Erik P.M. Vermeulen

@erikpmvermeulen

What “Millennials” Demand from Education

How “Teaching” has Changed in a Digital Age

Photo by Jonathan Marks
I love teaching…

… and I am very lucky.

I have the opportunity to teach at several universities around the world. It’s so much fun to experience different cultures and traditions, and manage the diverse expectations of the next generation.

Not everyone agrees with this point of view, however. Some colleagues prefer focusing on research and view teaching as more of a hassle than an opportunity.

Clearly, they are wrong.

“Done right”, teaching and research complement each other. You learn so much when you teach.

This is particularly true in a digital age.

The world has really changed. Education has become less about the transfer of “fact”-based information/knowledge and much more about exploring and building the future together with the students.

There are some significant changes in the way the current generation of students study and work.

And here I don’t mean that students want to use more technological tools in the classroom. What I have learned is that the digital age is not only about the emergence of new and sometimes disruptive technologies (such as artificial intelligence, Internet of Things, etc.). It is foremost about a new way of living, working and, of course, learning.

The students’ expectations are different.

Teaching and Learning in a Digital Age

What is interesting is that these new expectations seem to converge among different cultures. We can see the emergence of a “global digital culture”.

Of course, there are still important differences between teaching students in the United States, Europe, Asia or South America. Yet, the “millennial generation” seems to have a very similar set of expectations and demands when it comes to education regardless of where they come from.

This has become particularly noticeable during the last two to three years, hinting that the “millennial generation” is more of a “mind-set” than a particular age.

I really believe that understanding this new mind-set is the key to improving education, and is a crucial step in mapping the contours of a digital age.

Recently, I posted two stories on Medium on this topic. The responses to these stories triggered me to change the format of my “Creative Thinking” class.

The “Apprentice” model

The focus of the “Creative Thinking” course had always been on teamwork and multidisciplinary learning, but this year I made it more of an “apprentice-style” class (inspired by the television show “The Apprentice”).

Students work in groups on a new assignment every two weeks. During the lectures, they receive the necessary background information, examples and other relevant theoretical and practical information regarding the assignment.

Their work (varying from designing a “potentially disruptive” product, making a video, drafting a policy paper, coming up with a storytelling strategy, etc.) is then assessed by a group of experts with different expertise and skills.

The tasks are all “forward-looking”, covering the challenges of a digital age. The solutions are not always obvious and a premium is put on working together to find original solutions.

We are now half-way through the course and there are several important takeaways.

The “digital age” and “millennial generation” aren’t just buzzwords.

New technology is driving an important shift in our culture and society, and this is both important and real.

What I have also learned is that the young generation is in love with technology and the endless possibilities such technologies offer.

They want to learn more about emerging technologies, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain and smart contracts.

And yet, perhaps the most important observation is that the students genuinely believe that new technologies have made existing and traditional models, policies and practices obsolete.

Every area of life has been disrupted by technology and the students are intuitively aware of this fact and are “at home” in this fast-changing world.

The students “expect” education to help them prepare for the new opportunities and challenges of the digital age.

Five Expectations of the “Millennial Generation”

Here are five “demands” of the millennial generation that have become clear to me from the first “apprentice” tasks.

#1 — “Challenge me . . . and let me challenge you”

Technology has always helped improve the way we teach.

For instance, computers and the Internet have greatly increased access to information. What distinguishes the digital age is the instant and almost effortless possibilities of accessing this much greater pool of knowledge.

Students are all hooked to their screens and instantly check out and verify topics that are discussed in class. Instead of passively accepting and memorizing facts, the millennial generation want independent confirmation of what it is they are being told. Healthy scepticism is their default response.

Students want to be challenged by thinking about the future and how they can contribute to building a better society and environment. But, they also want to be able to challenge me about what I am telling them.

The result? A more dynamic and interactive classroom experience for everyone.

#2 — “Don’t ‘teach’ me . . . augment my experience”

The current generation of students don’t feel the need to become “textbook smart”.

They know that “facts” can be easily found “online” through their own independent action. In a world of open access to knowledge, it makes little sense to rely on the classroom as a forum for the transfer of knowledge.

Instead, the students much prefer to learn from the stories and experiences of others. These shared stories and experiences helps them to “augment” their own experience by learning from the success and mistakes of others. This helps them avoid making the same mistakes as their “influencers”.

The capacity to weave facts into a larger narrative becomes the key. As such, the focus of the in-class experience needs to be on providing opportunities for constructing, sharing and “selling” such stories.

#3 — “Build my capacity for entrepreneurship”

The millennial generation realizes that traditional career paths are not available anymore. Nor do these traditional role models interest or inspire them. Everyone understands that they need to be more entrepreneurial and everyone wishes to be more entrepreneurial.

This generation of student understand that jobs are and will become more flexible. They want to explore the possibility of starting their own business. Also, they want to know what they should do to become part of bigger platforms, such as Amazon, etc.

As such, education should provide them with a platform for experimentation. Education needs to be about gaining experience that is useful in the real world and offering the opportunity to make mistakes and build core capacities.

#4 — “Prepare me for a ‘flatter’ world”

The millennial generation understands that the exponential growth of new technologies offers a level playing field.

In a digital age, old hierarchies, as well as traditional roles and backgrounds, matter much less than before.

Market value is (and will become) more contingent on personal talent and skills. On this type of account, education must be about creativity and self-direction.

#5 — “Inspire me… and give me freedom and responsibility”

New Technologies have made it possible to work anytime and from any place. Technology is enormously empowering.

What I have learned is that millennials are able to come up with amazing and creative solutions, if they are given an inspiring task and the freedom and responsibility to complete that task.

In order to tap into their talent, it is crucial to offer students meaningful and challenging assignments.

Students now demand this combination of inspiration, freedom and responsibility. The millennial generation is quick to “switch off” if they do not feel engaged. A lack of interest can easily be mistaken for apathy.

What has become very clear to me already is that a more open and constructive way of teaching is necessary to be able to adapt the format and content of the course to continuously meet the wishes and demands of the millennial generation.

What’s Next?

When we talk about the “digital age”, we tend to focus on the new technologies. This is necessary, but millennials are particularly interested in how these technologies are transforming their lives.

Unfortunately, so much of what passes for education today (and there are, of course, exceptions) fails to offer something meaningful to “millennials”. This is where many of the problems and misunderstandings about education in a digital age begin.

What we need to be doing is to better understand the digital age and to re-design our whole approach to education based on the needs of this new and fast changing reality.

Thank you for reading! Please click and hold the 👏 below, or leave a comment.

There is a new story every week. So if you follow me you won’t miss my latest insights about how the digital age is changing the way we live and work.

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