectable air among the young. No longer is a disdain for other people’s company and an unwillingness to spend time with other people or talk to strangers a sign of being haughty or weird; it’s a hip way of demonstrating your unique individual brand of sophistication and depth.”
There are a few benefits to this shift from social to social media. Notably, because teens are driving less, they’re less likely to get into car accidents. They also drink less and are less sexually active; sexual activity among 9th graders has fallen almost 40% since 1991. The teen birth rate is at an all-time low. Sounds good, right? It does to helicopter parents who prioritize safety to the point of crowding out valuable education and experience (as well as to the helicopter school districts that decided to keep students inside, away from this week’s “dangerous” eclipse).
But it’s becoming clear that safety is outweighed by a number of unprecedented challenges. As I’ve discussed, today’s teens have much less exposure to paid work. They’re not gaining the competencies that can be learned from scheduling shifts, showing up, and performing a job to the satisfaction of their managers and customers.
In addition, they have less experience interacting with peers. This includes dating, but also team sports. A study by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association found a sharp drop in youth participation in team sports from 2009 to 2014. In that five-year period, overall participation dropped 9% with double-digit declines in field hockey, football, soccer, softball, track and field, volleyball and wrestling.
Perhaps most important, screen-mediated relationships mean teens simply hang out with peers much less than they did just a few years ago. The upshot is that colleges and universities are about to be surprised by incoming students’ underdeveloped skills in navigating social interaction in a group setting. As a group, they’re less well-versed in understanding social cues, less practiced in the art of compromise in order to get along, and less likely to have developed presentation or communication capabilities. And if there’s less group interaction, there are fewer opportunities to develop leadership skills.
Of course, what they’re doing on the phone alone in their room is communicating with friends via social media: Snapchat, Instagram, and maybe even Facebook for the laggards. So some communication skills are being built. But as Twenge says, “in the next decade, we may see more adults who know just the right emoji for a situation, but not the right facial expression.”
Practically speaking, the first thing every college needs to do to educate Generation iPhone is ensure new students can interact with every critical administrative and academic function via the device through which most experience is mediated. Doing so requires a unified mobile app like the one provided by Oohlala Mobile. Today’s freshmen expect it. If they’re being asked to use multiple apps or – heaven forbid – the mobile Web to access their schedule, the library, and the LMS, their perception of the institution will be diminished, they’ll be less likely to engage, and more likely to drop.
Second, higher education needs to rethink academic programs and curricula for Generation iPhone. Colleges and universities that want students to graduate, get good jobs, make money and (most important to some) funnel more money to the institution in the form of contributions will have no choice but to remediate smartphone-induced deficiencies. While much of what employers ask college graduates to do is work in teams to execute projects and achieve goals, employers already complain about underdeveloped soft skills of college graduates, specifically the ability of graduates to work well in teams. As Generation iPhone arrives on campus, it’s about to get much worse. Moreover, as colleges and universities gave birth to many of the technologies inside iPhones, they have a special responsibility to do so.
From an academic standpoint, what Generation iPhone needs is project-based learning. Simulating work environments as much as possible, students should be required to work on projects in groups. And while this may sound like the awful grade school group projects where one kid did all the work (and if you’re still reading this, that kid was probably you!), project-based learning at the college level requires team members to take on distinct roles so individual work can be distinguished and assessed. It also requires team members to evaluate one another – like in a work environment. Not coincidentally, this is what bootcamps and immersive last-mile training programs are doing. They’re doing so not only because learning by doing is a better way to develop technical skills, but also – perhaps because they’re better connected to employers than colleges and universities (and increasingly only getting paid if graduates get hired) – because they recognize the significant soft skills deficits that must be overcome.
Beyond project-based learning, colleges and universities should redouble efforts to replace lectures with active learning. Flipping the classroom isn’t enough; integrating formative assessments into the flip and then obtaining real-time feedback in class via clickers or (surprise!) smartphones enables faculty to divide students into groups for a series of active learning exercises – not only more effective for learning, but also for flexing social muscles.
The challenges faced by Generation iPhone also present an opportunity to colleges and universities, particularly in defending their territory against the expected onslaught of online offerings projected to create the “University of Everywhere” and overwhelm higher education: colleges campuses are the right environment to help screen-addicted shut-ins. Of course, there’s no way to guarantee that students won’t barricade themselves in their rooms and mediate the majority of their social interactions via a screen. Likewise, there’s no way to ensure that the majority of non-screen-mediated social interaction isn’t conducted while under the influence. Nevertheless, outside of the classroom, colleges and universities need to continue to create campus venues that engender constructive social interaction.
As a result, the coming need for venues for students to learn to interact across a multitude of social settings presents the first sensible argument for building aquatic features like lazy rivers on college campuses. But it goes without saying that if any school attempts to employ this logic to justify investing student tuition and fee dollars to build a lazy river, like Billy Crystal’s admissions officer from Winston University, I will find you, and I will kill you.