The Generation Gap

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One of the assignments for ETAD 874 (Advanced Instructional Design) is to find and review articles that relate to the overall design project for the course.  Let me give you some background on the design project.  The project that the 12 of us is working on is a redesign and re-organization of the Saskatchewan History and Folklore Society.  The class is divided into two teams.  One team is working on the redesign of their website, whilst the other group is working on the organization and distribution of the Baker Slides (a historical image collection).  I am in the second group.

During our first project team meeting, we discussed the initial needs assessment of the client and who their target audience is.  From the information provided to us we discovered that it is mostly seniors who access the website and image database.  The discovery put us at a crossroads.  Do we revamp the website for the ‘next generation’,  do we refresh what is already in place, or is there a way to accomplish both – the win-win situation?

This discussion led me to an article on Instructional Design and the generation gap. Although the article is directed towards higher education, there are strong ties to the website redesign and the impact it has on the age of it’s users.

The article was taken from the Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology and is titled “Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue”.  It was written by Mark Bullen – British Columbia Institute of Technology, Tannis Morgan – Justice Institute of British Columbia, and Adnan Qayyum – University of Ottawa.

The article is a reaction to the popular belief amongst many designers that instructional design and technology use is generation-dependent.  The authors make a bold statement in the abstract that says: “A comprehensive review of the research and popular literature on the topic and an empirical study at one postsecondary institution in Canada suggest there are no meaningful generational differences in how leaners say they use ICT’s (information and communication technologies) or their perceived behavioural characteristics.”  (Bullen, Morgan, & Qayyum , 2011)

The authors spend the first few pages of their article arguing against the common belief that the net-generation (which they define as people born in 1982 or later) is better suited for ICT’s in their instruction.  The authors argue that ICT use is not generation dependent – it is USE dependent.  I will discuss this issue more later in this post.  Bullen, Morgan and Qayyum found many studies that support this wideheld belief, however, they had some issues with the research.  In many cases, research was completed on students (multi age) who were already enrolled in technology programs.  They also found a study (Oblinger and Oblinger, 2005) which legitimized the unique learning patterns of different generations, but the report was based mostly on speculation and anecdotal research. (pg. 5)

Bullen, Morgan &Qayyum decided to author their own study which looked at two groups: the Net-Generation (b. 1982 and later), and the non-net generation (b. prior to 1982).  The study was conducted at two British Columbia postsecondary institutions and took place in two parts – Interviews and an empirical data survey.  The study aimed to answer these three questions:

“How accurate are some of the more prevalent claims about net generation learners? Do the students at this Canadian postsecondary institution fit the typical profile of the net generation learner? How are the learners at this institution using various information and communication technologies (ICT)” (P. 6)

Here is a summary of their findings:

1)      Contrary to popular belief that e-mail is for the ‘older generation’, the study found that both groups use e-mail because of its formality and to maintain a certain distance from their professor.  E-mail was also a useful tool when needing to communicate to a group, long messages, and to share files.

2)      When asked what factors could improve their learning, both sets of students deferred answers on ICT’s and cited more physical factors such as better lighting, better lab and library hours, more windows, and better internet access.

3)      There were no significant differences between the generations in computer use, their desire to explore learning, their preference for clear instructions before trying something new, and goal setting.

4)      There were no significant pattern differences in personal or institutional e-mail use.  For both groups the most preferred method of communication with peers was in-person.  In fact, both groups had similar rates of in-person communication vs ICT communication with peers.

5)      The study found that the net-generation was more inclined to use web tools (instant messaging, facebook, etc) to communicate between peers , but this was not the case in communicating with the instructor in a course.

The authors argue that the use of ICT’s are not driven by generation, but driven by the context of the course materials.  My interpretation of their argument is that the use of webtools for learning is driven by the context and the need for the technology not by perceived age needs (which reminds me back to a previous blog post I did on Technology for Technology’s Sake).  They say “..we need to avoid the temptation to base our decisions on generational stereotypes and instead seek a deeper understanding of how students are using technology and what role it plays in learning and teaching in higher education.” (p. 17).

For Bullen, Morgan &Qayyum, they feel that the report has two main findings.  Instructional design decisions should not solely be based on generation and age alone, and that when institutions fund future ICT investments, they should avoid blanket-programming (such as system wide webtool licences) and look at the specific needs of individual programs and fund their needs appropriately.  They say that institutions should avoid making campus wide ICT decisions as they may not be appropriate for all programs (p. 18).

Although this article dealt with higher education, the idea of generation has be discussed in our round-table group meetings more than once and has become a “hot button” issue for us.  It is something that as a group we will need to discuss further before proceeding with our design.  I hope that this article review sheds some light on how different generations interact with technology.  One of my guiding design principles is that good design will transcend the target audience.  I plan on brining this idea forward in our design team meetings.



Bullen, M, Morgan, T., & Qayyum A. (2011) Digital Learners in Higher Education: Generation is Not the Issue. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, Spring 2011.  Retrieved from:




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