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Harbinger MythBusters: Generational Differences in Learning

What’s the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about adult learning? Who do you think would enjoy learning from video versus in class instruction? Who is more inclined to use newer technologies to learn? In this week’s MythBuster, Krista Schaber-Chan breaks down the misconception of generational differences in learning.

It’s funny how quickly people can jump to conclusions, especially when looking at demographics such as age. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say or have read articles that state baby boomers do no like learning online, or that millennials love technology, which isn’t the case at all.  Take a look at Colin for example.  One would assume he would be excited about artificial intelligence, while on the contrary, he’s anything but!  And yet “the idea that millennials are far quicker to welcome new technology than their older colleagues is so familiar by now that it’s become one of those stereotypes that just won’t go away.”

Learning has always been a passion of mine. I am an avid reader (I read at least five books a month) and am constantly taking courses to develop and grow. In fact, there was a day where the team was joking about how they all have at least one development book I have given them. When I’m not persuading the team to read, I do think about the intricacies of learning and how these stereotypes affect the way we approach learning.

Personally, I have been pigeon-holed into a generational group that is predominantly independent and prefers structured learning environments (e.g. in-class instruction) and small groups.   While I would agree that all of these are valid descriptions of how I enjoy learning, I’m also a fan of online learning and video.

Online education is a growing trend and here’s why. It’s accessible, making it possible for more people than ever to learn in a flexible environment. There are also many courses available in varying formats to fit individual preferences like Sarah and Lynda. Finally, more Ivy league or world-renowned schools are offering unique courses attracting global audiences like never before. I’ve taken several online courses and it’s been interesting to see how they are using different approaches to engage students.

The one that has stood out to me the most would be the artificial intelligence (AI) course I completed with MIT earlier this year. I decided to take the course because of my strong interest in AI but was pleasantly surprised to find how engaging it was. They had three different levels of human engagement which included:

  1. Online chat that you could connect with and ask questions at anytime;

  2. A virtual teacher’s assistant (TA) located in Santiago, Chile. He reviewed all our assignments and could easily be contacted through the online portal or via email; and

  3. A digital platform like Yammer which was used by the students to collaborate and connect. It was a requirement to spend a specific amount of time on here and to also complete a group exercise where you had to get feedback on your theories from your peers within this platform in order to complete the course.

These options were great as they allowed me to learn from others with their own unique experiences and expertise. What’s more is I had a lot of fun doing the course and meeting new people! Unfortunately, I’ve also had the opposite experience with another online course provided by one of North America’s top schools. This particular course did not have the same interactive pieces and most of the communication was completed via email. Unsurprisingly I did not complete the course.

Video is another trend and when done right, it is incredibly engaging for all demographics. The key here is not only content but length. It’s important for videos to be used to complement the other learning activities taking place such as in-class instruction and they should not exceed 15 minutes. Ted Talks are a great example of how video learning can be done right.

Podcasts are also taking the world by storm and in fact, more than one hundred million Americans listen to them on a monthly basis. The reasons for the strong increase in popularity and using it to learn again relates back to flexibility but also because many people enjoy learning through sound versus screens or reading.

As you can see, there are many different channels and mediums to use for learning today making it more important than ever for companies to take note by letting go of the stereotypes related to generational learning and by providing a variety of learning tools so that their people can grow. Not only are most of these tools affordable, but they require minimal management and you can just about find any topic you need.



Krista Schaber-Chan Managing Partner Toronto



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