By Stefanie Olsen
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
November 18, 2005 4:00 AM PT
The future can be found in the virtual stacks of the International Children's Digital Library.
The "simple search" feature at the Web site, which was designed in part by schoolchildren, provides as many as 50 choices to find the right title while displaying large buttons that link to fairy tales, adventure stories or books designed in favorite kid colors. It also offers personalized bookshelves and three types of software to read them, including a child-inspired viewer that shows pages in a spiral rack so that kids can jump to any page.
It's hardly a sophisticated algorithmic index, but it makes perfect sense to children who may not know how to search like an adult or spell a keyword. That is precisely why the University of Maryland, which built the site, continues to invite children to test its software and suggest new designs.
"If there's only one way to find or read a book, to a child it doesn't make any sense," said Allison Druin, associate professor of the university's College of Information Studies and director of its book project, which was started in November 2002. "Our traditional educational tools limit how children access information to learn or fit us into one way of learning things."
The library offers an important view into the minds of what some sociologists are calling "the millennials"--a generation of children and teenagers who came of age at the dawn of the millennium.
Members of this generation are thought to be adept with computers, creative with technology and, above all, are highly skilled at multitasking in a world where always-on connections are assumed. Their everyday lives are often characterized by immediate communication, via instant messenger, cellular conversations or text messaging. No member of this generation, it can be assumed, would ever wait on a street corner for a late friend.
The changing ways that members of this generation can learn, communicate and entertain themselves are a primary reason behind the viral popularity of socially oriented technologies such as blogs, wikis, tagging and instant messaging. Children who were born when Netscape Communications went public are now 10 years old and have been raised on a steady diet of digital technologies that have fundamentally shaped their notions of literacy, intelligence, friendship and even the anxious adolescent process of learning who they are.
For their grandparents, the bicycle was a symbol of childhood independence. Today, for many kids and young adults, it is the Internet.
"It consumes my life," said Andrea Thomas, a senior at Miami University. "If I'm not texting my friends over the cell phone, I have my laptop with me and I'm IM'ing them. Or I'm doing research on Google. Honestly, the only reason any one of my college friends use the library is for group meetings."
Jonathan Steuer, technology consumer strategist for Iconoculture, a research firm, said those like Thomas are simply using today's technologies to express a sense of belonging that young people have always desired. "What sets millennials apart is that they use technology to push the boundaries of the values that have been associated with their generation in ways not possible before."
By only their seventh birthday, most children in the United States will have talked on a cell phone, played a computer game and mastered a TV-on-demand device like TiVo, much to the amazement of technically challenged parents. By 13, researchers say, the same children will have gone through several software editions of instant messaging, frequented online chat rooms and downloaded their first illegal song from BitTorrent.
College-age millennials will likely own a laptop and take for granted ubiquitous broadband Internet access. They may also be intimately familiar with the feeling of "highway hypnosis"--the ability to drive or multitask with little memory of the process of getting there.
Their inevitably short attention spans are the reason Seymour Papert of MIT's Media Lab coined the term "grasshopper mind" five years ago, for the inclination to leap quickly from one topic to another. A mathematician and founder of artificial intelligence, Papert addressed the effects of this behavior as far back as 1995 in congressional testimony about technology and learning.
"The question at stake is no longer whether technology can change education or even whether this is desirable," Papert wrote in his testimony. "The presence of technology in society is a major factor in changing the entire learning environment."