Creating Training for Digital Immigrants and Natives

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.

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Engaging Online Training: An Oxymoron?

This week, I sat through two days of a software training class that I attended virtually. The experience led me to question whether it’s possible to have an online training experience (whether synchronous or asynchronous) that’s as engaging as being in the classroom with a live instructor.

While my preference for creating online training material has grown over the last several years, my preference for attending these types of training hasn’t kept the same pace. When I was in first grade, my teacher sent a letter home to my parents complaining that I was daydreaming in class. I was a straight A student and knew the material, so what was the problem? I was bored. And when I’m bored, uninterested, or distracted, I have problems focusing my attention; that remains true for me today.

Personally, live instructors tend to hold my attention better than any other training method. I find being able to see facial expressions and interact with someone to be more engaging. Also, because I know someone is watching, I’m less likely to be tempted by other distractions, like checking email.

Because I work in the training field, I know it’s not possible to teach every class in person. Rising traveling costs and increasing demands on all our time make online and virtual training methods more appealing. So if we’re bound to use these methods in an increasingly online but busy society, how do we keep our learners engaged?

My Experience—What Went Wrong?

The class I attended this week was in preparation for a major project that’s upcoming at work, one that I’ll definitely be involved in and am eager to work on. I was excited to see the material that would be presented. So what went wrong? Why did I find myself tuning out and distracted by other programs on my computer?

First, I was at a disadvantage because I was the only virtual attendee; the class hadn’t been structured for my mode of attendance. I’m in the third trimester of pregnancy and didn’t feel comfortable traveling to the training site. Everyone else made the trip. The department sponsoring the training session was nice to accommodate my needs, but because virtual attendance wasn’t a priority from the beginning, certain aspects of the experience were lacking.

The biggest issue I had was with the audio quality. The instructor was using an online webinar software to share her screen, and that worked well; I could easily follow along with where she was in the software she was showing us. However, because everyone else attended in person, she didn’t use the software to share the audio. We used a speakerphone instead—and not a very good one. If I concentrated, I could understand the instructor well enough to keep up with the class. Sidebar conversations were difficult and sometimes impossible to hear. For me, maintaining the concentration required to follow along with the class was mentally exhausting. After a couple of hours, my attention was spent, and I found it incredibly difficult to refocus.

Grad School—What’s Working Well

I began to think about this training experience in contrast to my graduate school program at Kennesaw State University. When I first began a graduate program that’s only offered online, I was nervous for the same reasons I mentioned above. I wondered if I would learn as much as I would from a traditional classroom environment.

I’ve been 100% pleasantly surprised by my experience participating in online graduate studies over the last 2 and half years. If anything, I’ve been more engaged than I would be in a traditional environment. Toward the end of my undergrad education, I began to feel burned out and stopped attending class as regularly as I should have. Grad school hasn’t given me that option.

Intentional Design

My experience with graduate school proves that it’s possible for online learning to also be engaging. One thing that makes my program successful is that, unlike my work training course, each graduate class is designed with online delivery in mind. Courses don’t just rehash the same content from classroom instruction in a different medium. Everything, from the content to the format, is intentionally chosen for an online environment.

Most of my graduate classes have followed a similar structure. Each week, students read assigned materials then post and respond to each other in an online discussion board. Other major assignments, whether completed individually or in a group, are submitted via the online portal to the instructor for feedback. During my time in grad school, I’ve only had one synchronous meeting with a class; everything else has taken place in the online portal. While instructors have supplemented class materials with written or video lectures, the discussion board has been the major avenue of learning and communication among the class.

Discussion Board

Sample Online Graduate School Discussion Board

Flipping the Classroom

I think my graduate program has also been successful at maintaining my attention because it follows the model of the flipped classroom.

In traditional education environments, the teacher lectures while the students listen, then the students go home and practice on their own. If the students have questions or struggle with the material, the teacher isn’t there to help them understand. This system can leave big gaps in learning for students who struggle with the lecture format or materials. In the flipped classroom, the opposite happens. The students read or view the lecture materials at their own pace then come to the classroom to practice the skills. The teacher is present if the students need help. Teachers can see which students might need extra guidance or which points might need additional clarification.

The video below is a recording of a webinar I attended from Sarah Gilbert of meLearning Solutions in conjunction with ATD (Association for Talent Development) on the concept of flipped classrooms. It’s long but worthwhile if you have time.

Webinar from Sarah Gilbert on Flipped Classrooms

Gilbert, S. (2013, January 26). Flipped Classroom Webinar [Video file]. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/V3teEiItC9o

Flipping Online

While the flipped model can work with any form of training delivery, I think it becomes more important as a tool for virtual or online training.

Online learning offers a wide variety tools for delivering flipped lecture materials to students. Learners aren’t limited to reading text; they can watch videos, explore websites, and complete online simulations. Any method that we can use to deliver online training content can be used successfully in a flipped setting. We can combine several forms of multimedia to create an online environment learners will find engaging.

Flipping the online classroom also builds in more accountability than a standard computer-based course. Knowing there will be an instructor-led session for follow-up will motivate learners to explore the material, rather than just clicking through to get to the end. Learners get to experience the best of both training worlds: free self-exploration of the content plus the help and experience of an instructor.

Ironically, I was attending this particular training session in preparation for a project in which I intend to use the flipped strategy. I’m hoping that flipping the content and putting it online will offer me all the benefits I’ve mentioned above, including spending less time in the classroom and seeing greater learner retention of the material.