How can we address the needs of digital learners?

The blossoming EdTech sector has begun to overwhelm higher education with innovative educational tools that can spice up the learner experience inside the classroom and beyond. Established delivery models are consequently being disrupted to the point where ‘teachers’ become ‘facilitators’ of learning with a much-reduced role as skill trainers and content providers. Universities are embracing these opportunities for change and are trying to catch up with rapidly growing online learning capabilities. But, at the same time, faculty seems to be engaged in a rearguard battle aimed at maintaining the traditional delivery experience as much as possible.

We want to put forward an alternative viewpoint that subordinates the adoption of EdTech to the emerging needs of modern-day students as digital natives.

In our view, nothing has disrupted higher education more profoundly than the changing attitudes and lifestyles of students. As digital learners, they no longer seem to fit into an educational system designed prior to the fourth industrial revolution.

Universities need to accept the harsh reality that their clients require new learning models that go beyond the use of state-of-the-art technologies as alternative vessels for delivering the same type of learning experience as before.

Learners disrupt, not only technologies

It is the disruption of the main traits of learners that should therefore be our foremost concern. Can we truly motivate and engage them while using old-fashioned pedagogy and outdated learning approaches based on the ‘read, listen and remember’ model?

The answer is a resounding ‘no’, something that is backed up by widely observed drops in attendance rates in traditional classroom settings. Students are increasingly seeking educational experiences where pedagogy and learning design correspond to the world they live in and, in this context, technology is a means to an end.

For universities to stay relevant, they need to get to know their students better. Digital learners should be understood as communal constructivists, in the real world and in online learning space.

They require, above all, mentors (not teachers) who serve as guides for the construction of a co-created understanding of phenomena by collaborating with peers and others.

In this context, knowledge no longer constitutes a rigid object anymore. It is, rather, the endogenous outcome of a social knowledge-making process that is predominantly designed by the learners themselves.

Traditional degree delivery operations rely heavily on standardisation and, in extreme cases, are managed like an industrial production line from induction to graduation. When viewing learning through the lens of communal constructivism, the diversity of students and their contexts becomes a core ingredient of the learning experience by enriching collaboration and social knowledge production.

Technology will play a key role in strengthening the exploratory element of communal learning. It intensifies the interaction with facilitators, peers and content by enabling synchronous as well as asynchronous communication.

In effect, students integrate themselves into micro-ecosystems of learning that can stay intact as they are moving on in their learning journeys. Intellectual progression thus evolves into a much broader concept when evaluating the quality of degree delivery from this perspective.

As students interact in learning communities to produce shared knowledge, the boundaries between educational institutions and learning communities are becoming blurred and fuzzy. This will also invite the emergence of novel institutional models such as École 42, a peer-to-peer learning school without any classes or institutionalised faculty.

Generation Z learns differently

The current ‘Generation Z’ is technologically focused and social-media dependent and, as a result, is also processing information differently than earlier generations. It uses multiple platforms, often in parallel, to deal with learning tasks and obtain input from classmates and faculty. Habitual multitasking perhaps also explains the shortening of attention spans when focusing on particular learning activities.

The fast-paced lifestyle of a typical ‘Z’ is fuelled by an entrepreneurial desire for autonomy in the early stages of adulthood. Hence, an increasing number of them are pursuing a professional career in parallel to their academic studies. Universities are already picking up on this trend by introducing more flexible online programmes that can be tailored around learners’ professional commitments.

‘Z’ students also desire more control over the learning process itself and again are expecting more than the conventional learner-centred approach.

The so-called ‘architecture of participation’ (a term coined by media entrepreneur Tim O’Reilly), for example, relies on social media as a driver of participation – to facilitate innovative forms of collaboration related to sharing, tagging, voting and networking as well as the production of content by the users themselves.

The world is the classroom of the future

One cannot overemphasise the cultural divide between ‘yesterday’ and ‘tomorrow’ in higher education. While universities previously played the role of community enhancer, they now need to facilitate and create pathways for the integration of learning communities with life in a global context. EdTech will act as a catalyst to make this work. It will create tailor-made digital outfits suitable for digital natives.

Traditional quality assurance is all about control of the learning process. In the world of ‘Z’, the bureaucratic rituals of quality management can actually act as inhibitors of quality improvement.

Dismantling them selectively and handing control over the learning process back to students is, in our view, the right step forward. Missing this opportunity or moving too late may have dire consequences, first and foremost in the form of falling student enrolment and retention figures.

Ulrich Hommel is the director of business school development at the EFMD Global Network. Sophie Zuchowicz is digital project manager and, in that role, one of the leaders of digital learning at EFMD Global Network.

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