Generation Y students, customisation, and the growing importance of data science

The generation that universities and colleges across the world rely most on for enrolments is Generation Y, also known as “millennials.” Roughly between the ages of 18 and 34, Gen Y now outnumbers the “baby boomer” generation in the US (at least), and for many companies Gen Y represents the largest proportion of the current and potential workforce. Understanding Gen Y, therefore, is paramount to colleges and universities in terms of:

  • Seeking a competitive advantage in recruitment;
  • Understanding how to design and evolve the courses and delivery formats they offer.

This ICEF Monitor article will look briefly at recent research about the characteristics of Gen Y, and then offer some thoughts on what such characteristics suggest for the direction of the higher education industry.

The lazy myth

One of the main accusations leveled at Gen Y members, born in the 1980s and 90s, is that they are lazy. They have been said to have a profound sense of entitlement coupled with a subpar work ethic. Such a sentiment stems from some psychologists’ arguments that Gen Y kids were overly coddled and told they could “be anything” and “do anything” by parents who failed to combine such positive affirmations with messages that achievement comes from hard work.

But there is another perspective emerging on Gen Y – one that says that they do indeed expect a lot and expect it “now,” but that they aren’t necessarily averse to working for what they want.

An article in Forbes characterises Gen Y as “fast movers” who will change jobs and even careers many times throughout their lives. As a result, they look for new and better ways to work, and are frustrated by slow and outdated approaches.

Moreover, the Forbes article cites research by Pew, which found that the Gen Y cohort “send and receive around 88 texts a day and 70% check their phones every hour.” This echoes research we reported on last week in our article, “New educational technology and customised education.”

However, as tech-savvy as the Pew research found Gen Y to be, it also found that Gen Y appreciates face-to-face interaction and sees the digital arena as complementary rather than as a replacement for face-to-face reality.

Avoid technology for technology’s sake

What are the implications, for higher education institutions, of the seeming paradox of tech-heavy Gen Y behaviours and their continuing appreciation of face-to-face interaction?

Definitely get your tech ducks in a row… but strategically in a row. Technology – and online learning in general – is a tool, not an end. Here are a few ways in which it is best used:

  • Delivering content to students conveniently and sometimes more affordably (and to those who might otherwise not be able to access it, as in the case of online courses).
  • Delivering content in ways the student finds appealing. Included in this notion is the idea of customisation, where even within the parameters of one course, different content can be offered to individual students depending on their interests, overall programme goals, or learning challenges.
  • Delivering customised content and then capturing data on how each kind of content is working for students, with the result that content can be tweaked down the line to be more effective and appealing to students.
  • And importantly, delivering course content in ways that can be accessed outside of the classroom, freeing up classroom time for other valuable learning such as teamwork and practical applications.

In other words, just because Gen Y students are tech-savvy does not mean they want their education to be entirely delivered online. They are used to blending their online and offline lives, and will expect colleges and universities to do the same for them.

For example, they might expect their institution to have figured out how to deliver the theory portion of their Marketing Fundamentals course online in as interesting a format as possible, then to have set up a fantastic internship component of the course that allows them to meet and impress the professionals and companies they eventually want to work for. Please see last week’s article on internships for more on this theme.

Education for the real world

As noted earlier in this article, Gen Y operates with the dial turned to “fast” – and so does the marketplace and/or professional landscape into which they will be graduating.

Gen Y students are looking for education that allows them to be relevant and to change jobs and focuses as needed. They are looking for proof that the educational institution produces graduates who go on to get jobs – and attractive jobs at that. They will want to see that it harmonises education with the realities of the marketplace.

As a result, schools all over the world are under increasing pressure to seek out and create meaningful connections with industry and/or professional practices in order for the most ambitious students to consider applying to them.

And, they are having to look more carefully, more often, at how degree programmes and course curricula are structured to make sure they remain relevant and ideally, “cutting-edge.”

Using technology and data to evolve education

In 2012, the buzzword of the day was “MOOCs” (Massive Open Online Courses).

In 2013, there is growing interest in another word: “customisation.”

MOOCs may evolve to become sustainable models, but they have of course opened up the world’s educational playing field in terms of accessibility, and they beg the question:

If everyone can have an education, what is the value of “education,” in terms of the job market and career prospects?

The answer, most likely, is that the education industry will adjust yet again so that some “educations” are more valuable than others. This is where customisation comes in: those institutions that customise their educational offerings to be the most valuable and relevant – in the sense of preparing students to secure desirable jobs – will be the most attractive.

Doug Guthrie, Dean of the George Washington University School of Business, contributed a guest post late last year to the Chronicle of Higher Education on just this idea. He wrote that the future of education is indisputably heavily reliant on the Internet and technology, but more interesting when focused on customisation rather than “massification” (the latter being the MOOCs model). He articulated his argument by means of a hypothetical example:

“Two students are in a virtual auditorium taking Business Analytics 101. They listen to the same lecture and have the same opportunity for a virtual discussion, but the students are given different cases and exercises to study. They can set up distinct online discussion groups that allow them to interact with fellow students who share their particular interests. Ultimately, they can set up a unique network that best fits their needs.

For educators, the customised environment allows us to track who is learning faster or slower, who needs to supplement an understanding of the last lecture with more material, and who can move on. It actually allows our instructors to negate the challenges encountered in classrooms and lecture halls.”

In other words, customisation works both for the student and the institution, provided the institution invests heavily enough in data capture and analysis systems to figure out how to leverage and evolve customised content to best effect.

For the education institutions intent on building such a comprehensive customisation model, it seems they are already helping to shape a growing talent pool specialised in data management and analytics. The New York Times reported this past April that:

“In the last few years, dozens of programmes under a variety of names have sprung up in response to the excitement about Big Data, not to mention the six-figure salaries for some recent graduates.”

Regarding the growing demand for high-level data scientists, Michael Chui, a principal at McKinsey Global Institute, told The Times:

“This [data science] has become relevant to every company. There’s a war for this type of talent.”

It may be that the higher education sector, increasingly linked as it is to research and education in this emerging field, has a built-in advantage in attracting and engaging analytics professionals. And this may in turn open up new opportunities to explore greater customisation in academic programmes as well as recruitment marketing.

We often have the information we need to refine processes, create cost efficiencies and better connect with students – we just need to harness it. This ICEF Monitor article and infographic offers several examples of how schools are using data mining, as well as how it is transforming higher education today.



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