How Gen Y Want to Learn

How would you create your ideal learning experience for work-related learning? What would it look like, where would you be?

Who would you be with? How long would it last for?

Would you be creating anything, interacting with anyone, discussing, reflecting, listening, watching, experiencing?

Would it involved a mix of some reading in your comfortable chair at home follow by some discussion and questions with other people a few weeks later?

Now imagine that seemingly perfect experience of learning at work, and picture giving it to the person next to you for them to learn something with, and them giving you their ideal learning experience in return. Are you comfortable still?

Why is it we don’t trust so many young professionals to have an idea of how they could learn best?

Think about it. Gen Y have just finished some 13+ years of full time education. They’ve adjusted to the ‘real world’ and taken on jobs, adapted from the classroom to more independent learning at post-school institutions often juggling part-time employment, work placement and a healthy social life at the same time. They convinced HR, recruiters, line managers and whoever else that they knew how to learn quickly, that their limited experience could be applied across contexts, that their formal learning was a great starting point for a successful work-life with their new employer. Do we assume that they did this with no awareness of how they learn new things best? Or do we think that through experiencing all these changes and new things that the average Gen Y’s ability to learn could definitely use some prescription?

Gen Y are a group of people who are used to exercising control.

Controlling how they consume information is something they’re expert at. The stereotypical Gen Y knows what they want and is already working at how they can get there, quickly. Control is just something they come to expect as a result of being exposed to so much choice. If we hire Gen Y as a result of their convincing ability to apply past experience and learning to a new context quickly, why do we then remove any control they have over their ability to learn in ways that are most appropriate or effective for them? Gen Y’s ability to use control in a productive way for learning demonstrates a level of critical reflection and self-awareness. It also removes some of the decision making process from the learning designer or facilitator.

Now think about the average induction program within an organisation. Many are now e-learning modules, delivered asynchronously and are effectively flashy versions of PowerPoint slideshows. We’ve all seen them. Click ‘next’ to proceed, tick a box to indicate you read the information and understood it, complete these multiple choice questions copied verbatim from the previous slide to indicate a genuine learning experience. Sure, these e-learning inductions are cost-effective and create consistency of delivery across a large population. They also ensure new employees are immediately given a message that learning in this organisation is void of individual control, is delivered without any opportunity for interaction or flexibility and definitely doesn’t acknowledge any unique abilities for information filtering, reflection, questioning or application of information to real workplace situations.

Is this the ideal way to introduce the most individualised, independent, fast-paced generation to learning at work?

If not, what is Gen Y’s expectation of learning at work?

If they’ve not been to work before, or had limited experiences of a professional environment where learning supplements other activity, what were they thinking they’d encounter?

Is it even worth acknowledging this group’s expectations?

I would argue yes.

Recognising this young group of professionals’ expectations is worthwhile because ignoring them means ignoring an impacting factor on the possible success of any learning efforts with this group. Definitely, there is the possibility that the expectations brought to a professional learning experience could be unrealistic, but given that they’re going to exist whether they’re acknowledged or not, it would be more productive for both the learner and the organisation to get the ideas out on the table and address them relative to the immediate learning needs of all involved.

As part of my research, Gen Y professionals indicated that having the ability to exercise some control over their learning experiences at work helped them to feel more involved in the learning as opposed to being dictated information. Having some choice about the way learning took place also helped some young professionals feel that the learning they were being asked to complete was valued by the organisation and not just something that needed to be delivered, consumed and ticked-off for compliance at the most basic level. Feeling valued even in a learning experience is an expectation that Gen Y bring to work and one that should be acknowledged if learning designers and people who want to create new, innovative ways of doing things with this new group of professionals need to view as an opportunity and not a burden.

As an initial experience of learning early on in their careers, Gen Y are not particularly excited about the prospect of continuing their professional development in this way. Can we blame them? Removing aspects of learning that this group of learners value and replacing them with ones that seem to communicate a lack of value in the content, the process and the learner is apparently a clear message for some Gen Y professionals.

The research I’ve conducted in this area has exposed a mismatch between the expectations and experiences of Gen Y engaging in learning at work. This mismatch involves assumptions about the learner, the value and process of learning, as well as learning design relative to content. Removing control from the Gen Y learner and providing a single channel for learning or consuming content in place of learning de-values the ability of this group of professionals to demonstrate the skills that helped them get to a professional position in paid employment in the first place. Finding an economical, enriching and mutually valuable way to design and deliver learning to this growing population of professionals is one of the challenges that face learning experts today. Or rather, it is one of the catalysts that should be causing change and innovation within learning circles.

I’ll be presenting a version of these ideas along with more discussion of my research at the Teaching and Learning with Vision conference in November on the Gold Coast.