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Building eLearning for the Net Generation: Seven Tips

by Phil Cowcill

July 2, 2012


by Phil Cowcill

July 2, 2012

“Learners are used to being connected and know they can get information almost anytime. Do your learners access your content outside of the normal office hours? How does your content look on a mobile device? What if there is no WiFi connection, or a cellular connection is not practical? Generally if you want the learner to have access anytime and anywhere, you need to look at packaging your content as a native app.”

The landscape of the workforce is dramatically changing. In the US, it’s estimated that there are 81 million Generation Y (Gen Y or Net Gen) people. Right behind that cohort is Generation Z (Gen Z or Next Gen or the Millennial Gen) at just over 40 million. While people of all ages require support for learning, Gen Y and Gen Z cohorts represent the largest portion. How these cohorts learn, work, and play is very different from previous generations.

The question to ask is, “Does my learning application meet the learning style of the target audience?” Here are seven tips for aligning eLearning to the styles and characteristics of Gen Y and Gen Z.

Warning: No absolutes! (And that’s absolute…)

Before diving into the tips, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. These are not rules or absolutes. Not everyone fits these characteristics. There are Gen Y or Z people who don’t like technology or who only use technology in the social arena. Another point to keep in mind – don’t feel that you need to implement all the suggestions. Look through these tips and use your experience and judgement to determine which tips you can implement.

Tip 1: Speed

The phrase “there’s a need for speed” rings true. Gens Y and Z are not known for their patience when it comes to technology. Have you ever heard someone complain that “the computer is so slow”? While the computer may be running at an optimal level, if the network connection is bogged down, then users criticize their computers for running slow. As professionals, we need to make sure that we have optimized all media elements for a network delivery.

Tip 2: Customize

People like to customize just about everything. If you want to see examples of this, take a look at the Gen Y and Z cell phones, tablets, and workstations. I think a majority of people reading this article remember the Web 2.0 push. One of the features of Web 2.0 technology is the ability to customize. In an eLearning course, there may not be a lot you can do about network speed, but there are things you can do to allow learners to customize quickly.

Start by making it easy for learners to display their name and go from there. Does your eLearning course allow the users to create or select and customize avatars that represent them? Can the learners adjust the font size? Can they change the color scheme? Can they reorganize the content based on their preferences? These are just a few features that allow customization. If learners can customize their learning, then they are more likely to take ownership of it.

Tip 3: Push information

Rather than always waiting for a learner to go out and get information, why not push the information out? This doesn’t mean constantly sending messages to the learner via their mobile technology. During the course, why not push messages? If a learner has been sitting on a screen or a learning activity for an extended period of time, can you push a message to offer suggestions to help keep him or her moving? Can you push a unique message when they log in? What about signing up with a Web service that allows you to push a text message to the learner’s cell phone? Personally, I’ve used Class Parrot for this. These are a few ways of pushing information to the learner, but don’t feel that the target must always be a mobile device. Let your program push important information to the learner while they are in the course.

Tip 4: Collaboration

When learning with technology, it’s still very important to maintain a connection with others. Not everyone plays well with others, but a majority of learners do enjoy a sense of affiliation. For some, it is the affiliation with classmates, coworkers, friends, and even strangers that keeps them motivated to learn. Allowing collaboration will help motivate learners, and it also establishes a sense of accountability. Colleagues on teams depend on each person to add value to the project they are working on.

Collaboration can range from editing a single document on a service like Google Docs ( to the chat sessions found in most LMS systems. The collaboration can happen in real time (chats) or can be at any time over a specified period (blogs, wikis, Google Docs). Twitter is another service useful for collaboration. For example, have the learners use a course code as a hashtag and start tweeting on the project they are working on. People on the team can filter or search for the course code hash tag and get caught up on the conversation at any time.

Collaboration also allows for “distributive cognition.” This is where the intelligence of the group is greater than the intelligence of a single learner. The intelligence is distributed among the learners collaborating on a project.

Tip 5: Fun

Learning has to be fun. Most people have heard the phrase “content is king.” Many have dismissed this idea, and a lot of people say that context is more important. Dare I say that there is something even more important than content and context?

What is most important is the user experience (UX). You still need solid content, but the experience the user has while taking your course deserves even more thought. Is it fun for them? If it isn’t, how long will they retain the information? How much of the material are they absorbing?

Picture this: a professor in a classroom stands at the front of the auditorium, talks in a monotone voice for three hours, and provides some excellent content that the learner needs in order to be successful in their job. How many students would still be awake at the end of the three hours? However, how much more involved are the learners of a dynamic professor who is very energetic, engages the students, and has object lessons or case studies to show? Same content – different user experience.

An important point to keep in mind when thinking of the user experience and fun is that the question isn’t “what’s fun from your perspective?” – it needs to be fun from the learner’s perspective. What do they consider fun, and what do they consider a waste of time? It’s important to have people in your target audience help with the development of the user experience. Developing a course in a vacuum, without input from the client or target audience, is not good practice.

Tip 6: Deliver what I need

Have you heard the prayer “Lord, give me patience – now!”? The Gen Y and Z audience is like that. They want what they need now, and they don’t want the material they already know. So, what is the best way of allowing the learner to get what they need while bypassing what they don’t need? One good methodology is to use the “test and tell” method. This is where you quiz the learner on something immediately. If they know the answer, they can progress and get some qualitative feedback. However, if they answer wrong, the lesson material will appear. Once they have been through material they can be tested again to ensure they have learned it.

Tip 7: Anytime, anywhere

Learners are used to being connected and know they can get information almost anytime. Do your learners access your content outside of the normal office hours? How does your content look on a mobile device?  What if there is no Wi-Fi connection, or a cellular connection is not practical? Generally, if you want the learner to have access anytime and anywhere, you need to look at packaging your content as a native app. This will ensure they can access it anytime, even if there isn’t a connection. There is an option when it comes to accessing Web content anytime and anywhere. It is a fairly new feature that looks like it will get better in the future. It is now possible to cache most of the Web or eLearning content onto the device when learners initially connect. This will allow access to the content even if the learner is not connected. This is fairly new, and should be thoroughly tested on target devices before deploying. However, it is something to consider when developing Web-based material.


It takes more effort up front to implement these tips. The return on the extra effort will be that the learner will enjoy the experience, retain the information longer, and get through the content quicker.

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