How Millenials Are Driving the Evolution of Online Learning–It’s Not What You Think

Online learning as we currently understand it has existed in some form since roughly 1995, about a year after the introduction of the World Wide Web. By some measures, online learning has been a huge success in the sense that today millions of college students in the U.S. take some or all of their courses via online delivery. Globally, the numbers are much larger. In fact, about 25% of all undergraduate content delivered in U.S. higher education today is accessed via learning management systems (LMSs) like Blackboard or Moodle and over half of graduate level content is accessed the same way. However, this form of online learning is dwarfed by the learner driven activity taking place every day, driven largely by Millenials. While there is a broad consensus that MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) have flopped relative to their initial, lofty goals, the fact is that MOOCS are fast becoming the primary mode of learning and skill development for tens of millions of people in the U.S. and around the globe. It’s called YouTube. And Wikipedia and Instagram and Tumbler and Vimeo and Facebook and other social media platforms.

The single greatest repository of educational content in the world is on YouTube, which has millions of tutorials on virtually every conceivable subject. Research by Google (the owner of YouTube) has found that nearly 70% of Millenials believe that they can learn anything via YouTube tutorials and over 90% of young professionals access social media sites for ideas, data, and instruction when completing projects at work. And what is really important about this phenomenon is that for younger users in particular, they see their learner relationship with social media as organic and undifferentiated from their other relationships with, and uses of, social media platforms. They have grown up with this self-defined version of eLearning and they are exceptionally confident learners in this medium. While people of all ages and backgrounds are using YouTube and wikis for self-education, Millenials are fearless when it comes to teaching themselves how to do virtually anything—and they are largely successful. They are also the creators of much of the educational content on YouTube and other platforms, completing a circle of learner and tutor.

Why does this reality matter for “traditional” online learning and education in general?

As with other user-driven trends, many millions of people are organically shaping eLearning in ways that are sharply diverging from the online education currently offered by colleges and universities. In other words, although traditional eLearning delivered by institutions of higher education (IHEs) has become quite sophisticated in terms of the pedagogical models embedded in the LMSs used by those institutions, these formal eLearning models force users (learners) to abandon the behaviors they normally use daily in other internet activities, especially those connected to self-directed learning.

The way that many, many more “students” learn online via YouTube and Wikis and shared knowledge via multiple social media platforms is moving sharply away from how online learning is designed and delivered in universities. This does not bode well for IHEs who are frankly asking students to use tools they find less effective and with which they are less comfortable, in a medium that they otherwise use pervasively to transact every aspect of their lives.

So far, traditional IHEs have been protected by a monopoly over credentials, which until recently, has been largely supported by employers. That monopoly is now at significant risk due to a major shift, not in higher education, but in the economy.

The rise of the gig economy has many implications for those who work in that sector of the economy; implications which have been discussed at length by economists, sociologists, policy makers and others. What has not been discussed is the extent to which this shift to on-demand, piece work will have huge impacts on the educational paths that people have traditionally taken on their way to skilled positions. The reason for this is simply that the gig economy is based on deliverables, not on educational credentials. A video editing project or a training curriculum is successful if it meets the needs of the contracting entity, whereas the contractor’s academic credentials are close to irrelevant. Doing good work, to spec, on time are the markers of value (and continued access to subsequent contracts). Young people, working in both the gig and traditional economies go to social media and other internet platforms (not colleges and universities) as their first choice for professional and skills development. They are also much less “proprietary” in their thinking about intellectual property, either their own or that of others, and see the sharing of knowledge and skills to be a “public domain” activity. Finally, Millenials are proving to be quite utilitarian and pragmatic and much less “hung up” on the formalities and conventions of previous generations. That, combined with an economy that is also shifting in fundamental ways, has huge implications for education in general, but online education in particular.

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