e-Learning Across the Generation Gaps

e-Learning courses and materials for online consumption are sometimes designed from a single point of view. This loses sight of the fact that a typical training course may be taken by learners from all walks of life – and all age groups.

Each demographic has its own behaviour patterns (a blend of past experience, contemporary culture, and the prevailing “Spirit of the Times”), and has its own preferred methods of learning.

The Mobile Generation

People born from the year 2000 to date are broadly categorised as “Digital Natives”. They’ve been exposed to digital technology since birth, progressing through a school environment populated with tablets, laptops, and Web-connected smart boards. At home and on the street, smartphones, phablets, social media and wireless Internet technology are second nature.

For them, learning is a digital experience – preferably a quick, light, and mobile one. Textbooks, blackboards, and the trappings of “traditional” learning won’t do. And as this generation moves toward adulthood in 2020, this situation is set to continue.

Millennials Today

“Millennials” make up the group of individuals born between 1980 and 2000. They’ve witnessed the evolution of the Internet and digital technologies, but for them, access to these materials in formal education may not have been so widespread.

They nonetheless place a high value on connectivity – both as a means of staying in contact with friends and associates, and as their primary source of information.

The Adult Net

Those born between about 1964 and 1980 are dubbed “Generation X”. This generation saw the transition of computer technology from the lab, academia, and the battlefield to a mainstream consumer product. Windows, Apple Mac, the first removable storage media, and the first moves toward localised networks heralded the arrival of computers as an integral part of formal education.

The “Baby Boomers” make up the generation born from 1945 to 1964. Growing up, the first (massive, mainframe) computers were the stuff of the Space Race, or science fiction becoming fact. Their education was very much in the “traditional” style, with classrooms, blackboards and instructors – and these ties to earlier methods still persist.

The Dilemma

MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses), further education schemes, corporate training and other digital resources may draw in participants from all these age groups. This represents a huge range of learning styles – not all of which may be ideally suited to the same material.

The challenge for educators, facilitators, and e-Learning at large is to understand the needs and expectations of each group, and to adapt the materials, tools, and presentation to engage and empower learners from all the participant generations.

The trick is to use the digital tools available to create learning environments wide-ranging and flexible enough to accommodate each generation’s preferred methods of learning, while achieving the desired training outcomes across the board.

Paving the Way

An important first step for e-Learning course design is an assessment of each participant’s level of digital literacy. This means establishing how familiar and comfortable they are with the digital technologies that are going to be used. It should also be determined how skilled they are at using them, and any previous experience they’ve had with the tools or the course material itself.

Sounds daunting, but all this can be gathered from a simple form attached to the introductory email you send out for the course. Armed with this information, instructors and course facilitators will have a record of each learner’s preferred style of learning, and an indication of their skill-sets.

A Steady Course

Online course instructors will need to employ the full range of Web 2.0 tools and resources to make the e-Learning environment engaging and instructive to all demographics, and adaptive enough to enhance the learning styles preferred by each age group, and each individual.

Typically, this will require a blend of techniques, media, and resources. Remember that you may have the same learning objective in mind for everyone – but each person will have to achieve that goal in his or her own way.

Negotiating the Bumps

It won’t all be smooth sailing. Learners may hit roadblocks, and experience problems along the way. Instructors and facilitators must be prepared to step in with personal assistance, tools to help, and links to online resources most likely to assist a particular learner in meeting the challenge.

Cross-fertilization may help, so encourage learners to participate in discussion forums. Here, they can be exposed to others on the course who may have a different skill-set or outlook – one that might be just what they were looking for, to meet their specific need.

The Road Ahead

According to “Mobile Learning: The Time is Now”, a 2012 report by e-Learning Guild Research, around 70% of the major learning companies will by now be using mobile devices to deliver content. Of these, over a quarter are using mobile apps, or may look to develop their own in future.

As increasing numbers of organisations adopt digital learning delivery, the generational aspect can kick in again, as younger age groups adopt the new technologies early, leaving their older colleagues in the shade.

To guard against this divide, organisations should take steps to:

  • Understand the demographic mix of their learners now, and 5 years from now, factoring in elements like remote working, flexi-time, and travel frequency.
  • Bring in partners if required, to offer skills assessments, consultancy, and support services.
  • Convince senior management of the benefits of eLearning from the outset.
  • Encourage dialogue and mutual support between different age groups and different departments, so everyone may benefit from the mix of skills.

Age diversity need not be a challenge; it can be an asset, as well. So train and use it, wisely.

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