When Generations Collide: Generational Differences in the Online Classroom

When Generations Collide: Generational Differences in the Online Classroom

The online classroom offers a unique learning opportunity because of the diverse nature of students that you are likely to find in your classes. Often when we think about diversity in education it is in terms of race and culture; however, due to the anonymity of the online environment those differences are not readily known. Generational differences are another aspect of diversity in online classes, which can enrich class discussions. 

Online schools are known for attracting non-traditional students because the virtual classroom is available at all hours to those who may not be able to attend regularly scheduled classes at a campus location. This availability also appeals to working adults who are balancing other responsibilities. According to the National Center for Education Statistics report, The Condition of Education 2011 – 49% of students are enrolled part-time, 38% have full-time jobs, and 27% have dependents. The term non-traditional also refers to the varying ages that can be found within an online class – with 34 as the average age of an online student.

The questions that students can consider for this type of diversity in the online classroom include:
•    Do these differences have an impact on how students can relate to each another in the class or does the online environment neutralize differences because students don’t see each other and cannot automatically make visual assessments?
•    Does it influence the instructor’s involvement in the course if they are aware of these differences?
From my experience as a former online student and a current online instructor, students should be aware of the differences only for the purpose of learning how to understand perspectives that are different from their own. 

Generations Defined

You are likely to find varying dates for the four primary categories of generations; however, the following is a list that represents the most common breakdown by year of birth:
•    Traditionalists (born between the years 1925 – 1942)
•    Baby boomers (born between the years 1943 and 1960)
•    Generation X (born between the years 1961 – 1981)
•    Millennials or Generation Y (born between the years 1982 – 2000)

Everybody is a product of the time period they grew up in because they were influenced by major events in society and these occurrences helped to shape their worldview. Researchers at Texas Tech University provide some of the most significant events for each generation:
•    Traditionalists: WW I and WW II, roaring twenties, great depression, Pearl Harbor, Korean war, atomic bomb
•    Baby boomers: civil rights, space race, Vietnam war, energy crisis, Watergate
•    Generation X: Challenger disaster, the fall of the Berlin Wall, Persian Gulf war, AIDS
•    Millennials or Generation Y: World Trade Center and Pentagon attack, Internet access made available, globalization

Generational Differences 

Differences among the generations are also evident in their approach to education and academic achievement. 

1. Baby boomers: What is most significant about this group is that they are now returning to school, especially because of the availability of online degree programs. A report by EDUCAUSE about generational differences finds that Boomers are becoming the new or non-traditional student – and cites the working mom who is balancing other responsibilities as an example of a student you are likely to find in your online class.

2. Generation X characteristics include a sense of being independent, resourceful and self-sufficient, and they are technologically adept, flexible and place an emphasis on work/life balance. This is in contrast to baby boomers, who often experience a steep learning curve when working with new technology.

3. Millennials or Generation Y: According to a study titled Adapting Teaching to the Millennial Generation, millennials have a distinct attitude about achievement. Here are some of the findings of this study:
•    Positive aspects: With educational competitiveness having risen to the top of America’s political agenda during their childhood, standards of excelling drives them.
•    Negative aspects: They are pressured to achieve, which drives them but also pressures them to perform often disregarding ethical behavior.

What this last sentence is referring to is most likely related to the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), which was signed by President Bush in 2001. It created a requirement that all K-12 students must be able to pass their state tests by 2013 with further action and sanctions for both students and teachers if these requirements are not met. It places accountability on the schools for specified outcomes, which in turn puts pressure on students to perform and do well on their assessments. This has certainly influenced the millennials’ view of education.

An Instructor’s Perspective

Often with the online classroom (especially within the for-profit industry), the approach to education is one-size-fits all. What I’m referring to are the pre-developed materials, assignments, and learning activities that instructors receive when they begin facilitating a course. Instructors typically have little flexibility with the course design and their individual teaching style comes into play when they provide feedback and or post discussion messages. This leaves instructors with little flexibility to change or adapt the curriculum, if changes are needed as a means of addressing specific generational needs.

Transformational learning can take place in a class where different generations are represented; regardless of the materials of course design. Outside of the classroom adults acquire knowledge informally through social interactions, the media, news sources, etc. – and they develop views and opinions based upon this information. In contrast, the process of formalized education helps them become aware of other views, opinions, beliefs, and alternate ways of thinking. As students consider other perspectives they become transformed and learning occurs. As an instructor, I encourage students to accept these differences and find ways of relating to each other.

Working Together, Overcoming Differences

There are three aspects to take into consideration when working with students who are from a different generation than your own: their values, communication style, and preference for interactions.

1. Values: If you understand what someone else values, you may be able to find a way of relating to them. The following is a list of common values for the three generational types you are likely to encounter in your class:
•    Baby boomers: they are often competitive, hard workers, and prefer teamwork.
•    Generation X: they prefer independence and creativity, seek quality of work life, and need constant feedback.
•    Millennials or Generation Y: their values include money, technology, diversity, and autonomy.

2. Communication Style: According to The Challenge of Teaching Across Generations (Faculty Focus, p. 15), different cultural references and language usage can be obstacles. What this means is that we often make generation-specific references in our communication and we may use language specific to that generation. For example, millennials may utilize the abbreviated text messaging language when posting messages in the classroom. In order to work together, a common language needs to be used.

3. Preferred types of interactions. The following is a list of interactive styles for each generation, as noted by Texas Tech University:
•    Traditionalists prefer individual interactions.
•    Baby Boomers consider themselves team players and enjoy meetings.
•    Generation X have an entrepreneurial spirit and like to network.
•    Millennials or Generation Y are participative in nature.

As you read through the general descriptions, which are generalization and not necessarily indicative of the traits any one member of the generation will have, you may wonder how it is possible that you can know what category other students fall into when you are in an environment that does not all you to visually observe them. When it becomes evident is through the messages that students post – specifically when students provide comments about their age or reluctance to learn new technology.

You are likely to find that students from other generations add depth to class discussions and can expand your perspective of the world. When you do discover differences, develop connections through your academic and professional goals, along with the learning objectives of a particular course. You can look for something in common by asking questions. For example, if you lack of knowledge about a particular computer program, ask a student about it who mentions having a lot of experience with programs. In other words, don’t just state your differences; look for ways to relate with other students. When different generations work together, the learning process can be enriched.

Share your thoughts about generational differences and similarities via Twitter @DrBruceJ.

By Dr. Bruce Johnson

Photo © Chuck Savage/CORBIS

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