I’ve taken on a volunteer position at my job for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. This year, I’m the co-chair of the Generations Promoting Success (GPS) employee resource network. GPS focuses on bringing together employees from different generations and tenures in their careers to discuss our similarities and differences and find out what we can all learn from one another. (We believe in the idea of reverse mentoring; not only can Millennials learn from Baby Boomers, but vice versa.)
When I first joined the group in 2013, my goal was mainly networking and getting to know more people in different departments. My work with the group, however, has opened my eyes to how generational differences—and the digital revolution in particular—affect the way we approach all aspects of our work, including training.
Immigrants and Natives
Marc Prensky calls those who have grown up in the era of the internet digital natives. He compares them to native speakers of a language. In contrast, he calls those of us who’ve had to learn the technology of the Web at some point digital immigrants; we may become proficient in the language, but we’ll always speak with an accent that will be noticeable to the natives.
Different Preferences – The Natives Grow Restless
Digital immigrants grew up learning via traditional methods. We read text books heavy in words. Our teachers presented things in a logical order, one step at a time. Teachers, for the most part, controlled the pace of our learning with the lectures and the assignments they gave us. Our job was to sit quietly in class and absorb knowledge.
Thanks to the internet, digital natives have learned to process information very differently than the immigrants who came before them. They have access to a wealth of information at the click of a button or swipe of a screen. They process quickly, prefer graphics, don’t mind distractions and multi-tasking, and like to explore content on their own. Traditional learning methods tend to stifle digital natives; they long for something more interactive.
As instructional designers, more and more of our learning is moving online. As we create elearning, how can we satisfy the needs of all generations in the workplace today, including both the digital natives and the immigrants? How can we create one course that will be engaging and useful for everyone in our audience?
Marc Prensky on the differences between digital natives and immigrants
Lunch Box School. (2013, August 10). Marc Prensky – digital natives [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRR76Mz9NII
Generations in the Workplace
In today’s workforce, there are at least 3, maybe 4, generations working side-by-side. My organization tends to have a longer tenure than most employers. We still have a few Traditionalists, born before 1946, in the mix. Baby Boomers, born from 1946-1964, are beginning to retire but are still widely present in workplaces. Generation X, born from 1965-1980, have been part of the workforce for a while now. Millennials, born after 1980, represent the newest and most quickly growing segment of employees.
Each generation brings its own preferences and styles to work. The eLearning Brothers detail how each of these generational styles can influence learners’ preferences.
Baby Boomers didn’t grow up with computers and technology. Most of them have learned how to use these tools, but they still retain the noticeable accent of a digital immigrant. At work, they may prefer face-to-face conversations over emails. In their spare time, they may use social media to keep up with family, although not to the same extent as later generations. When learning online, Baby Boomers need courses to be intuitive to navigate. They may move through information at a slower pace and need larger words on the screen.
Millennials, on the other hand, tend to be digital natives. They are influencing changes in the workplace with their knowledge of and familiarity with technology. They may be more likely to send an instant message than to stop by your desk to ask a question. They like to explore training content on their own and move at a quick pace. They want to learn and envision their careers progressing quickly. Millennials may prefer to have content presented in shorter chunks so they can reference it when needed. These digital natives are discerning and experienced consumers of media; they expect a high-quality experience.
In my experience—as a member myself—Generation X tends to be somewhere in the middle. We didn’t grow up with the technology as kids, but we were young enough when it was introduced to learn it fairly easily. We might be equally comfortable with instant messages and emails. We tend to be independent thinkers, and most of us are comfortable using technology on some level.
Give Them Options That Make Sense
As an instructional designer, how can we satisfy these varied preferences? I would argue that online learning makes it easier to offer material to the learner at their own pace. Anyone who’s taught in the classroom knows what a challenge it is to keep those who prefer to move quickly engaged without leaving the slower learners behind. With online learning, everyone can move at the pace they desire.
We have to be careful when creating online learning not to bore the digital natives with content overload. We need to structure the course so the natives can explore the content, not have it spoon fed to them in one boring slide after another. (We can all relate to struggling through this kind of course at some point.)
This means we may need to include branching, which allows learners to click from one slide or layer to another and back again to access different information. We may want to consider having a section of additional resources with hyperlinks or job aids which learners can access outside the course.
We should think about embedding videos, simulations, or other media into our courses when applicable. We don’t want to overdo media just for the sake of media, but if we use media well and in the appropriate places, we will naturally make our content more engaging.
All our interactivity needs to be intuitive, though. Otherwise, we will lose the Baby Boomers along the way. Before we sit down and develop, we need to think through our content and make sure the order makes sense. Are we placing the right media at the right point in the course? Baby Boomers still need to understand things in a logical order and see that we’re covering topics one at a time.
As you can see, this type of course takes more time to design. We need to plan for that in our processes, because in the end, we’ll see better results from all age groups.
Flip Things Around
I wrote previously about flipping the classroom in this post. Rony Zarom from Learning Solutions Magazine suggests the flipped classroom as a solution for satisfying the learning preferences of multiple generations. Zarom suggests that the flipped content be offered online to encourage learners to explore at their own pace and appeal to the digital natives, and I agree. Scheduling a follow-up session with an instructor after the learners have digested the content will appeal to the Baby Boomers. It also gives the instructor a chance to check on those who might need more help processing the information.
Zaron takes the flipped idea a little further, encouraging us to set up peer-to-peer communities, perhaps using the company’s internal social media. I’ve enjoyed being able to bounce ideas off my classmates in my graduate school discussion boards, so this idea makes sense to me in a corporate setting as well.