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Understanding Today's Learner

by Jane Hart

September 22, 2008


by Jane Hart

September 22, 2008

For many organizations, there is a real need to address changes in the outlook of the workforce. It is no longer possible to think workers have the same approach to life, work, or learning as their bosses.

E-Learning 2.0 is not just another learning fad. There are real imperatives for incorporating it into your learning strategy, not least the fact that you can use it effectively to meet the demands of today’s learners.

In this article, I draw both on research and on evidence from organisations that shows today’s learners are different. I’ve found that for many organisations there is a real need to address the characteristics of our changing workforce or student population.

Part One of this essay looks at what the research tells us about the characteristics of today’s learners (aka Learners 2.0), and how they best learn. Part Two reports on interviews with eLearning Guild members on how they perceive learners today, and how they are addressing their needs. Part Three looks at the importance for learning and development professionals to experience being a Learner 2.0 in order to advise on appropriate new learning approaches.

Part One: The research

In order to build a profile of today’s learners the research looked at two main ways of defining today’s learner; (1) by age and generational attitudinal differences; and (2) by their use of the technology, in particular the use of Web 2.0 social media tools,.

Age and generational attitudinal differences

   Five generations are currently alive, and for the first time in history there are four in the workforce. Each of these generations has been influenced by the very different times in the last 80 years in which they grew up. Each generation’s experience impacted their outlook on life and working. To understand the attitudes to working and living of the youngest generations, it is first necessary to provide a brief summary of the three older generations for comparison. I have drawn on the findings of a number of sources in order to prepare these summaries, which reflect the situation in the Western, developed, nations. (Please see the References at the end of this article.)

Veterans (born 1925-1945) grew up in times of economic hardship, which led them to become disciplined and self sacrificing. They place duty before pleasure, believe patience is its own reward, see work as an obligation, and, as workers, are loyal, hard working, and dedicated. They respect authority and work within the system. Some of the youngest of this generation are still in the workforce.

Baby Boomers (born 1946-64) are members of a large generation who grew up in economic prosperity after World War II in strong, nuclear families with stay-at-home mums. They are competitive, optimistic, and focus on personal accomplishments. They are workaholics, who “live to work,” and often take work home. Their job or profession defines them, and they like to feel valued and needed. They have no work-life balance; many have sacrificed a home life for a career, and for those who tried both, it has been a juggling act. This generation has dominated the workforce for many years, and now hold significant positions within it.

Generation X (born 1965-1979) grew up in very different circumstances. For many, having divorced parents and mothers at work was the norm. This led to their characteristic resilience, independence, and adaptability. At work, they take employment seriously and have a pragmatic approach to getting things done. They “work to live, not live to work,” and move in and out of the workforce to accommodate their family and children.

Compare these profiles with that of the youngest generation in the workplace, Generation Y (also known as Millenials) (born 1980-1995), and the biggest generation since the Baby Boomers. A number of sources summarise this generation as follows:

They are the children of Baby Boomers who indulged them and gave them lots of attention, and who now display a high level of self-confidence. This generation grew up in good times, and spent more time in full-time education than any previous generation. Because they have only known economic prosperity, they do not fear unemployment. They are self-reliant and very social. Friends are very important to them, and they have a large network. They like to multi-task, and are always onto the next thing. They question everything, hence their alias, Generation Why? In the workplace they are not afraid of challenging managers (Baby Boomers). Work for them is a means to an end; it is a place, not their identity. They want flexible working hours, to be able to work from home, and to have time off for travel. Gen Y-ers are quite happy to leave a job if it doesn’t come up to expectations. They think they can have it all and are not embarrassed to ask for it. They are happy to job hop until they find what they want.

These generational findings show some quite startling attitudinal differences in the younger generations. It is no longer possible to think workers have the same approach to life, work, or learning as their bosses. In fact, Time Magazine reported that Generation Y is forcing a cultural shift on companies and managers. As such they are becoming change agents, forcing organisations to rethink and improve their methods of recruiting, training, and management. Sarah Perez, writing in ReadWrite Web, says, “Ignoring the voices of Gen Y is something you should do at your own peril, especially if you're a business looking to hire,” and that would seem to go for learning and development too.

For both Generation Y and Generation Z (born 1996 onwards), the members of which will start appearing in the workforce in five or so years, technology, and particularly the Internet, has been a major influencing factor in their lives, and I will discuss this below. 

Use of technology and the use of Web 2.0 social media tools

One of the well-known theories of generational use of technology has been offered by Marc Prensky, who contrasted digital natives with digital immigrants.

Digital immigrants are members of the older generations (mainly Baby Boomers but also Veterans and to some extent Gen X). They have learned to use the technology, “like all immigrants, some better than others – to adapt to their environment, but always retain, to some degree, their ‘accent,’ that is, their foot in the past.” Prensky believes that although many embrace computers, the Internet, and mobile devices such as iPods, they use the technology very differently than the younger generations (Gen Y and Z).

Digital natives grew up with the technology. They are “native speakers” of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet. Because of this, they “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors.”

This generational view of the use of technology has not been without its critics, who say it is not so simple to write off members of the older generations as “digital immigrants” simply because of their age, and that many heavy users of the Net also have characteristics very similar to digital natives. In fact the Digital Natives Project asserts:

“Digital natives share a common global culture that is defined not by age, strictly, but by certain attributes and experiences related to how they interact with information technologies, information itself, one another, and other people and institutions. Those who were not ‘born digital’ can be just as connected, if not more so, than their younger counterparts.”

It is quite clear there is a spectrum of digital fluency across the generations, from those who have very little understanding or use of the technology to those for whom the technology is “in their blood.” This also appears to be the case with the second phase of the Web, known as Web 2.0, which involves the use of social media tools such as blogs, wikis, social networking, and social bookmarking services. These support a more collaborative, social, user-generated content view of the world.

However, although all Internet users will come across social media tools at some time, there are very different patterns of use in terms of (a) the level of engagement with social media, that is, how they interact with the tools, (b) the frequency of engagement, or how regularly they make use of social media, and (c) the scale of engagement, which is the range of tools they use.

In terms of level of engagement, I have developed a Model of Engagement with Social Media, which identifies three main levels:

  1. Readers (or passive Consumers) — users who simply browse Websites, blogs, and wikis, watch videos, listen to podcasts, etc,
  2. Participants (or active Contributors) — users who contribute to content in blogs, wikis and other Websites, share links using online bookmarking services or from their RSS readers; or otherwise connect with others using instant messaging, SMS, and micro-blogging and social networking services
  3. Creators (or pro-active Producers) — users who create and share their own content like photos, videos, and other files and documents, as well as build their own blogs, wikis, social networks, etc, to encourage connections and discussion with others.

Technological profiles of Web 2.0 users once again tend to focus on Generation Y, and how they are connected 24/7 and “are a major part of Web 2.0 culture.” Forrester’s 2008 North American Technographics benchmark survey showed that nine out of ten Gen Yers own a PC, and 82 percent own a mobile phone. The survey also stated that it is “technology use that sets this generation apart: Gen Y spends more time online — for leisure or work — than watching TV. Seventy-two percent of Gen Y mobile phone owners send or receive text messages, and 42 percent of online Gen Yers watch Internet video at least monthly.” A May 2008 survey by In-stat showed that Gen Y was “leading the move to mobile social networks and Mobile Web 2.0,” which includes mobile blogging, file sharing, location-based socialization services, and chat.

However, other surveys show significant and increasing use of social media across the generations. For example, the fastest growing demographic on the social network, Facebook, is 25 years and older, and Forrester’s report also shows that, “Gen X is ramping up its Internet and mobile activities, including reading blogs (21 percent of online Gen Xers do it at least monthly) and texting (61 percent of Gen X mobile subscribers do it every day).” Universal McCann’s August “Media in Mind” study of 5,000 U.S. adults showed that 10% now publish blogs, and 22% use instant messaging.

Although these surveys only go some way to describe the full extent of users’ engagement with social media, it is clear that a defining characteristic of today’s new breed of learner is one that is highly engaged at all levels (Consumer, Participant and Creator), on a regular basis, with wide experience of a number of social media tools.

A profile of today’s new breed of learner

Aggregating all the characteristics identified so far, we can build a profile of the new learner of today as someone who is:

  • Most likely to be under 30 (and a member of Generation Y or Z) but might also be older than 30 (and a member of Gen X, Baby Boomer, Vets),
  • A digital native (or a very tech-savvy digital immigrant),
  • Connected 24/7 via a PC and/or mobile device, and
  • A highly engaged user of a broad range of social media tools on a frequent (daily) basis.

This high level of connectedness and engagement with Web 2.0 social media permits us to label today’s new learner as a Web 2.0 Learner or Learner 2.0.

How 2.0 Learners learn – and the types of learning that best suit them

From the many studies of Generation Y I cited above, as well as those that focus on the education of this generation, together with emerging theories of Web 2.0 learning, we can identify some features of the new breed of learner:

  • They prefer hyperlinked information coming from many sources.
  • They are skilled multi-taskers, and they parallel process. They are used to simultaneously working with different content, and interacting with others.
  • They are highly visual learners, preferring to process pictures, sounds, and video rather than text.
  • They are experiential learners who learn by discovery rather than being “told.” They like to interact with content to explore and draw their own conclusions. Simulations, games, and role playing allow them to learn by “being there,” and also to enjoy themselves and have fun.  
  • They have short attention spans, so prefer bite-sited chunks of content (either on a PC or iPod).
  • They are very social, and love to share with others. They enjoy working in teams. Interaction with others is key to their learning, and they want to be part of a community, collaborating, sharing, and exchanging ideas. 
  • They are happy to take on different roles in their learning, either as a student, or even as instructor or facilitator or supporter of others, and switch between them. 
  • They prefer to learn “just in time,” that is, have access to relevant information they can apply immediately.  
  • They need immediate feedback, responsiveness, and ideas from others, as they are used to instant gratification.  
  • They are very independent learners, and are able to teach themselves with guidance; they don’t need sets of instructions like their predecessors — just like they found out how to use their iPods or Google.  
  • They prefer to construct their own learning – assembling information and tools from different sources.

One thing is clear, that just because learning is made available online (as e-Learning) doesn’t make the traditional “talk and chalk” approach any more effective for them, and linear PowerPoint presentations and courseware simply bore them.

Furthermore, if we add into the equation the point mentioned above, that Generation Y are a much more demanding generation than previous generations, then it follows that younger Web 2.0 Learners, in particular, are going to insist that new approaches and tools are adopted in the workplace.

So, to what extent are eLearning Guild members’ organisations using Web 2.0 approaches and technologies to meet the needs of today’s learners?

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