1. Education

10 Things Millennials Are Teaching Us About the Future of Online Learning

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According to Pew Research studies, millennials are on track to become the most educated generation in U.S. history.

As the first generation to grow up with smartphones and high speed internet...and the first generation to graduate with disproportionate student loan debt and dismal job prospects, these incoming students bring a unique perspective to their college classrooms.

Over the years, I’ve watched as millennial students have brought new ideas and challenges into the online classes I’ve taught. Here are a few of the things millennials have taught me about the future of online learning:

1. The technology learning curve is lessened for people that grew up with ipads. Have you seen the Youtube video of the toddler trying to turn the pages of a magazine with a finger swipe? That’s about how fast my incoming freshman are able to adapt to new technology. When it comes to understanding software or learning management systems, online colleges are more likely to have problems with teachers than students.

2. Online students are increasingly expecting “instant” feedback. Gone are the days when students would wait until weekly “office hours” for a bit of extra help. Now, if a student emails me at noon and hasn’t received a response by 3:00 p.m., I’m likely to hear about it. The ease of communicating via the internet has made demand-making easy. Mix that with the expectation that online classes are like everything else we do online (one-click ordering on Amazon, instant movies on Netflix, etc.) and it’s a recipe for instructor exasperation. Online teachers would be wise to adapt to this expectation in some ways (instant check-your-understanding quizzes, for example, can be helpful). At the same time, it’s essential that online classes don’t turn into faceless automations to meet the demand for real-time feedback.

3. Sharing is increasingly important to incoming online learners. This is the age of the Facebook “selfie” and sharing ideas and experiences is extremely important to most millennial students. Online teachers can draw on this by providing students opportunities to connect the curriculum to their lives and offering students a platform for sharing the work they accomplish.

4. Online learners are open to new ideas. The Pew Research study found that millennials are particularly open to change and I’ve found this true with my own students. Perhaps it’s the exposure to hundreds of Facebook friends sharing their experiences living different lives in different places. Perhaps it’s their constant exposure to new ideas through sites like Reddit. Whatever the case, online teachers have a unique opportunity to help new students continue expanding their thinking.

5. But, online learners are also hesitant to “go deeper.” While millennials are open to new ideas, I’ve noticed that they sometimes struggle with critical thinking. Initial discussions about national issues in my English 101 classrooms sometimes remind me of soundbites from political pundits. With the increasing amount of information available through the internet, students are more likely to have grown up hearing talking points and news summaries rather than spending the time to critically consider issues (as discussed in Nicholas Carr’s book The Shallows). I’ve had multiple students express surprise at how challenging it is to list the counterarguments to the point they are trying to make. “I’ve never thought about it that way,” they often remark.

6. The role of questioning and socratic discussions in online classes is more important than ever. When it comes to classes promoting critical thinking, online teachers simply cannot sit back and let the virtual curriculum do the work. Although it’s challenging to cultivate genuine conversation in an online environment, teachers are an essential resource for students needing guidance in thinking more carefully and critically about their world.

7. Incoming students are openly hostile to busy work. I can’t think of any generation that has enjoyed busy work, but millennials are are particularly quick to reject assignments they see as purposeless. They seem less likely to complete work based on the authority of the teacher alone. In a world where they’ll be competing for an unstable number of hard-to-find jobs, it’s little wonder that they want to make sure their school assignments are helping them develop the skills and knowledge they need. Rather than conflicting with hardheaded students, online teachers would be wise to find ways to make assignments authentic and openly meaningful. In online lessons where I need to guide students through an assignment that may initially seem like busy work, I always make sure to discuss the big picture when we make it through. I know I’m doing a good job when they’re the first to say, “Oh, now I see why that was important.”  

8. Online colleges should re-think the relatability of general education courses. Burdened by student loans and an unreliable job market, millennials have it tough. They’re going to know if Calculus and art appreciation aren’t exactly a big help when it comes to living their lives. General education courses should either 1. help students develop a skill that is directly relatable to the work they will do or 2. help students live more fully in a way that is relatable to the students themselves. Many online colleges have responded to changing demographics by limiting and allowing more flexibility in the selection of general education courses.

9. When it comes to factually-driven courses, there are many alternatives. Opencourseware and websites like Khan Academy have made it clear that not every subject needs to be taught in a traditional classroom (or even a college-created online classroom). In many cases, fact-based subjects like math and programming are learned more effectively from proven online materials. If colleges want to keep millennials, they’ll need to find ways to give credit for viable learning alternatives rather than insisting on traditional lectures.

10. When it comes to humanities courses, nothing can replace human relationships. There’s a reason why there’s no Khan academy for philosophy. That’s because technology simply cannot replicate human discussion and mentoring relationships, even for millennial learners. Incoming students need traditional colleges because their learning is enhanced and their world is expanded by the relationships they form with teachers and peers. That’s not a millennial thing; it’s a human thing.

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