Understanding How Digital Natives Learn Can Close Generational Gaps

Marketers define generational gaps as differences of opinions between one generation and another regarding beliefs, opinions and values. As a Generation Xer finding herself outnumbered 3 to 1 in the workplace by Millennials, understanding generational differences is more than necessary. It’s critical to functioning effectively in the workplace.

I recognized a gap when I was invited to speak to business students enrolled in the career development course taught by Career Services. My presentation, “A Brand Called You”, discussed the importance of developing and protecting your personal brand. I had given the same presentation last semester, but the energy with this group felt different. Within five minutes of going through an outline of objectives, I could tell I lost the students’ attention. I forged ahead explaining the material with real world examples, all the while growing concerned by their lack of response.

Half way through, I took one last shot at saving the presentation before yelling “man overboard!” I used a card in a marketer’s playbook – authentic delivery. I stopped and asked the students if they found the information beneficial. I told them I was frustrated with their behavior and if we did not start having an engaged discussion, I would end it. The tactic salvaged the presentation. Several students e-mailed me within hours to thank me for providing useful tips on how to differentiate themselves.

After reflecting on the class, I revisited Marc Prensky’s articles on Digital Natives and Digital Immigrants (www.marcprensky.com). The next time I was going share information with students in a classroom setting, it was going to have to be me who made changes, not them.

According to Prensky, the reality today is students feel they need to “power down” at school. Digital natives are used to receiving information fast and they like to parallel process, which means they learn best with two or more activities going on simultaneously. As one student told me, “I would prefer to have a job where I can listen to music, instant message and work at the same time.” Taking this comment at face value, how many employers would welcome this behavior?

What employers, educators and marketers need to understand is today’s youth are wired differently. Digital natives do not have patience for lectures, step-by-step logic and one-way (or one-sided) marketing messages.

Digital natives prefer a combination of what Prensky calls legacy and future content. Legacy content is based on traditional curriculum (reading, writing, arithmetic). Future content relies on graphics and video and is most often delivered in an interactive environment (i.e. gaming).

Digital immigrants learn slower, step-by-step, individually and seriously. They are constantly adapting to their environment. The digital language is a second language and life scientists tell us a language learned later in life goes into a different part of the brain.

Prensky believes understanding and embracing this change in learning is very important, and I would agree. Digital immigrants who speak an outdated language are struggling to teach a population that speaks an entirely new language. Herein lies the challenge for all digital immigrant business people.

In the spirit of sharing the language of digital natives, I leave you with a post from a college student in response to a You Tube Video about how digital natives learn.

“Technology and the internet have changed the world. This is why online college courses are gaining popularity. Not because it’s easy, but because students of this generation are better able to learn with a keyboard instead of a book. Stop resisting the way the world has changed, adapt to it.”

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