Teaching the iGeneration: Going beyond digital literacy

Lisa Crosby
Special to the Sun

TRUCKEE, Calif. – It is common to see parents allowing toddlers to interact with a story on an iPad, to see tweens texting, high school students checking social media as well as adeptly moving from one device to another. New technology has not only transformed the way we communicate, it has also enhanced how we learn – and teach.

The iGeneration is a term used to refer to people born in the 1990s – today’s schoolchildren. The “i” represents the technologies being used (iPhone, iPod, iTunes) as well as the individualized aspect of the technology. Other common terms include Gen Z or Generation Next.

As educators and parents, we’re interested in harnessing new technology to enhance learning. At Custom Learning Academy, we’re finding that using iPads and visual media to teach and assess today’s iGeneration is improving student engagement and contributing to positive academic results across grade levels.

I have been studying brain research as it applies to learning and school culture since going to school for my master’s degree in 1999, and along the way have met and been influenced by neuropsychologists and researchers including CSU psychology professor Larry Rosen, PhD, a leader in research on technology and learning.

Dr. Rosen explains, “The iGeneration is immersed in technology … Now, we need to take advantage of their love of technology to refocus education. In doing so, we’ll not only get students more involved in learning, but also free up classroom time to help them make meaning of the wealth of information that surrounds them. We can no longer ask our children to live in a world where they are immersed in technology in all parts of their lives except when they go to school. We must rewire education or we risk losing this generation of media-immersed, tech-savvy students,” Rosen shares on his blog.

Based on research compiled in “Knowledge for Generations,” a Wiley publication, the iGeneration, like its predecessor, has a strong need to be connected – this means being separated from digital devices is stressful but so is using the devises all of the time. Some neuropsychologists I spoke with at the Learning and the Brain conference in San Francisco last year have instituted tech breaks every 25 minutes to remove the distraction of the desire to “check in” with social media and texts.

This has proven to allow for more focused learning after a brief three minute “technology break.” At CLA, we allow high school students to have technology breaks hourly, which is working. Middle school students can check technology mid-day. It is more effective to allow tech breaks with a structure than to make it a forbidden activity. This allows students to focus on the task at hand since they know they’ll be allowed to spend time connecting online during their hour-long classes.

A consensus among neuroscientists is that the prolific use of new technology is changing brain development. The Internet produces a hyperactivity of the brain. For example, based on fMRIs, scientists see that searching on the Internet stimulates the brain more than reading a traditional book (not surprising given interactive and strong visual elements). It also deactivates the executive function (frontal lobe) of the brain, causing the loss of ability to monitor time for example. I think most of us have experienced that phenomenon when working on the computer.

The positive impacts of tech use, according to “Knowledge for Generations,” is that people have become more efficient, better skimmers, may have better problem solving skills and respond quickly to visual stimuli. Technology has negative aspects too, affecting lowering attention span, a growing addiction to technology and possible challenges reading body language and being a good listener.

So what does this mean for an effective modern day classroom?

When I founded Custom Learning Academy in 2005, the mission was to offer a 21st century educational alternative for local families. Technology integrated teaching with content specialists for sixth to twelfth graders, with an emphasis on small classes, mastery expectation, emotional intelligence, respect and collaboration. We’re just as committed to preparing students for life after high school and meeting them where they are with technology skills.

Using technology – including iPads, videos, computers, projectors and digital cameras and video production – in the arts, language and science labs as well as English, history and math classes, students gain study and life skills that are instrumental for achievement after high school. The spike in engagement level between reading a traditional book and interacting with an app is obvious across grade levels and disciplines. Does this mean we do away with traditional methods? Of course not. At CLA, we evolve and continue to focus on developing students’ authentic love for learning.

“…the Smartphone, the Internet, and everything technological are not “tools” at all-they simply are. Just as we don’t think about the existence of air, they (iGeneration) don’t question the existence of technology and media. They expect technology to be there, and they expect it to do whatever they want it to do. Their WWW doesn’t stand for World Wide Web; it stands for Whatever, Whenever, Wherever,” explains Dr. Rosen.

Today, Custom Learning Academy is a comprehensive K-12 school that boasts personalized curriculum in a highly supportive learning environment for students who come from as close by as down the street to commuting from Reno. To learn more about how CLA is spearheading education reform for the iGeneration, call 530-587-5470, e-mail or visit

– Lisa Crosby, M.Ed. has more than 15 years of secondary and college teaching experience. She holds credentials in K-8 elementary education, multiple subject mathematics with calculus, physical science and Literacy with an emphasis in brain research. She is the founder and director of Custom Learning Academy, a fully accredited WASC school.

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