Beyond Words: How Generation Y is Redefining Learning For Everyone

Photo by

Gen Y, those in their 20s now, are born of bits and bytes. They hardly read. They watch play computer games, watch movies on the Internet, have made YouTube their favorite destination.

This generation is the one that will redefine learning. And because of them book-based learning, lectures, stand-up teaching, grades, honor rolls, and all the other paraphernalia of the 20th century will fade away faster than we image.

As I travel around the world I see cheap Internet access everywhere. Mobile data plans are getting more and more affordable and a data-enabled Sim card costs just a few dollars. Every young traveler has at a minimum a smart phone and often also has a laptop or tablet as well.

Being connected is as important to them as having electricity or running water.

Virtual learning takes center stage

But my four or five star business hotel still charges way too much for slow Internet access – mainly because people my age don’t demand it as these younger folks do. I wrote this in a fancy New Zealand hotel room where they still advertise typing and fax services available in the business center, but require a special phone call to activate the wired Internet service in the room.

Only Baby Boomers and Gen X would tolerate that. Gen Y (also known as Millennials) does everything virtually and has no idea where to buy a postage stamp. They communicate in real time, send out instant messages to ask for help, learn from each other informally over the Internet and, in this behavior, they are defining what learning will look like.

I doubt learning will ultimately look at all like we think it will – as maybe something packaged and sold over the Internet, or as something still delivered in schools by teachers, and validated with grades and tests.

Today’s virtual learning is looking more like what you see at where anyone can teach and anyone can learn. Teachers are evaluated by the students, and students evaluate each other.

Classrooms are boxes – they close you in, contain you, limit and control. The idea of a structure, a formal design to learning is increasingly foreign. Many young people ask me: “How does anyone know what I want or need to know or how I want to learn something?” They say, “Why should I follow your logic in acquiring this bit of knowledge?” And, I really haven’t got a good answer for them.

How learning will change

Sure young people need guides. They are actually hungry for general direction and ideas to pursue. What I have learned is that if I provide them with a very top-level syllabus, for example, list a few potential books to read or other sources; they are off on their own.

Sometimes they don’t even need that – all they need to know is what you want them to know and when you want them to know it. Generally, they explore, share, and investigate far more thoroughly than any teacher would require. Their peer evaluations are honest, real-time, and usually reflect careful thought. Peer pressure keeps personal barbs to a minimum.

The idea of chronological progression through grades is foreign to them. The notion that you need to be a certain age to learn something is equally foreign.

I doubt future learning, at least the stuff that will be successful, will come in packages.

Learners will learn “on the fly” as other learners and software interprets and suggests alternatives. And, the learning experiences will be much more social, video-based and game-associated than we can even imagine. People will learn by experimenting and by being challenged to achieve levels of proficiency. Peers will provide ideas and stimulate creative solutions. Feedback will be immediate.

Games teach more than we think

The ability to perform will be the basis of further challenges and growth. Games probably are right idea and teach more than we think.

Article Continues Below

Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad is Good For You provides evidence that IQs have risen as a result of games and online activities and that even watching television today is more complex and multilayered than ever. This requires greater attention spans, better concentration and the ability to hold several plot elements in your mind at the same time.

If you have watched a teenager play a video game you will see this in an embryonic form. When they sit down to play for the first time they do not read the instruction booklet. In fact, few games even have them.

Instead they start to play, interacting almost immediately with the characters and identifying with certain ones. Enough standards already exist that knowing basic key clicks and mouse movements is second nature or a quick pop-up guide provides the necessary and only the essential moves.

Most of these games require the player to master an increasingly difficult series of challenges. They have to move with speed and agility and they have to be very clever. Each level of mastery is more and more difficult and you cannot move on until you have completely mastered the lesser level. There is no need for grades, scores, or teachers. Success is achieving your goals and your teachers are your peers and your own initiative.

This, to me, defines the way learning will move. The learner is in the center of the action and is completely responsible for the outcomes, not a teacher or counselor. There are many branches that can be explored, and many of these games have multiple possible endings. These also combine a challenge with fun.

The old ways of learning are fading away

Many games can be played against another player as well. The network capabilities of games are just starting to be explored, but they will push the envelope and make location unimportant. Players on different continents can play simultaneously and the video/action nature of these games make language irrelevant.

Firms such as Microsoft have invested in gaming and learning. Microsoft’s Games for Learning Institute is researching and developing games for math and sciences learning. NYU is offering a master’s degree in Games for Learning. A Silicon Valley startup, Bunchball, uses gaming principles to develop learning at work. The number of commercial and academic players is growing exponentially.

Most of these games are not based on the written word and do not require reading. Information is audio or visual – encoded into videos and music. Learning is by immersion, doing, listening and watching. This is almost 180 degrees different from how I learned, which was primarily through reading textbooks and articles and absorbing oral lectures – often unaccompanied with any visual material – and writing term papers and theses.

Books will become a minor partner in learning – may even disappear entirely from schools – as learning moves to tablets, phones and Internet-based devices.

We need to understand and accept more than we do now that the idea of book-based learning, lectures, stand-up teaching, grades, honor rolls, and all the other paraphernalia of the 20th century is fading away faster than we image.

Kevin Wheeler is a globally known speaker, author, futurist, and consultant in talent management, human capital acquisition and learning & development. He has founded a number of organizations including the Future of Talent Institute, Global Learning Resources, Inc. and the Australasian Talent Conference, Ltd. He hosts Future of Talent Retreats in the U.S., Europe, and Australia. He writes frequently on LinkedIn, is a columnist for, keynotes, and speaks at conferences and events globally, and advises firms on talent strategy. He has authored two books and hundreds of articles and white papers. He has a new book on recruiting that will be out in late summer of 2016. Prior to his current work, he had a 20+year corporate career in several San Francisco area tech and financial service firms. He has also been on the faculty of San Francisco State University and the University of San Francisco. He can be reached at


2 Comments on “Beyond Words: How Generation Y is Redefining Learning For Everyone

  1. Hi Kevin: Great insight into how learning will change in the near future. Because of college tenure programs and teacher contracts, I’m not sure how quickly we will see changes in the current teaching practices of our K-12 and college teachers. What are you thoughts on how to accelerate this human capital transformation?? Great post !!

  2. This is very interesting. So when are the public schools going to start changing. There are the same as they ever were as are the teachers. Maybe this is the reason we lag behind the rest of the world in innovation.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *