Bridging Multigenerational Gaps in the Online Classroom
As American society becomes increasingly specialized and industrialized, age cohorts tend to operate separately in the spheres of work, leisure, and education. Intergenerational learning and shared labor, such as what existed in rural farming or urban immigrant communities at the beginning of the 20th century, are increasingly rare. Of the generations currently in the workplace, only those born prior to 1945 have experienced a mutually beneficial multigenerational environment. Although technology has driven this change, it has also created a new paradigm of multigenerational interaction in the online classroom. This article reviews current research on the multigenerational online classroom, identifies the defining characteristics of the different generations that may be present in a classroom, describes the challenges of a multigenerational online classroom, and suggests adapting a conceptual framework for the multigenerational workplace (called MEET) to enhance the multigenerational online classroom.
Background and Literature Review
The online and blended (hybrid) classroom is increasingly becoming a site of multigenerational learning. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Education indicates that 38 percent of all college students are age 25 and older (Snyder & Dillow, 2010). Advisors of online learners have noted that the average age of students has been increasing over the years for several reasons:
- The high cost of tertiary education, which forces some people to delay their education until they can pay for it
- The presence of the Baby Boomer generation in the workplace
- Enhanced life expectancy
- The availability of online education
- Higher numbers of graduate students
- The need for retraining and career change
- The uncertain economic climate
At UMUC, where the number of all students age 25 and older is 86 percent (University of Maryland University College, 2009), the multigenerational online classroom is already a reality. UMUC has always served working adults, but we continue to matriculate recent high school graduates and young adults; this aspect may be due to a consistently increasing number of individuals in that age group in the last decade (Snyder & Dillow, 2010) and/or because UMUC provides a financially sound path for higher education compared to the expenses of attending a traditional bricks-and-mortar institution for those who want to go to college right after (or shortly after) high school.
The anecdotal experiences of faculty indicate that best practices for adapting the e-classroom to different age cohorts do exist, although indicators for a conceptual framework have not been developed. In fact, one must extrapolate from the research in related and complementary areas such as adult education, online education, gerontology, management, anthropology, social theory, and English as a second language (ESL) to build a suitable framework for teaching and learning in an online classroom with learners spanning multiple generations. The typical adult student is aptly described by Brookfield (1986) as problem-centered, results-oriented, and self-directed. According to Brookfield, these learners lead complex lives, juggle competing responsibilities, and seek education that meets current needs. Coffman (2009) builds on Brookfield’s principles of andragogy with an interesting perspective on the different learning styles of multigenerational community band members, suggesting indicators for constructing a conceptual framework for multigenerational instruction. Wlodkowski (2008) offers suggestions for motivating adults by creating a culturally responsive classroom that embraces multiple cohorts. Recent studies of online ESL instruction by Parker (2008) and Tan (2009) concur with Wlodkowski that a climate of cultural inclusion is essential to online learning and should be modeled by the instructor.
Profiles of the Different Generations
According to Strauss and Howe (1997)—pioneers in the field of generational studies—a generation shares a time and space in history, leading to similar life experiences and a collective personality. According to their definition, a generation lasts the length of time of one phase of life.There are at least four generations in the modern American workforce. These generations are usually described as:
- Traditionalists (born before 1945)
- Baby Boomers (1945–1964)
- Generation X (1965–1979)
- Millennials or Generation Y (1980 and later)
To better understand today’s multigenerational workforce, human resource managers have summarized the profiles, seminal events, technology, and approach to learning of each generation.The collective personalities of each generation in the workplace have been described, defined, and summarized by diverse organizations from private consulting firms (Human Resource Solutions, 2009) to large lobbying groups (AARP, 2007). The table below provides an at-a-glance view of this information, defining the characteristics of the different generations:
|Traditionalists (born before 1945)||Baby Boomers (1945–1964)||Generation X (1965–1979)||Millennials or Generation Y (1980 and later)|
|Technology of the Era||Radio||Television||Personal computer||The Internet|
|Approach to Learning||Tell Me What to Do||Show Me What to Do||Why Do I Need to Learn This?||Connect Me to What I Need|
While one cannot generalize, members of the Traditionalist and Baby Boomer generations may be skeptical of new information yet seek education that applies directly to their professional or vocational needs. While they may be proficient in technology, they may also require reassurance that they will succeed in new educational endeavors. Generation Xers and the Millennials, on the other hand, are future-oriented and highly proficient in social networking and technology. They take education more for granted and are confident about professional success but may accept information uncritically as fact. Although we can identify different prevailing traits of generations, instructors should never stereotype their students based on age or generation or make assumptions about their students’ backgrounds. Regardless of age, students who are heavy technology users have similar characteristics in terms of teaching and learning. In addition, students’ online learning may be affected by many variables—including individual learning style, study skills, language skills, exposure to technology, socio-cultural differences, geography, and socio-economic status. As instructors, it is important to be aware of our own biases.
Challenges of the Multigenerational Online Classroom
The instructor who engages with multigenerational students needs to find ways to bridge “generational gaps” that may be present. The learning environment requires attention to a wider variety of student needs. Some of the challenges associated with teaching multigenerational learners online are as follows:
- Students have different levels of familiarity with technology and netiquette as well as different assumptions and interpersonal communication skills which could lead to fragmentation, cliques, inappropriate language, and disagreements.
- A multigenerational class usually presents different levels of preparedness, and a leveling of the technology playing field may require extra effort on the part of the instructor.
- Instructor flexibility and resourcefulness are important in finding work-arounds and alternate methods so that students with different language skills, learning styles, confidence levels, and attitudes toward education can all succeed.
Because generational differences can impact learning, it is important that instructors try to find out “who” is in their classrooms so that they are better prepared to help meet their needs.Participants at a session on the multigenerational classroom at the 2010 Maryland Distance Learning Association (MDLA) conference provided some tips and suggestions for learning about learners so that instructors can work with them successfully:
- Engage with students early using an introduction conference—elicit important information by structuring response criteria.
- Look for content that may suggest age group; older learners will often self-identify.
- Note differences in writing styles:
- Older learners tend to write more carefully, more formally, and in full sentences.
- Look for abbreviations (“u” instead of “you”) and so-called “LEET speak” that is common in texting, although this is less of a reliable indicator of age as older adults become more adept at using these abbreviations.
- Observe students’ comfort level with chat (IM) and technology resources (e.g. Wimba, document conversion).
A Conceptual Framework for Multigenerational E-Learning
Workplace training programs for inclusion, diversity, and respect provide some useful models to apply to multigenerational e-learning. The MEET approach (VisionPoint, 2006) uses the following framework to help overcome the complexities of working together effectively in a multigenerational workforce:
- M: Make time to discuss
- E: Explore differences
- E: Encourage respect
- T: Take responsibility
When used in the workplace, MEET can assist business leaders with minimizing generational conflict and strengthening collaboration among all employees. Because these same goals are also important in academia, it makes sense to adapt this framework to fit the needs of those in the classroom. Because classroom communication between instructors and students is two-way, the MEET model needs to be adapted for both parties. The adapted frameworks listed below highlight the responsibilities and good practices that both instructors and students should emulate to help create a welcoming, collaborative learning environment:
As UMUC instructors and practitioners, we can implement frameworks such as MEET by seeking to discover and celebrate students as individuals. We also can reduce the anonymity of online learning and create a “culturally sensitive classroom” (Tan, 2009). Specific strategies for carrying out MEET in the classroom include:
- Identifying/accepting students’ stage of readiness
- Identifying the thinking/learning styles of students
- Using a variety of teaching strategies to engage all students
- Connecting students to helpful resources
- Assessing facility with the online environment and technology
- Using mentoring across all ages; having older and younger class members mentor each other in the online classroom
In thinking about the multigenerational online classroom, one must avoid any sort of stereotyping based on chronological or generational age. Age can be looked at from several different perspectives, including chronological or physical age, generational/historical age, and life course or experiential age. In the multigenerational classroom, instructors should foster a welcoming atmosphere, respecting the life experiences of adult learners. The welcoming multigenerational classroom is really another way to ensure that all students are encouraged to reach their lifelong learning potential.
American Association for Retired Persons (AARP) (2007). Leading a Multigenerational Workforce. Retrieved from http://assets.aarp.org/www.aarp.org_/articles/money/employers/leading_multigenerational_workforce.pdf
Brookfield, S.D. (1986). Understanding and facilitating adult learning. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Clarey, J. (2009). Multi-generational learning in the workplace. Retrieved from http://janetclarey.com/2009/02/26/multi-generational-learning-in-the-workplace/
Coffman, D. (2009). Learning from our elders: Survey of New Horizons International Music Association band and orchestra directors. International Journal of Community Music, 2(2&3), 227–240.
Human Resource Solutions (2009). Intergenerational Workforce Services. Retrieved from http://www.yourhrexperts.com/generation/ (URL Defunct)
Parker, M. (2008). Impact of asynchronous and text-based communication modalities on non-native speakers of English in fully online U.S. university courses. (Doctoral dissertation, University of Maryland, Baltimore County, 2009). Dissertation Abstracts International, 69 (12), 4604. (UMI No. 3339076)
Snyder, T.D., & Dillow, S.A. (2010). Digest of Education Statistics 2009 (NCES 2010-013). Washington, DC: National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubsearch/pubsinfo.asp?pubid=2010013
Strauss, W., & Howe, N. (1997). The fourth turning: An American prophecy. New York, NY: Broadway Books.
Tan, F. (2009, Summer/Fall). Tri-fold transformation: An international adult student’s reflections on online learning. Adult Learning, 20(3/4), 38–40. Retrieved from Academic Search Complete database.
University of Maryland University College. (2009). University of Maryland University College fall 2009 fact book. Adelphi, MD: Author, Office of Institutional Planning, Research and Accountability. Retrieved from http://www.umuc.edu/visitors/about/ipra/upload/UMUCFall09FactBook.pdf
VisionPoint. (2006). Generations: M.E.E.T. for Respect in the Workplace. Retrieved from http://www.visionpoint.com/training-solutions/inclusion-respect/generations-diversity-training
Wlodkowski, R. (2008). Enhancing adult motivation to learn: A comprehensive guide for teaching all adults (3rd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.