This is the sixth blog on the topic: ‘Is e-learning failing in higher education?’. The previous five were:

1. Is e-learning failing in higher education?

2. Expectations and goals for e-learning

3. Has e-learning increased access to learning opportunities?

4. Does technology really enhance the quality of teaching and learning?

5. e-Learning and 21st century skills and competences

Meeting the needs of millennials

One of the goals sometimes claimed for e-learning is that it meets the learning styles/needs of millennial students, or put another way, millennial students will learn better through e-learning because it fits their experience and ways of behaving.

I am going to argue that this is not a strong justification for the use of e-learning – or rather, the focus on e-learning as a means to meet the needs of millennials is too narrow.

Who are the ‘Millennials’?

This is a term used for those born between the mid 1970s to early 1990s inclusive. Other terms used for people born in these years are Generation Y, the Net Generation, or digital natives. The term is used to describe learners who have grown up with technology such as computers and the Internet all through their life. They are assumed to be technology-savvy, are able to multi-task, have developed specific skills such as video games playing, and are sometimes described as having a sense of entitlement (‘it’s all about me’) – after all, they are the children of ‘boomers’ (Alsop, 2008).

More specifically, with regard to higher education, Oblinger and Oblinger (2005a) identify the following characteristics as being typical for millennials:

  • digitally literate in the sense of being comfortable and familiar with digital technology
  • connected to friends and the world through technology
  • ‘immediacy’: rapid multi-tasking, fast response to communications
  • experiential: they prefer to learn by doing rather than being told
  • highly social: ‘they gravitate toward activities that promote and reinforce social interaction’
  • group work: they prefer to work and play in groups or teams
  • a preference for structure rather than ambiguity
  • engagement and interaction: an orientation towards action and inductive reasoning rather than reflection
  • a preference for visual (i.e. graphics, video) and kinesthetic learning rather than learning through text
  • active engagement in issues that matter to millennials

The argument made by writers such as Prensky (2001) and Oblinger and Oblinger (2005b) is that education needs to be adapted to meet the needs of these learners. Millennials need to be actively engaged, need to be motivated and interested to learn, and above all need to be immersed in a technological environment for learning.

Does the Millennial student really exist?

Bullen et al. (2009) though challenge these findings.

A review of literature on the millennial learner and implications for education reveals that most of the claims are supported by reference to a relatively small number of publications…. What all of these works have in common is that they make grand claims about the difference between the millennial generation and all previous generations and they argue that this difference has huge implications for education. But most significantly, these claims are made with reference to almost no empirical data. For the most part, they rely on anecdotal observations or speculation. In the rare cases, where there is hard data, it is usually not representative.’

Bullen and his colleagues are right to draw attention to the source of such claims. Going back to the original research is always a good idea, and often on this topic the empirical data base is very weak, with small samples and often samples skewed towards high users of technology. However, it is also important to look at what exactly is being claimed. For instance, Oblinger and Oblinger (2000a) question whether it is age that relates to these characteristics but rather exposure to technology:

‘Although these trends are described in generational terms, age may be less important than exposure to technology. For example, individuals who are heavy users of IT tend to have characteristics similar to the Net Gen.’

In another paper in the same publication, Hartman, Moskal, and Dziuban (2005) report on a survey of students at the University of Central Florida. The University of Central Florida (UCF) regularly conducts formative and summative surveys of students’ online learning experiences (UCF has a high proportion of blended and fully online courses). In the 2004 survey there were 1,489 online student responses, representing a return rate of approximately 30 percent. They found for a start that there was ‘substantial age diversity in the distributed learning population in metropolitan universities.’ Over half the students (55%) were in fact Generation X students, and almost as many students were Boomers (22%) as Millennials (NetGens) (23%). Over five years the proportion of millennials will have increased, but in most institutions they are likely to remain a minority of students, because of the increasing number of older students returning to post-secondary education. However, these older students will in most cases also have had an increased level of exposure to technology than their predecessors.

Another finding from the Hartman, Moskal and Dziuban paper is that Millennials indicated less engagement with online learning than their older counterparts. Although this may be counter to the argument that Millennials are more comfortable with technology and therefore need technology based teaching, it is consistent with the finding that older or more mature students do better at online and distance learning.

There are really three separate issues here:

1. Are millennial learners distinctly different from other students currently in college? Millennial students exist, of course, as they are defined by age. One thing we can say is that they will be younger than non-Millennial students – at least for a couple more years until the next generation arrives. However, Millennials are not a majority of students in many post-secondary educational institutions and there is evidence to suggest that exposure to technology is equally as important as age in determining the learner characteristics described by Oblinger and Oblinger. So I would not put a lot of emphasis on date of birth as a determining characteristic of today’s learner.

2. Are students in college today different from students in college 25 years ago? Despite the lack of rigour of the claims for ‘millennial learners’, I would be surprised, if given their exposure to technology over the last 25 years, current students are the same as students 25 years ago. Thus the characteristics described by Oblinger and Oblinger are likely to apply to many students today. However, there are also other differences that are even more important, in terms of educational strategies, such as a much greater of proportion of students today being older, studying part-time, and requiring more flexible access to learning.

3. If students are different, what should instructors do? This is a much more difficult question to answer, and I will try to do this more extensively below.

All students are important

Although the argument has some merit that students entering post-secondary education now are qualitatively different from previous generations of students – some commentators go so far as to argue that their brains are ‘wired’ differently –  one needs to be careful in interpreting this argument in education. Research has shown that skills developed in one context (e.g. solving problems in video games) do not necessarily transfer to other contexts (e.g. problem-solving in business). In particular, students’ use of the Internet for social and personal purposes does not necessarily prepare them adequately for academic applications of the Internet, such as searching for reliable sources of information (CIBER, 2008).

Also, there is a danger in stereotyping. Not all ‘millennials’ behave the same way or have a total immersion in technology. Nor are all students these days millennials. An increasing number of students are ‘pre-millennial’, being older and returning to study or entering post-secondary education later in life. Lastly, there are some inherent requirements in education – such as a disciplined approach to study, critical thinking, evidence-based argumentation, for example – that cannot or should not be abandoned because they do not fit a particular student’s preferred learning style.

Accommodating to differences in learners

Nevertheless, it is important for instructors to take into account the needs of all learners they are dealing with. Young people see technology much the same way they see air and water – part of everyday life. It is natural then that they will see technology as a ‘normal’ component of teaching and learning.

Full-time Millennial students on campus though have frequently reported that they do not expect technology to replace face-to-face contact with their teacher, and they they expect teachers to help them to know how best to use technology for learning. There is not an automatic transfer of technology skills from social and personal use to academic use, and most students are aware of this. The important issue here is that instructors need to understand how technology can be appropriately used for studying, and need to ensure that teaching makes the best use of technology possible. Some students will need more help than others in their use of technology for learning, but all students need to learn how to integrate technology successfully within their subject discipline.

The need for student engagement in learning

Lastly, Prensky and others argue that teachers need to change their strategies, because Millennials are used to being stimulated and engaged outside school, and therefore need to be engaged inside school. This may be true, but why is it special to Millennials? Should not all our students be engaged and challenged, stimulated by learning, and find the joy and excitement of discovery? Intelligent use of technology can help, certainly, but it is not sufficient on its own; it needs to be harnessed to effective teaching strategies, such as collaborative learning, problem- and project-based teaching, and enabling students to take responsibility for their own learning. This should apply to all students, not just the Millennials.


Alsop, R. (2008) The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation is Shaking Up the Workplace. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Bullen, M. et al. (2009) The Net Generation in Higher Education: Rhetoric and Reality International Journal of Excellence in e-Learning Vol. 2, No. 1

CIBER (2008) Information behaviour of the researcher of the future London: British Library, UCL

Oblinger, D. and Oblinger, J. (2005a) ‘Is It Age or IT: First Steps Toward Understanding the Net Generation’, in Oblinger, D. and Oblinger, J. (2005) Educating the Net Generation Boulder CO: EDUCAUSE

Oblinger, D. and Oblinger, J. (2005) Educating the Net Generation Bolder CO: EDUCAUSE

Pedró, F. (2009) ‘New millennial learners in higher education: evidence and policy implications’, in ‘Technology in Higher Education’, to be released later by OECD/CERI. In the meantime, the document can be downloaded from the Hextlearn site:

Prensky, M. (2001) ‘Digital natives, Digital Immigrants’ On the Horizon Vol. 9, No. 5 (downloaded from:,%20Digital%20Immigrants%20-%20Part1.pdf)


  1. Dear Tony,

    thank you for your always interesting and engaging thoughts on the topic.
    I have read Prensky’s articles about digital natives and digital immigrants and have to say that his arguments caused in me both fascination and scepticism. The lack of empirical evidence for important behavioural changes in learners that have been largely exposed to ICT seems to be quite obvious, but at the same time I have to say that my day to day contact with students in a range of 17 to 25 years draws a clear picture of an increased need of variety and speed in the process of learning. I have very little doubts of the spontaneous acception and the capacity of use of a large variety of sources of information as a powerful complement to the teacher and his textbooks in this group of learners. I can also observe a clearly natural and spontaneous use of communication tecnology in order to share resources or to organise episodes of collaboration. The result of this might not be an automatic increase of collaborative or cooperative learning in comparison with the reality we might have experienced in our own learner history, but I can see that the possibilities of shared and instant access to resources and information and the amount of opportunities of forming spontaneous and maybe quickly changing communities or groups of co-learners might represent an environment that nurtures the feeling of a lack of coherence when ICT savvy students see themselves stuck in an educational environment that does not take such possibilities into account.
    I can easily imagine that the increased skills in Internet surfing, social networking and computer gaming do not automatically lead to improved learning skills. But I do not think that authors like Prensky defend such a theory, but rather believe that it is claimed that the mentioned skills should be exploited in order to improve learning processes and outcomes, in the same way as any other previous knowledge or skill of a learner should determine to a certain extend the way he or she is “taught”.

    Pedro Fernández Michels

  2. Tony,
    Thanks for raising this important issue. After thoroughly reviewing the literature and conducting our own research at the BC Institute of Technology we have come to many of the same conclusions as you. Generation is not the issue. This doesn’t mean that our learners are not using new technologies and that we can ignore the changing technological landscape. It means we need to work harder to understand the phenomenon. Digital technologies are creating significant social and economic change but we do not fully understand what the impact on education will be. Unfortunately too many educators have blindly accepted the simplistic prescriptions of consultants and futurists that its all about generation and that the answer is simple: more technology. Some institutions are already making costly decisions based on this uninformed rhetoric.

    The BC Institute of Technology, the University of Regina and the Open University of Catalonia have launched the Digital Learners in Higher Education research project which aims to get a better understanding of this issue.

    Your readers can learn more at:



  3. After thinking about it for some time, I have come to a conclusion-you really cannot assign people a generation depending on their year of birth. It makes much better sense to give them whichever generation matches their characteristics. For example, someone born in 1930 can be a millenial if he/she is impatient, open – minded to ALL kinds of diversity, tech – savvy, and wants a job that is rewarding and fun rather than one that just pays money (four main characteristics of generation y). I am a millenial (born 1979) because I am everything described above.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here