Teaching the Dot.com Generation:
As the digital platform has evolved, so too has the millennial mind. A lifetime of exposure to digital media has resulted in a complete rewiring in how millennials receive and process information, an alteration that has greatly impacted the learning preferences of today’s students. Despite this reality, educators continue to adhere to traditional pedagogical approaches and in doing so are not effectively reaching today’s students. Educators must appreciate the cognitive and behavioral differences that have stemmed from millennials’ lifelong exposure to digital media and be willing to stride away from once tried-and-true methods to cultivate an environment that capitalizes upon millennials’ strengths and interests.
Traditionally, educators have placed heavy emphasis on the development of students’ cognitive skills. Through passive lectures or assigned readings, instructional material has been disseminated to students with the expectation that once students develop a degree of competency, they will be able to put learned knowledge into practice. Aside from formative assessments at a semester’s end, little time or attention has been devoted to helping students develop an ability to apply new material they learn. The problem with this approach is twofold. Not only is this passive form of instruction not capturing the engagement of today’s “what’s in it for me?” students, but it is also not well attuned to the way in which millennials receive and process information.
Since their youth, millennials have been exposed to technology, technology that is purposefully engineered to teach through trial and error. As a result, millennials are most attuned to developing knowledge through application and experience. To improve student outcomes, teaching models must be revolutionized to foster an active learning environment that is supportive of millennial learning preferences, an environment that is dynamic, conversational, and problem-oriented. Course instruction must shift from the transfer of information from teacher to student to one wherein the instructor enables students to employ skills in order to create knowledge—a learning environment that readily allows students to connect new information to what they already know. Modern technologies must be incorporated into the classroom, with digital modalities recognized as tools to further specific learning objectives, not just regarded as alternative mediums through which information can be transferred to students. Fostering an active, technologically savvy learning environment that caters to the characteristics and interests of millennial students will give rise to increased student engagement and improved academic outcomes.
Using a combination of hybrid and flipped methodologies will enable educators to simultaneously promote the development of both cognitive and behavioral competencies. Educators will find that the development of each will mutually support the development of the other, in turn leading to improved student outcomes.
The millennial model
Traditionally, students have developed a foundational understanding of new educational material through the transfer of content either in class or through assigned readings. This form of delivery is not ideal for millennials. Millennials receive the majority of their information through multimedia modalities—modalities that have been intentionally designed so that key material jumps out at readers without their needing to expend effort or work to comprehend it. Moreover, as reported by Raymond Papp and Erika Matulich in Negotiating the Deal: Using Technology to Reach the Millennials, these are students who “upon entry into higher-ed institutions [have] logged less than 5,000 hours reading.” Simply put, millennials do not possess the same quality of comprehension skills as their predecessors did. This is not to say that the future of higher education is a lost cause; however, educators must embrace the reality that traditional passive modes of delivery need to be altered.
Course reading can remain a part of the curriculum, but additional guidance must be offered to assist millennials as they develop their comprehension skills. For instance, take-home activities can be incorporated and used to guide students through their initial exposure to material while also offering the flexibility to review the material on their own time and in their own place. Educators will find that in time, as students complete these activities, they will not only gain a foundational understanding (the ability to recognize and define key terms) but also develop an ability to decipher between requisite and superfluous content, skills supportive of improved comprehension. Allowing students to develop foundational knowledge on their own time and in their own place, while providing guidance, will retain millennial engagement and support their academic development.
System thinking … please wait
Incorporating digital mediums such as personal learning networks (PLNs), social media, and gaming applications will further assist millennials in developing the ability to comprehend and interpret new material. A PLN is a virtual learning environment wherein an individual makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that something will be learned as a result of the interaction. Most millennials maintain multiple PLNs at any given time (think Pinterest, Facebook, and Storify) and are well versed in using them. While most millennials associate PLNs with social purposes, PLNs can be used to advance defined learning objectives. In essence, educators should view PLNs as a virtual form of classroom.
PLNs are created using digital curation tools such as Pinterest, Scoop.it, Storify, and Diigo. While PLNs are less formal than a traditional class, curation tools offer educational resources that allow instructors to maintain control over the learning environment (for example, Diigo offers a “Teacher Console” that enables a professor to create and manage student accounts). Unlike a traditional class where the instructor sets the pace and flow, a PLN engages every student, allowing each to incorporate new material within his or her own mental schema, experiences, and interests. Curation tools offer functionalities that will facilitate conversation between other members within the PLN (e.g., other classmates, professors, and community scholars), providing continued opportunities for students to offer opinions and receive feedback—acts that in turn will heighten their contextual understanding of course content.
Other social media resources such as blogs, Twitter, hashtags, and Snapchat will further facilitate millennials’ comprehension of new material. HiFi, one of the newest social media platforms, allows individuals to offer ideas and opinions to others within a self-defined virtual community. The CEO of HiFi, Winder Hughes, described the app in Tech and Innovation, July 2014, as a platform that encourages users to generate content and interact with others in the community by “one-upping” user-generated content through the introduction of new ideas or opinions. Use of HiFi and other social networking applications provides tools that can be used to promote self-reflection and inquiry, essential steps needed to advance novice students’ cognitive skills.
Gaming devices offer yet another resource to support the development of millennials’ cognitive skills. Gaming captures the interest of millennials, as it offers a familiar environment that can be customized to one’s personal interests and one in which the risk of failure is nonexistent (the game can always be reset and the student can try again). By nature, gaming devices demand a player employ problem-solving skills, and thus they are supportive of students’ cognitive development. Games also offer a continuous stream of updates and feedback, providing millennials with constant affirmation (something this generation seems to demand) along with guidance needed to refine analytical understanding of the proper application of new concepts. Gaming can be incorporated into instruction fairly easily through use of user-friendly gaming development programs such as AppNotch and GameSalad.
Possibilities such as these offer the opportunity to enrich the student-professor relationship and transform the academic environment into one that is modernized, interactive, and personalized to students’ interests. Promoting the use of virtual learning will not only stimulate engagement but also support improved student outcomes.
Fostering an online learning environment wherein millennials develop those skills that have traditionally been fostered in class enables educators to “flip” the classroom environment into one that is both interactive and hands-on. Millennials thrive when in the driver’s seat, able to heighten their understanding through guided, trial-and-error, problem-solving experiences. Creating class opportunities for millennials to demonstrate their learning through simulations, demonstrations, and peer-learning activities will allow students to start to apply new content while receiving real-time feedback from seasoned instructors. Not only will this authenticate the learning experience, but it also will enable students to employ a full array of analytical skills as they alter and restructure their comprehension of new concepts. Altering teaching models to foster a classroom environment where millennials can develop knowledge through application will lead to heightened engagement and improved student success.
Creating opportunities for millennials to apply behavioral and cognitive skills to real-world problems will further support millennials’ academic development. Offering millennials the opportunity to see and experience the “real world” application of what may otherwise be regarded as material “important only for school” will help transform knowledge learned in class into lifelong habits. Further, placing millennials in situations where real people are depending on their knowledge and skills will serve as a source of motivation to confront and correct academic deficiencies that may be impeding their cognitive growth. Incorporating experiential learning opportunities and practical problem solving in the curriculum will result in increased engagement and academic growth.
Millennials are unique, unlike any cohort that has previously walked the halls of our schools. As millennial enrollment continues to rise, traditional teaching approaches must be revolutionized to foster an environment that capitalizes on the learning strengths and interests of today’s students. As described by Marc Prensky in Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, the difficulty in moving forward is that those tasked with unlocking millennials’ true academic potential are from a pre-digital age. As we move forward, educators must be forthcoming about their own misgivings and willing to work alongside millennials to gain an appreciation for the way in which millennials receive and process information. As they develop a heightened understanding of the cognitive and analytical strengths of millennials, educators must be willing to abandon tried-and-true teaching pedagogies and explore new approaches that expose the unchartered potential millennial characteristics stand to offer. Exciting horizons unknown to us all are at the forefront. Hand in hand with millennials, let us be the catalysts that drive the dawning of a new digital pedagogy.
Kristin Pawlowski is a legal practitioner and educator at Florida Coastal School of Law who focuses her scholarship on the millennial generation, having presented on the topic at the New England Consortium of Academic Support Professionals’ Annual Conference in 2014.