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V. Learning from the Insights of Millennial Learners

Today's college campuses are serving four distinct "generations" of students: Traditionalists, Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials. Each of these generations differs from one another in their prevailing patterns of behavior and preference. The dominant group is the Millennial students, who were born after 1981 and began arriving on college campuses after 2000. By the mid-2000s, the following characterizations were being formed of the prototypical Millennial:

  • Feel individually and collectively special; highly protected and sheltered by parents and authority figures.

  • Motivated, goal-oriented, assertive and confident. They want to make a difference. They are civic-minded and value service learning and volunteerism.

  • Team-oriented, high achieving, feel pressured to succeed, focused on achievement rather than personal development. They may not yet value the benefit of lifelong learning.

  • Conventional, respectful of adults and value manners, accepting of lifestyle, racial and ethnic differences.

  • Habituated to smart phones, iPods, and other accouterments of multi-tasking behavior and the e-Lifestyle.

Graduating students of the Millennial cohort - highly motivated, success oriented, and feeling destined for success - have born the brunt of the economy slowdown, rise in unemployment, and debt overhang from the 2000s. One of the keynote speakers at the Strategic Planning Symposium will be Anya Kamenetz, author-and-provocateur, who has established a reputation as an authentic spokesperson for the generation of Millennial Learners (6). Her commentary will apply to Millennial students at University of Pacific engaged in all levels of programs - undergraduate, professional, and graduate.

From Generation Debt to DIY U

Ms. Kamenetz established her bona fides when she wrote Generation Debt: How Our Future Was Sold out for Student Loans, Credit Cards, Bad Jobs, No Benefits, and Tax Cuts for Rich Geezers - And How to Fight Back (2006). This book analyzed the travails of Millennials in the workforce years before the Great Recession turned bad conditions even worse. Using both stories and statistics she analyzed and articulated the state of Millennial learners and graduates, and offered a set of helpful "get well" measures.

She built upon this work with a series of widely-read and influential articles in Fast Company, the Huffington Post, The New York Times and The Washington Post which outlined how free online courses, Wiki universities, and Facebook-style tutoring networks were enabling a new kind of "do-it-yourself" (DIY) approach to learning and personal development that appealed to the preferences and financial distress of Millennials and looked set to appeal to generations of students yet to come. She styled these new, free-range learners as "edupunks" and suggested they could transform higher education.

Her next book, DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (2010) took these arguments to the next level, arguing for profound changes in our approaches to postsecondary education, personal learning, and employment. Ms. Kamenetz captures the concerns of the many people who find the current model of American higher education to be too expensive, too complex, and too bundled-disconnected from the evolving digital workplace and no longer delivering on the opportunities it promises. And too often dependent on on-campus learning, where the expense of campus amenities and development is passed on to financially-strapped Millenials.

Ms Kamenetz's central point is that complex professions and enterprises like law, engineering, music, film, and journalism which at one time were seen as "graduate-level" activities requiring the kinds of knowledge offered in campus courses, are being deconstructed/unbundled all around us, their traditional practices dissolved by the new practices enabled by the solvent of information and communications technologies. Traditional institutions will not disappear, but the job opportunities for their graduates are changing fast. A whole new spectrum of DIY, free, and open options are providing new choices that may prepare students better for that new world. A flexible arsenal of personal learning networks and pathways is needed to reach the full population of learners at all stages of their personal and professional journeys. She asserts that such networks are the locus of innovation across the economy.

Ms. Kamenetz has just launched a new publication, The Edupunk's Guide to a DIY Credential (2011) supported by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that provides more practical guidance for individual learners who wish to establish their own personalized learning. It includes ways to access the networks of open learning and competence certification that are emerging. In the fall, a community of practice will operate to support this effort both at and on the Peer 2 Peer University platform, an exemplary network for open learning.

Chronicling Disruptive Innovations in Higher Education

These developments coincide with the publication of Clayton Christensen's latest work on disruptive innovations, The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out (2011). Christensen's thesis has been tested and validated in a wide range of other industries and has now been applied to medicine and education (7).

He contends that disruptive innovations typically begin as innovations introduced by new providers to meet an unmet need or serve a population that is not satisfied with what they are receiving from leading providers. The first generations of the new innovation are often seen as of lower quality as the offerings of the market leaders, but they are "good enough" for the unserved or underserved clienteles. Over time, however, the offerings improve in quality and features and come to be seen as offering an excellent value for not just the original users, but for an increasing market share.

These new innovations can be deployed more nimbly to address workforce features/skills that traditional market leaders have not been able to provide. They can adroitly address specific knowledge/skills gaps rather than full pathways to certificates and degrees. Over time, these disruptive innovations nibble away at the bundled offerings of the market leaders.

Dr. Christensen asserts that in higher education, online learning, open educational resources, competence-based certification, and communities of practice will mature into such disruptive innovations. Ms. Kamenetz's description of the evolution of open, free-range learning and credentialing options accentuates his argument.

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