The 10 Commandments of Teaching ‘Generation Y’ with Technology
Adam John Simpson, Turkey
Adam John Simpson has been living and teaching in Turkey for more than a
decade, all of that time spent in the tertiary education sector in
universities in Istanbul. He currently teaches at the School of
Languages at Sabanci University. His interests include Dogme ELT,
descriptive rather than prescriptive curricula and in the development of
flexibility in lesson planning. E-mail: email@example.com
Connecting ‘our world’ and ‘theirs’
Chronology and terminology
How ‘Generation Y’ think
How ‘Generation Y’ use technology
Contemporary research on Generation Y originated in developed nations,
although examination of this age group is increasing throughout the
entire academic world. Whereas Generation Y has received much attention
in the academic literature of many fields, this is not yet the case in
ELT research. This lack of consideration is regrettable, as most
Generation Yers are currently English language learn¬ers. This article
hopes to address this shortcoming by presenting the results of action
research conducted with learners of this generation. In doing so, the
aim is to enlighten ELT professionals as to the nature of Generation Y,
how they engage with technology, while also presenting teaching
strat¬egies aimed at leveraging everyday technology practices in
teaching this age group in the English classroom. The participants were
students studying in a university preparatory program at Sabancı
University School of Languages in Istanbul and were intermediate and
upper intermediate level (B1 / B1+) level students. The participants
firstly responded to a writing assignment, and secondly took part in
focus group interviews. The results indicated that learners are
comfortable with technology rather than innovative in their tech use.
Furthermore, although they use technology on a daily basis, in some
respects they vastly over-estimate their proficiency. Nevertheless,
technology should be utilized to facilitate the meeting of teaching
objectives in ways that match our learners’ tech culture.
As we plunge further into the 21st century, we’re reaching the point
where must acknowledge the role that technology plays in almost every
aspect of our lives. When it comes to integrating technology into our
language classes, though, even the most forward-thinking and accepting
among us don’t get it right all of the time. Indeed, we could probably
all benefit from asking ourselves the following pertinent questions
(Berk, 2010): How do you decide which technology to use in your
classroom? What criteria, if any, do you use to systematically select
technological tools? Are these criteria linked to your learners’
characteristics, pedagogy, and learning outcomes?
After reflecting on these questions, our next step should be to examine
the research that has so far been conducted on the use of technology by
Generation Y learners. With the literature in mind, and with the
research undertaken in the present study, it is hoped that we will be
able to leverage the technology tools our learners are already utilizing
to match our use of technology with their learning characteristics. The
goal of this article is therefore to provide a vehicle to connect us as
language teachers with our learners and build trust and credibility in
terms of integrating technology into our classes.
While Generation Y learners have grown up in a technology-saturated
environment, an approach in which tech is randomly employed in our
classrooms will automatically result in effective teaching, or indeed
learning. Doing so is in fact little short of a disservice. As teachers,
we need to go beyond such facile acts; we need to recognize how they think and how they use technology before systematically applying technology in our classrooms.
Despite the plethora of literature examining this generation and the
educational implications of their particular distinctiveness (Howe &
Strauss, 2000; Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007; Oblinger & Oblinger,
2005; Palfrey & Gasser, 2008; Pletka, 2007; Strauss & Howe,
2003; Sturgess, 2008), there is as yet no consensus on one set of
defining characteristics, nor of specific teaching strategies matched to
those characteristics. So, how might we define this generation’s needs
in terms of the use of technology in our teaching? Of utmost importance
is the necessity to understand our learners and their culture so we
might begin to tailor our technology strategies to their
characteristics. We as language teachers must seek a clarification of
the technology-related characteristics of our Generation Y learners so
as to suggest specific technology directions for our teaching.
From the 1950s onwards we have witnessed the era of the much-researched
and clearly defined generation model. I myself am a member of Generation
X (born between 1961 and 1981), while a significant number of my
colleagues are Baby Boomers (born between 1943 and 1960). In recent
years, we have been joined by Generation Y colleagues (born 1982–2003),
although the vast majority of this population demographic remain of
student age. This current student population find themselves inhabiting a
high-tech, constantly-connected media world. While we all inhabit this
world, certain aspects of this environment nevertheless seem alien to
many of us. This fact is perhaps the defining characteristic of
Generation Y: this is their normality.
Whereas the years used to define the boundaries of this generation vary
according to different surveys, there appears to be a degree of
conformity in the literature; this generation is defined as having been
born between 1982 and 2003 (typically, we might see a variation of one
or two years either way, according to the particular research). These
learners now span the ages of those approaching early teenagehood
through to those in their early thirties. Consequently, very few if any
language teachers can escape the impact of this generation.
More research has been conducted on this generation than any other. As
such, we appreciate Generation Y’s culture and values. Seven traits
specific to this generation have been identified (Noveck & Tompson,
2007; Strauss & Howe, 2000; Wilson and Gerber, 2008): they are ‘special’,
in that they are a smaller section of the demographic and as such are
valued by and enjoy an intimate relationship with their parents; they
are ‘sheltered’ inasmuch as they are protected from the rigors of the wider world in a way that no previous generation has been; they are ‘confident’ and have a positive outlook on life, feeling confident about their futures; they are ‘team-oriented’ are used to working in task groups and so are skilled in collaborative effort; they are ‘achievers’ who have big aims and ambitions when it comes to their careers; they are ‘pressured’, in that they have been raised with the notion that they must build an impressive resume and fast; and they are ‘conventional’,
valuing the family structure and not wishing to deviate from cultural
norms. While this framework may be useful in our general approach to
teaching this generation, we still need to look at how their use of
technology differs from our own in more detail.
When in a classroom environment, Generation Y learners instant message
their friends while taking notes on their tablets, surfing the internet,
or reading an e-book (Carlson, 2005). Such behavior may seem strange or
just plain unacceptable to those of us who grew up in previous
generations, but such behavior is their norm, regardless of how much we
fail to appreciate it. Generation Y now forms the vast majority of all
school goers around the world and students in higher education. The
technology available to them has had a profound effect on this
generation, making them significantly different from their predecessors.
They have grown up with the Internet, PCs, video games, Facebook,
Skype, Flickr, iPhones and iPads (Berk, 2008) and own an array of
electronic devices. Their use of the technology focuses on social
networking, music, videos, TV programs, and games.
For Generation Y technology is the portal through which they view our
world. However, their world is neither better nor inferior to ours; it
is merely different. Recognizing and coming to terms with this
difference is an important goal for us as language teachers. One way to
achieve this is to understand the learner characteristics and then
leverage the technologies with which they‘re already familiar in our
teaching. Getting to grips with the extent of their access to and use of
technology in their daily lives is a pertinent starting point.
According to a survey of 7,705 college students in the United States,
Junco and Mastrodicasa (2007) uncovered the following characteristics of
Generation Y learners:
- 97% own a computer
- 94% own some kind of mobile phone
- 76% use instant messaging, are logged on 35 hrs./wk., chat 80 min./day, while 15% are logged on 24/7
- 34% use a websites as their primary source of news
- 49% download music using peer-to-peer file sharing software (15% download movies in this way, while 16% download software)
- 92% multitask while instant messaging
- 75% have a Facebook account
- 56% own a device for playing music or video
Additional research indicates that 99% of Generation Y learners use the
Internet for research or homework (Pryor et al., 2009), 57% are media
creators (Oblinger, 2008b), 35% own a blog and 57% read blogs (Pryor et
al., 2009), 89% begin their search of everything with search engines
like Google (OCLC, 2006), while 87% read news Websites (Pryor et al.,
2009). These figures give us a clear insight into the extent to which
technology impacts on this generation’s daily lives and why we should
therefore accord it due attention.
The research for this article was conducted during the first semester of
the 2012-2013 academic year. The participants were students studying in
a university preparatory program at Sabancı University School of
Languages in Istanbul. There were thirty participants in total, all of
whom were at either intermediate or upper intermediate level (B1 / B1+)
level students. Consequently, the research was conducted in English.
The participants firstly responded to a series of prompts in a writing
assignment, and secondly took part in focus group interviews. The
writing assignment required the learners to give a short, 250-word reply
to the question, ‘How would you characterize your use of technology on a day-to-day basis?’
Responses were then coded and a number of themes extracted. These
themes formed the control themes around which focus group discussions
centered. The same thirty students who had completed the written
assignment all participated in the focus group interviews. Additionally,
ethnographic was data gathered on technology use through classroom
observations over the course of the sixteen-week semester.
The written assignment raised a number of themes, most of which were evident among all of the participants.
Firstly, the range of applications being used on a daily basis was
narrow, consisting mainly of one or two social media platforms per
person. They stated the importance of keeping up to date with the
actions of their peers as key to this. Additionally, the participants
reported a heavy reliance on – and deep trust in – search engines as a
source of information. While there remains an awareness of the resources
available to them in libraries and the like, the perceived speed and
reliability of search engines was mentioned as being of paramount
importance. Thirdly, the participants reported heavy use of video clip
websites and mentioned that they expected to be able to find whatever
content they searched for at such resources, expressing disappointment
when whatever they were looking for could not be found. A final theme
that arose from the written assignment was the notion that visual input
is important. Participants express the idea that information should be
as easily digestible as possible and as so visuals such as infographics
were their favourite way of absorbing new information.
These themes served as the preliminary points for discussion in the
open-ended focus groups. Indeed, these issues all reappeared in the
discussions; they served as a good basis for more detailed deliberations
among the participants. As a result, ten themes were observed in total.
Discussion will therefore focus on this series of themes – the
‘commandments’ referred to in the title of this article - formed from
the aforementioned results of the research, which teachers may wish to
adopt in their use of technology. These are;
- Learners are tech comfy rather than tech savvy
The participants affirmed that they constantly engage with
technology, but do so only up to the point that they get what they need
from it. Rather than being ‘technologically savvy’, participants
reported being ‘technologically comfortable’. They use technology to
facilitate their needs and no more.
- Learners don’t know how to use search engines properly
The use of search engines was mentioned by all participants.
What was interesting was that they tend to stick to their initial search
criteria, rather than looking for alternatives if they don’t
immediately find what they need. Furthermore, they reported only using
the results on the first page of the search findings. Every participant
used only one search engine, Google, and stated that they saw no reason
to ever try another.
- Video clips are a popular method of absorbing new information
YouTube is another ubiquitous application. All participants use
this site and on a very regular basis. They reported the ability to find
almost everything they searched for, along with the importance of
visually presented information as the reasons for this.
- Multitasking should be handled with care
All participants stated that they multitasked on a daily basis.
The consensus was that this was natural and that they felt comfortable
operating more than one tech device at the same time. Nevertheless, many
reported that they found it difficult to really concentrate and gain
deep understanding, in other words they felt like they were developing
only superficial understanding while multitasking.
- They consume information visually
All participants mentioned the importance of visuals. Among
frequent comments was the importance of data being presented graphically
or in the form of infographics. Another comment was that text length
should be short and, where possible, excess information should be
- Interaction and opinion sharing are commonplace
A common refrain from all participants was the fact that they
chatted with one another and with their peers constantly. They felt that
it was easy to give honest feedback and share opinions on most matters
via social media platforms. One important point mentioned by many was
that they would be happy to elaborate on issues covered in class in such
a way if their teacher felt comfortable doing so.
- They like flexing their collective intelligence
Every participant mentioned the idea of working on tasks
together and how this was facilitated by their use of tech tools. The
sharing of work, materials and sources of information is a constant in
their everyday lives.
- When they can, they type their work
Every participant typed some form of written communication every
day. While most had some form of touch screen device, the vast majority
also typed on a laptop. Although no dislike of pen and paper was
mentioned, the most typical way of writing was to type the message.
Mentioned among the reasons for this was the idea that the typed
communication was more easily shareable.
- Learners want opportunities to create their own content
Most participants expressed a like for creating digital content,
mainly in the form of blogs. Also, a small number had their own YouTube
channel and uploaded self-made content. Those who did such things
stated that they would like to see such practices incorporated into the
- Technologically delivered feedback is seen as a positive thing
A large number of participants had experienced receiving
feedback in the form of either a recorded mp3 message or via screen
capture software. In each of these cases, the participant noted that
this was very much a positive thing and that they would like to see all
teachers giving feedback in such a way. The main benefits mentioned were
the ability to listen / watch several times and the depth of feedback
provided on their work.
The findings of the research on Turkish Generation Y learners largely
confirmed what has thus far been written in the literature. The global
nature of this demographic group means that the suggestions that follow
may be generally applicable, whatever our location or teaching context.
This discussion offers a list of generic technology teaching strategies
you can use to address the issues raised in the current research.
- There should be no fear among teachers about using technology in the classroom
Having grown up with technology, Generation Y learners’ familiarity with
most forms of tech is second nature (Carlson, 2005); it therefore
influences everything they do to a certain extent. Furthermore, their
experiences with technology have enabled them to master intricate tasks
and make decisions quickly (Prensky, 2006; Junco & Mastrodicasa,
2007). However, they are not necessarily tech – or net - savvy (Lorenzo
& Dziuban, 2006). The sheer mass of information and applications
available to them means that they lack an understanding of how to find,
evaluate and use what is in front of them. Consequently, they are not so
far ahead of us as teachers in terms of their technology use: the only
difference is their degree of comfort.
Our role, therefore, remains a vital one. Rather than being frightened
by Generation Y’s use – it turns out they are not doing anything
spectacular with the tools at their disposal - of technology, we should
be aware that they still need to be taught information literacy and
strong critical thinking skills (Oblinger & Hawkins, 2006). A must
for language teachers is to discuss the role that tech plays and to what
extent learners would like it to be utilized in class.
- Their reliance on search engines should be coupled with an ability to use them effectively
When it comes to searching for what they need, Generation Y learners have developed an ‘ease-of-use’
mentality. Even as far back as 2006 approximately 89% were initiating
searches for everything through search engines like Google (OCLC, 2006).
What’s more, this high comfort level with the technology has cultivated
a false sense of ability such that they routinely overestimate their
skills at finding and evaluating online information (Manuel, 2002). An
Online Computer Library Center (2006) survey of 394 undergraduate and
graduate students from six countries showed that 94% of Generation Y
learners consider search engines to be an ideal resource for their
lifestyle, whereas 63% considered physical libraries to be suitable.
Despite expressing awareness that physical libraries offered more
reliable information, such facilities fell short of learners’
expectations in terms of speed, convenience and general ease of use
We are in a position to facilitate better search engine use by providing
assignments that draw on the students’ current search engine skills,
while also offering guidance and structure on how to maximize the value
of their search results. Tasks that require an internet search should
also aim to get learners thinking critically about the information and
how to use and interpret it. Also, we should make information literacy
skills the focus of tasks, rather than the means.
- Video clips are a must for our classrooms
Many Generation Y learners have never known a world without YouTube and
are used to accessing videos, music, games, and all other information
whenever they wish. Leveraging the video media that learners access on a
daily basis in the classroom is a significant opportunity for us as
teachers to connect with their culture (Berk, 2003; Eddy & Bracken,
2008; Miller, 2009).
Our role here is twofold. Firstly, using videos in our classes can play a
major role in connecting them to the content. We may choose the videos
as pre-class viewing homework, or even ask learners to investigate
videos around the theme of the class themselves. Secondly, we should
teach learners how to search for what they want in the way that we do
with other search engines, designing tasks accordingly.
- Multitasking must be handled with extreme care
Generation Y learners move quickly from one task or medium to
another, such as using texting, chatting with their friends on their
smart phone and e-mailing, while also surfing the Net and doing homework
(Roberts, 2005; Prensky, 2006; Junco & Mastrodicasa, 2007).
Nevertheless, regularly doing such tasks simultaneously puts a strain on
their brains, causing stress, the inability to problem solve and
inhibition of creative ability among others. Their brains record much
less collective activity when they are engaged in two actions than when
they are concentrating only on one (Just & Buchweitz, 2011).
Therefore, multitasking should be handled cautiously.
Tasks that allow for multitasking should require as minimal level of
mental processing as possible. For instance, learners may be encouraged
to check for meaning of unknown words in a text on an online dictionary.
Any tasks that require problem solving or creative thought such not be
done in conjunction with another task.
- Use visual stimuli at every opportunity
Generation Y is a visually literate generation, comfortable
in an image-rich rather than text-only environment. Many don‘t like to
read books, especially textbooks, although they do so when required
(Vaidhyanathan, 2008). Indeed, they generally perceive print as
expensive, boring, and a waste of time (Gomez, 2007). They communicate
visually by capturing images with mobile phones or video cameras, then
sharing them through social media (Oblinger, 2008a). They post photos on
Flickr and videos on YouTube. They are able to weave together images,
text, and sound easily (Frand, 2000; Manuel, 2002; Oblinger, 2008a).
While presenting new language we must include graphics, images, and
visual representations with which students can relate, especially video
clips from television, movies, and YouTube. Getting learners to develop
visual demonstrations to be presented in class, with music, videos, or other visual products will engage them and motivate them to work towards desired learning objectives.
- Encourage the sharing of ideas and opinions
Generation Y learners express their emotions honestly and
straightforwardly. They are quite open to meeting new people, sharing
personal information, and sharing aspects of their lives online in
blogs, on Facebook, or through other social media (Junco &
Mastrodicasa, 2007; Lenhart, Rainie, & Lewis, 2001; Oblinger, 2008b;
Oblinger & Oblinger, 2005).
As teachers, we may wish to capitalize on this culture of sharing. Using
blended methods (live and online) to encourage interaction and opinion
sharing, such as digital storytelling through blogs, wikis, and
social media networks – setting up a closed Facebook group for a class
is an easy way - will help learners to reflect on what has happened in
class and enable them to share resources relating to their learning
- Foster teamwork and collaboration
This generation is fiercely socially-oriented and has a need for
interpersonal interaction, both online and face-to-face (Junco &
Mastrodicasa, 2007; Ramaley & Zia, 2005; Strauss & Howe, 2006;
Tapscott, 2009; Windham, 2005). This means they prefer to work in teams
rather than alone. Collaboration enables their collective intelligence
to flourish through the pooling of knowledge, research, arguments, and
insights (Jenkins, 2006).
We should look for opportunities to pool knowledge, share opinions,
debate, conduct research and create new insights through blogging,
wikis, podcasts, or e-portfolios. We may also assign group work in
online chat rooms, or schedule meetings and group events with learners.
Another strategy is to assign learners to create visual demonstrations
and videos to present in class, requiring them to interact and to teach each other outside of class.
- Create opportunities for typed work
For Generation Y, the advantages of word processing win through over any
alternative of verbal print communication (Frand, 2000). These
learners, while retaining the physical ability to write just as well as
the preceding generations did, nonetheless see such practices as being
old-fashioned. Typing is, quite simply, the normal way of writing. What
they are used to doing is typing notes, communications, essays, and term
papers on their computer, iPhone, or iPad.
Our role here is to facilitate such typed communication by encouraging
the use of word processing software for homework assignments. We may
also encourage students to take in-class notes and do in-class
assignments using Word or similar software. As our learners feel
comfortable writing in this way, it will motivate them in their work.
- Create opportunities for learners to develop content
Generation Y learners are massive contributors to the Internet through
developing, consuming, commenting on, and rating materials. Furthermore,
Web 2.0 has enabled social book marking, which allows learners comment,
evaluate, and accumulate published works (Polin, 2007). This phenomenon
has fostered an environment in which direct peer-to-peer engagement is
Our goal as language teachers should be to utilize tasks that allow our
learners to create, share, and interact via applications such as Flickr
and YouTube. We may provide learners with opportunities to contribute to
websites, write their own blogs, contribute to wikis, create YouTube
videos, and podcasts with appropriate content, connected to the
objectives of our courses.
- Provide feedback via technological means
This generation has gone through life getting immediate feedback on
their performance. Brender (1998) notes that these learners now want the
same degree of response from teachers in terms of depth and immediacy.
Moreover, much of what we do with correction is a waste of time, in that
traditional practices are no longer a good fit to the demands of
Generation Y (Truscott, 1996).
Technology has opened up a new world for us in terms of what we can do
with feedback. Some strategies we may employ are to use screen capture
software to comment on word processed writing work, or to record oral
feedback which can then be emailed to learners.
The methods suggested are unlikely to be completely unfamiliar, or
particularly revelatory. Indeed, they serve to reinforce the notion that
our aim should be to leverage our learners’ everyday tech practices,
rather than reinventing the wheel.
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