Home | Faculty Focus | How do five different generations view university teaching and learning? Opinion
2020 Australian University Teacher of the Year, Associate Professor Jack Wang from the University of Queensland. Picture: Supplied.

How do five different generations view university teaching and learning? Opinion

Teachers often argue that they learn most when they teach something to others. This seemed to go with the maxim that as a teacher you needed to be ahead of your students, but only by an hour or so, in having learnt a subject. But are our students catching up, or have their capabilities and expectations overtaken us?

A UCLA study showed that 85% of their students sped up recorded lectures. Experimental groups were played back lectures at 1x, 1.5x and 2x speed and had similar levels of comprehension. This raises questions about how students view learning and what benefit arises from their extra flexibility and time. How do teachers respond to this new generation of student expectations and practices, particularly in a post-pandemic era? Teachers and universities shifting back to offering real-time face to face experiences might see it better suit their skills and assets, but not meet the expectations of a new generation of learners.

Each generation of students appears to develop unique learning capabilities based on the environment they learn in. It is hard to imagine what this is like if you have not experienced it. This generational shift in student learning styles requires teachers and university leaders to put themselves in the shoes of current learners to respond to new expectations. All can learn from immersing themselves in and experiencing novel teaching experiences.

While debates about the efficacy and equity of student evaluations are ongoing, learners are at least an important judge of learning experience. Student feedback is here to stay and the overall sense from the data from the last 3 years is clear. Taking a longer view back over the last twenty years provides a stark demonstration of how much change there has been, and how much more is needed.

One phenomena of the culture in all organisations is that 5G is being newly connected with. Not a new mobile or communications environment, but one where 5 generations of social and behavioural types are populating our workforces and campuses, physically and virtually. Universities are partly governed by traditionalists, largely led by executive boomers, with Gen x middle managers, and millennial early career academics, predominantly teaching Gen Z students. Which generation best understands the changes in current learners’ needs?

Universities have always been multi-generational environments with continuous cohorts of new young learners, increasing numbers of mature learners and multi-generational teachers and leaders making decisions for them all. Except of course students have now become increasingly empowered to make their own decisions of where, how, and when to learn through technological change and the pandemic acceleration of hybrid practices.

The best time to reflect on effective teaching is most recently after having experienced it. It is a strong argument for ‘mystery learner’ tactics by teachers and leaders, to add to their data from student feedback. And it is also a strong argument to allow recent learners, and generations closest to current students, to input to if not guide learning innovation. They are best paced to do so for fellow teachers of all generations, and for wider institutions trying to manage it for multiple learner and staff generations.

AAUT awards have been jewels in Australian university life for a long time and there was universal sector disappointment when they became unfunded.  The awards have now been maintained through the wise intervention of Universities Australia and allow excellence and innovation in university teaching to be surfaced, celebrated, promoted, and learnt from. There are many diverse past winners with recipients often lifetime achievers through sustained excellence. One could argue that 2020 was by far the most challenging year for teaching in global universities. The winner that year was a relatively young millennial with recent learner experience, and new pedagogy and technology innovation experience.

The winner was a teaching-focussed Associate Professor at UQ and founder of the BioLab collective resource. His most recent video was prepared in response to an invitation to a Taiwan conference where he reinterpreted a 10-year brief to offer a 20-year history of Australian university teaching. The video summarises lessons from 7 phases of change through traditional chalk and talk lecturing being replaced by ubiquitous PowerPoint presentations, that blended in to emerging learning management systems, that became a vehicle for automated lecture recordings. These were followed by the emergence of MOOCS and the turning to flipped classrooms, that all preceded our 2020 switch to covid/zoom deliveries of combinations of these techniques. The video describes the current situation being a ‘no man’s land’ of widespread classrooms, empty of Gen Z learners, who remotely access 2x recordings at times that suit them and their wider lives.

That tour through history and the reality of the current situation generates an inarguable call of a need to change. The biggest questions might be what and who needs to change, and how will it happen? Change needs us all to learn from lessons learnt from teaching practice, and reflect on the theory, through the eyes of all generations. What needs to change is a focus more towards student engagement and putting ourselves more into millennial and Gen Z shoes of expectations and preferences. Who needs to change means a combination of individual teachers and learners, institutions that employ and enrol them, and the whole sector and its emerging partners and new entrants.

Individual teachers can use BioLab Collective resources to access ideas and techniques being demonstrated by Australia’s leading university teacher of 2020. For institutions to change needs collaboration across generations, to allow global best practice cases studies to inform strategies for innovation. This will need partnering, including with technology companies and a concerted way to listen to students and younger generation learners and teachers. They may need facilitated techniques to do this better than earlier generations managed.

The sector needs to collaborate and work together on an innovation agenda for teaching and learning to meet the new needs of multi-generational global learners.  This will need to be sped up, and soon. The accelerated expectations of a new generation of learners is playing out in the fast changing feedback of experiences. There is also a new generation of providers of learning, emerging quickly to fill the experience gaps. This agenda, in response to the need to change, was the focus of a conversation on learning practices and learning innovation we had together on HEDx which you will be able to access here.

Emeritus Professor Martin Betts, Co-founder of HEDx

Associate Professor Jack Wang of UQ and 2020 Australian University Teacher of the Year

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