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Life Sciences Magazine

Classroom Evolution: New Technology, A New Generation, and a New Future

Cassidy Shively, a biology major, sighed as she realized her laptop had died. She didn’t want to miss this lecture of her science class, so she quickly pulled out her phone to take notes on instead. A few minutes into the lecture her professor paused, looked right at Shively, and said, “I really don’t appreciate it when people are texting in class.” Slightly embarrassed, Shively responded, “I’m taking notes, I swear!”

Now Shively laughs when she recalls what happened, but mishaps like hers show the gap between generations. “I think there can definitely be a clash in viewing technology as either a tool or distraction,” she explains. “Those are differences in perspectives that we have, baby boomers versus millennials. We’re not always going to see eye to eye . . . it’s important that [students] are polite in a classroom, but it’s also not necessarily up to the professor to dictate how a student takes [his or her] education.”

Who are the millennials? How has technology impacted their attitudes about NEW TECHNOLOGY, A NEW GENERATION, AND A NEW FUTUREeducation? How are professors at BYU adapting to this new generation of students? And overall, how will this affect the workplace? This article addresses those questions through interviews with students, professors, and those researching the millennial generation.

Who are the Millennials?

For the purpose of this article, millennials are defined as people between the ages of seventeen and thirty-eight (according to the U.S. Census Bureau, which defines the millennial generation as children born between 1982 and 2002).

Millennials are famous for many things—their high values, positive expectations of themselves and others, and enthusiasm for contributing to a higher purpose—and quite infamous for other things, such as their dependence on technology, their perceived egocentricity, and their apparent sense of entitlement.

Much research has been done on the topic of academic entitlement—the idea that millennials feel entitled to achieve high grades if they put in a certain amount of effort. Some studies suggest that the recent cultural push to boost students’ self-esteem has created this feeling of entitlement in today’s students. Shelby Kurtz, a student in biological science education, comments, “I think up to a point you can be entitled to something in a classroom, but in the workplace, you’re less entitled. You are not entitled to a job. It’s a lot harder. I feel like that will be a shock for a lot of students."

On the topic of academic entitlement, Hailey Olsen (a junior in microbiology) admits that millennial students sometimes focus on grades more than learning. “If you want to go to graduate school, grades are so important,” she explains. Abigail Moon, a biological science education major, agrees: “It’s really easy to say, ‘This is a means to an end’ versus ‘This is a learning experience.’ It’s, ‘I need an A to get to grad school’ versus, ‘This is an interesting class to learn the information.’”

However, Moon says, many students learn to emphasize grades less after receiving lower marks. “I started school and I just wanted to do well until I just bombed a few classes. It was traumatic for me as a 4.0 high school student. But I learned that just because you put in all this time and effort, doesn’t mean you’re going to get an A. That was a big frame shift for me and I think it happens for most people.”

Millennials, who grew up able to Google anything, are not satisfied with information for information’s sake because it has always been easily available to them. Fingertip access to instant knowledge means that memorization is no longer a critical skill for modern students. Instead, they need to learn analytical skills to sort through information and apply it. On a positive note, biology professor Dr. Jamie Jensen believes students ask deeper questions because Google gives them a head start on the answer: “The caliber of student is higher. They are very smart.”

Unfortunately, a wealth of online information might not always be a good thing for millennials. Jensen says, “I don’t think they’re learning to be scientists. They don’t know how to fight for an answer. And therefore, they don’t know how to defend an answer.” Rebecca Samson, a professor in chemistry, says, “They want immediate answers. But in science, there are things that we have to grapple with. If they want to be successful they’ve got to learn how to grapple with a problem with their minds. It’s beyond the technology, beyond the classroom.”

Samson researches open-source textbooks and online homework systems. She says millennials approach studying in a new way. “Students now are less likely to read a textbook than they were a generation ago.” When it comes to finding information online, she cautions students to recognize their sources. “Understand who puts together the website, who pays for it, and how that influences content and bias . . . I trust scientists because I am one. But information literacy is a major challenge for millennials.”

On a positive note, millennials are highly motivated by their drive to succeed. Karen Arnesen, who teaches biological science education students, comments, “I find that [millennials are] more willing to take charge of their education than when I was here. . . . They’re more proactive in taking charge of what they want to learn.”

How has technology impacted education?

Technology is central to millennials’ social interactions and leisure time, so naturally it impacts their education as well. However, technology itself does not improve learning. Using a PowerPoint to replace writing on the board is not innovative. Truly innovative classroom technology must teach students in a way that would not be possible otherwise.

“I really like technology in the classroom when it’s interactive: when it’s engaging and real-time feedback, like iClicker quizzes,” explains Moon. “If the technology is replacing what I consider good teaching, it is negative because it becomes a crutch. The technology isn’t teaching; the professor is teaching. The technology is supplementing.”

To evaluate the innovation of technology in the classroom, educators use the evaluative framework PICRAT, which was created by BYU professor Dr. Royce Kimmons. PICRAT is an acronym for Passive, Interactive, Creative, Replace, Amplify, and Transform. And PICRAT is not just for the classroom. Samson says, “I think PICRAT is useful for any sort of profession.”

Basically, PICRAT encourages professors to use technology to make their classes more creative and more transformative for the students. For example, instead of replacing a lecture with a PowerPoint, professors might encourage creativity by asking students to create and share their own videos, infographics, experiments, or websites. Or professors may transform classrooms by using video chat to connect with experts around the world. As Arnesen points out, this helps professors to be “purposeful in how [they] use technology.”

However, professors shouldn’t use technology just because they are pressured to do so. “I think sometimes there’s pressure for people to modernize and use more technology, but it’s not always better. So, I think instructors need to think, ‘Is this adding value?’” explains Samson. She suggests using technology to improve students' access to resources and grades.

How are professors adapting?

So how are Life Sciences professors actually responding to millennials and technology in classrooms?

Jensen reports, “I do activities that aren’t Google-able. I want students to think like scientists. . . . When I was in college it was satisfying to get the answer because I had to dig . . . Students just Google [answers] and don’t think about it. I think that makes it hard for the future scientist because that’s not how science works. [Scientists] might not find answers for years, decades even.”

Recently, more teachers have moved to free online textbooks and resources. “There’s a real move in education to use open resources. Th e teacher can modify them, take out chapters, put in chapters. You can make notes, highlight it, and keep it forever. It’s always there,” says Arnesen.

Jensen adds, “That’s on us as professors. We need to be up to speed on what’s out there. Which is hard because we’re busy with other things. . . . But you have to incorporate it. If you stick with the old style you’re going to lose the students.”

From a student's perspective, professors throughout the college are making a shift. “I’ve seen a transition between memorization and interacting with concepts,” says Shively.

This transition from memorizing to applying has led to an increase in hands-on learning. Olsen says research outside the classroom has helped her to care more about education. (She studies soil in Antarctica to compare it to soils in the U.S.) “I’m learning so much more and putting more time into it . . . it’s more of a learning environment than the classroom.” Olsen feels her lab is great preparation for the real world: “We all trust each other, there’s no competition . . . when I go into the medical field I don’t want to be competing against other doctors because then you can’t get better.”

She advises incoming students to get involved in experiential learning as soon as possible. “I wish someone had told me to look for a research project in the first two weeks of school. I think students need to get involved outside the classroom, and the best way to do that is to go talk to your professor. All professors are researching something, so if you like what they’re doing in class, then ask them about it.”

Olsen isn’t the only one who’s noticed that millennials excel in experiential learning environments. “The more interactive, the better,” says Arnesen. “The idea of experiential learning is really important because they’re doing what they’re learning. Be able to personalize as much as possible. Students are more engaged if it comes from them. Students need to learn in a way that’s meaningful to them.”

How will this affect the workplace?

Moon explains that experiential learning can help students become better scientists. “If students can come to school and their time in the classroom is hands-on, they’ll retain much more. They’ll become better scientists because that’s what scientists do. Then they’re so much better equipped because they’ve learned the practices instead of just the content.”

According to Future of Millennial Generations: A Review, by 2025, three-fourths of workers globally will be millennials. In their future careers, millennials want a workplace that matches their values because they are very socially conscious. Moon explains, “Millennials have values that they stick to. They don’t want to work 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. and come home exhausted. They know what they want and they’re willing to make sacrifices to get it.”

Professors are eager to prepare students with critical thinking skills and technological tools for the workplace. “It’s an exciting time—there’s so much we can learn and share with each other,” says Arnesen. Samson agrees. “I think it’s an exciting time to be at a university. It’s exciting to work with people in the next generation.”

Regarding the future, Jensen comments, “[The millennials] have access to more infor-mation than we did and know how to use it better than we do, and will be able to go further than we ever could.” Ultimately, millennials will have no other option; as Samson points out, many students will end up “work[ing] in fi elds that don’t exist yet” and will need all the preparation they can get.