Millennials + Learning Technology = ???


A frequent and always interesting topic of conversation amongst my peer group at Penn State is whether or not the Millennial generation really are the super duper digital geniuses depicted by advocates like Michael Wesch. Personally, having witnessed a 3-year-old turn on a computer, load an internet browser, navigate to a website, and start playing games, I'm inclined to believe that the kids coming up through the K-12 ranks today are a lot different, if not far more advanced technically, than those of us from the (gasp) pre-computer days.

But the question that I find intriguing is if they really are different, should we be adapting our teaching to meet the needs of this new breed of learner? If so, how? Some of my classmates and I attempted an experiment that would measure the effectiveness of single and multi modal educational technologies on recognition and recall in an online environment. We had a slew of control variables we wanted to examine, one of which was age (hoping to differentiate between the Millennials & everyone else by demographic lines), "Power User Status" (which differentiated between people's comfort, interest, and actual use of a variety of technologies in everyday life), and multitasking ability.

Because of time constraints (cramming the experiment into the confines of a semester) we could not get a large enough sample to use age as a control variable, however we were able to to look at Power User Status and multitasking ability as well as perception to gain some interesting insights.

In our study, we found that there was a relationship between lesson modality, learning effectiveness and perception. Overall, learners do appear to exhibit better recognition when given a lesson making use of audio+outline (i.e. PowerPoint). However, recall was not significantly impacted by lesson modality. Learners also appear to have more positive (or negative) perceptions of certain learning modalities based on their power user or multitasker level. This is consistent with the speculations of Marathe et al. (2007).

Some analyses in our study displayed an apparent relationship but failed to rise to the level of significance. One example of this was the number of hours online and performance on the lesson. While those spending a higher amount of time online did appear to have a higher preference for multimodal lesson types, their recognition and recall performance wasn’t significantly different from those spending less time online. Power users also followed this trend with those classified as low power users finding the multimodal lessons much easier to follow than the high power users. Again however, high and low power users did not exhibit significantly different performance in recognition or recall.

This apparent disconnect between perception and performance is a very interesting finding for a couple of reasons. First, our expectation was that learners would perform better in the modality for which they have the greatest preference. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it calls into question whether the design of systems based on users’ preferences is necessarily resulting in an educationally superior product.

So, what about those Millennials? If we make the mental leap that Millennials = power users + multitaskers, we might speculate on which technologies and whal kinds of educational environments might be most effective. For example, a technology savvy power user who functions at a high level may perform worse in a rigidly constructed environment because it is restrictive and becomes frustrating for them to use. Conversely, low multitaskers may easily become overwhelmed in certain modality conditions that contain high levels of personalization or multiple modalities at play simultaneously.

The practical implications associated might allow for the design of future systems where personalization could be designed not only to allow the lesson to be customized based on the lesson content but also based on individual characteristics of each learner. This ability to tailor learning to an individual based on preference has exciting and potentially revolutionary implications for the way in which teaching and learning is accomplished in the online classrooms of the future.

For future research, we would like to look at the perception and effectiveness of more "natural" environments of a variety of educational modalities. For example, podcasts that include a variety of auditory cues and more professional production techniques compared to the homegrown podcasts being utilized by many faculty today that feature a lecture-based recording without bells and whistles. Another comparison could be the typical bullet-based PowerPoint lecture versus the currently hyped Presentation Zen type presentation format.

Obviously more work needs to be done on the relationship between learner performance and their classification as technologically savvy. The small sample in our study limited just how thoroughly this relationship could be examined and a follow-up study with a larger sample would allow this area to be better defined. While our study indicated difference in preference among power users and multitaskers, determining if a performance relationship exists would be much more informative in terms of design considerations that promote more effective learning outcomes.

One final item that merits future research consideration is the role that learner type might play in determining the optimal delivery modality. Given that certain learners prefer material to be presented to them in a certain way, visually for instance, it would be interesting to fully assess an individual’s preferred learning style and then determine if their preference is related to their actual performance. Our findings showed that preference and performance were not always compatible as in the case of multitaskers whose preference was for full-text and audio despite their performance being worst in that condition.

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9 thoughts on “Millennials + Learning Technology = ???

  1. Hi, it's Anne!

    Love this, such a great and important thing to think about! While I
    think the millennial are definitely multi-taskers as a whole, I have
    been questioning whether they are really power users. They're flooded
    with technology, but after teaching undergrad classes here I was
    surprised at how often they stumbled over plenty of computer/website
    stuff that I had to teach them, and it seemed they knew just enough
    about their cell phones and other gadgets to make them work, but
    weren't really power users in a sense that they knew them inside and
    out. It also seemed many of them had never thought to customize many
    things I figured they'd be all over making their own. So while they are
    certainly immersed in current tech trends and culture, I've seen so far
    that they are certainly not experts. Maybe in fall I will actively
    explore this.

  2. That's very interesting. Heh, I guess I'm part of that generation. We definitely multitask a lot more, but at least for me, the internet isn't absolutely everything. You still have to sift through a lot of the same stuff to find something more thorough (unless you know exactly where to look the first time around). I might be one of the few people that shuns Wikipedia because that's not guaranteed to be accurate. Anyway, I've been trying to learn some of the Adobe suite on my own and I've noticed a few things: there are a lot of tutorials. Not all of them are good. There are some good ones, but a book would really help enhance the whole learning experience. People try to put up the basics, but I've found I don't necessarily absorb everything I read online as easily as I might when I read it and/or have it demonstrated. Um. Yeah, I think that sums it up for the time being, lol

  3. Another friend sent this to me through Facebook. I think you'll appreciate her perspective too. She is interested in doing a joint-project sometime which could pull in students from another campus. I'd love to work with you on something too.:) Hi Shannon- Great post! It was interesting to see your findings. I'm
    pretty sure I participated in your study (there was a link to it from
    Facebook, no?), but still fall in the Gen X category so I can't claim
    to speak for Millenials. However, one thing that I've found interesting
    with the class I teach to freshmen/sophomores is that they are not as
    tech savvy as you would think. I would agree with Anne's comments, and
    think that all too often when speaking about Millenials, the literature
    assumes that they are comfortable with ALL technology. This is simply
    not the case… Are they familiar with Facebook, YouTube, cellphones, and email? Yes. GoogleDocs? Skype? Blackboard? Sometimes. Blogs, RSS, wikis, podcasts, Second Life, Wiggio/Zoho, and the like? Not so much. And
    the middle or the latter category tend to be the domain of cutting edge
    professors who want to be innovative in their use of technology in the
    classroom. But no one bothers differentiating between which
    technologies Millenials are comfortable/familiar with; I regularly have
    students who have issues with basic features of Word and Excel. So does
    that mean that I'm advocating dumbing down the technology that faculty
    are using in the classroom? Not at all- I think we're doing students a
    service to incorporate these technologies into our instruction. It's a
    part of the information literacy that they need as graduates. However,
    I think it's about time for Boomers and Gen Xer's to be honest about
    the technical know-how of the Millenials they serve. Granted, all of my
    experience is anecdotal- but I would love to see further research on
    this question as well: How much do Millenials really know, when it
    comes to technology?

  4. Amen to that Stephe! I am also teaching myself most tech things. I've never had any formal training except for a few workshops here and there. I Google everything like crazy, and as you said, it's hit or miss. Some tutorials are good, some aren't. That actually opens up a whole career path… technical communication. To do it really well, you have to be able to think at the most basic, detailed, linear level as well as at a grander, more global, creative manner anticipating what people might be trying to do. We need more of those people.

  5. Yes we do. LBeeeze and I were talking about that sort of thing not too long ago. We realized that while developers come out with these really powerful programs, they might not remember that everyone has to start from the beginning. They need the very basics so that they can get started and want the chance to learn more. If you start out with something really complicated, no one will want to learn the program because it's too frustrating

  6. Yep. And I would add that even popular programs that have been out forever (e.g. PhotoShop) have newbies coming in all the time. I think organizations start to assume "everybody knows that" and they skip the basic stuff in favor of preaching to their already-established choir.Having been one of those newbies and quit trying to use program I feel like I *should* already know, I have just quit trying sometimes.

  7. hey shannon- can you delete the post above? vox is being really weird- that's a partial version of what i sent you a few days ago on facebook. thanks!

  8. Deleted… Vox can be annoying at times. I posted your comment above anyway, did you see it? It was to a friend in the program here (acidcookie) who is also really into this stuff.:)

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