Earlier this week I attended a conference (for our Ellucian CIOs), and one of the sessions that greatly interested me was “Millienial Behaviors and Higher Educations Focus Group Results” presented by Richard Sweeney, the university librarian for the New Jersey Institute of Technology. Mr. Sweeney’s session was actually in two segments: he first discussed what the research has revealed about Millennial students, and then a group of 13 college and university students were brought onstage as a live focus group. He asked the group several questions (the answers the students gave to some of which were quite surprising), and then for about the last 15 minutes of the session, the students fielded questions from the audience.
Millennial students were defined as those now going to school that were born between 1980 and 2000 – aged ranging fr0m 12 to 32 years old. In a study* comparing Millennial medical students to Generation X medical students, the Millennials were found to be more warm and outgoing, more abstract than concrete, more adaptive and mature, more dutiful, more socially bold and adventuresome, more sensitive and sentimental, more self-doubting and worried, more open to change and experimenting, and more organized and self disciplined. One of the key findings of the study is that Millennials “have greater needs to belong to social groups and to share with others, stronger team instincts and tighter peer bonds, and greater needs to achieve and succeed” (p. 574). The implications are fuzzy when it comes to online learning. Must these social groups be face to face, or will online social networks provide the requisite connectivity between the individuals?
In either case, as educators we need to optimize the social characteristics of the online experience in order to facilitate the Millenials’ feelings of belonging and abilities to bond with their peers. Another datapoint** shared by Mr. Sweeney is that for Millennials, “interaction and a sense of community are the key requests of those born digital when it comes to online learning, as surveys indicate” (p. 248). If we look at examples of online interaction such as participation in Xbox Live or the Playstation Network, we see that it can be quite compelling. Millions of recurring users subscribing to a pay-for-play model is a strong indicator of success in this case.
Having the student focus group allowed us to ask a sample of Millennial students about their perceptions, and one of the questions was whether or not they liked the online mode of learning. Without exception, all the student panelists expressed the sentiment that their online courses were not engaging, with consensus that online courses were not effective as an avenue for learning. I wanted to dig deeper in this direction, hoping to draw a distinction between online courses and online learning. I asked the students whether or not they were comfortable going online to learn about anything, say for a hobby interest or particular need they may have had at some point in time. Again, there was unanimous agreement–this time to express that going online to learn things was something that the students did regularly. The content that they were able to access for the personal needs was much more engaging than was the content developed for their online courses.
The answer to this question certainly requires further study, but it reinforces an intuition that I (and many educators) have had for quite some time: while online content developed for the general consumer (in a highly mind-share competitive environment) captures attention and brings users back repeatedly, online courses are often bland and uninspiring, and the reasons for their use may vary, but the quality of engagement of the overall online course experience is not among those reasons. This doesn’t surprise me, as I sample online courses developed for and within the current breed of learning management systems. There is a cookie-cutter feel to the content, and while there is greater integration of multimedia materials, these elements are episodic within the courses rather than integrated in a way that provides a true interactive experience to engage the learner.
Is this an artifact of the “mass production” of online courses? Perhaps, but there is little reason for this to be the operational model. A decade ago, designers discussed the power of the World Wide Web based in the ability for the “mass customization” of content. Yet when we examine online courses as currently developed, we see the presentation of an experience that is the same for each and every student within the same course. Every student progresses through the same discussion forums in the same sequence, answering the same prompts. Every student completes the same assignments, usually in the same calendar-driven sequence. Every student listens to the same podcasts, flips through the same PowerPoint slides, and watches the same video clips assigned by their instructors.
The important question to answer now becomes one of transformation. How do we as educators infuse online courses with the level of interactivity that will actually engage our students? (Hint: Think computer games, but think “small” at the same time.)
*Nichole J Borges et al. “Comparing Millennial and Generation X Medical Students at One Medical School. Academic Medicine; 81.6 (2006): 571-576
**Pauley, John and Urs Gasser. Born Digital: Understanding the First Generation of Digital Natives. New York: Basic Books, 2008