My how the years roll by! It seems only yesterday I was stepping nervously into my first computer class, teaching a roomful of expectant, docile students how to make rectangles and change a font or two on the then-hot Macintosh platform. Those days, you could spend 20 minutes imparting the difficult concept of how to create a perfect square using a drawing program, or how to move text around on a page. Students were quiet, attentive, and eager to master the machines in front of them.
Nowadays, you're lucky if it takes 20 seconds to impart the same knowledge, or to even have student's attention for that long to begin with! Something has definitely changed over the last 15 years in the classroom, and it ain't just the technology. It's the mouse pushers.
Mouse pushers these days have quite a different outlook from yesteryear's counterparts. They are quicker to catch-on, quicker to turn-away, and impatient at the slightest drop in pace or topic that doesn't apply to them directly. They expect information at the speed of thought, or the click of a mouse. They are, in short, the organic result of all the marvelous technological advances we have made in the last 20 years, and they have a name: Generation Y, GenY, Millennials, or my favorite, "Echo Boomers."
So who are these impatient, perky young pups? You'll find this generation roughly comprising people born between 1980 and 2000, although sources differ with the exact dates. They have some characteristics that make it very easy, and in other ways, very difficult, to teach anything. So let's delve into a little background on GenY students, and what you and your instructors need to know to teach them any subject successfully.
Generation Y Characteristics & Teaching Techniques
#1: They are Technosavvy
Generation Y grew up with technology. It was ubiquitous. My generation was lucky to get a clunky computer the size of Montana to use for a few minutes in high school; these students grew up texting and IM'ing and using the latest software and hardware. Generation Y is intimately familiar with technology, and, they're good at it!
Whether their technosavviness is the result of having grown up with computers, or even the hundredth monkey syndrome, the simple fact is these students are tops when it comes to understanding, using, and integrating technology, in all forms, into their lives. Therefore, the first key to teaching them effectively is...
Key #1: Don't Talk Down to Them
It is incredibly insulting to these students to speak to them as if they are newbies, and often they will know more about certain aspects of your subject than you do. It's a simple fact; they are already experts at broad swaths of technology, and you are not there to teach them huge chunks of new knowledge.
Rather, you are there to fill in what holes they may have from their own prior experimentation, and to show them how to do things they already expect the program to do or that they already know how to do in other programs. In other words, you are a guide, a coach; you are not the Computer God in the classroom anymore.
#2: They Have Short Attention Spans
In one of my early courses, I had a 90+ year old man in the room. I explained that sometimes when computers are slow, you might click an icon and it might take a "whole second" for the computer to respond and show you the drop-down menu or perform it's function. The man looked at me incredulously and said, loudly and with obvious shock, "A SECOND?"
I realized that to a 90+ year old man, a second is quite short indeed. Yet when using a computer, of course this can seem like an eternity and really slow down your work. And if a second seems long to GenXer's and Baby Boomers, imagine how long it seems to GenYers!
Key #2: Keep it Short and Sweet
These people grew up with the attention span of a gnat. I don't mean this unkindly. But these people are truly the product of the 30-second sound-byte, coupled with the instant click of the mouse for results. They want it, and they want it now, or you've lost them.
I once read a book on communication that stated, if you can't make your point in 30 seconds or less, you probably can't make it at all. Never is this more true with GenY; you will be lucky to have their attention this long. So keep your topics short, to the point, and use relevant examples or you will lose them.