The 10 Commandments of Teaching ‘Generation Y’ with Technology Adam John Simpson, Turkey

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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:



Bridging ‘our world’ and ‘theirs’

Chronology and terminology

How ‘Generation Y’ think

How ‘Generation Y’ use technology




Final thoughts


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 learn­ers. 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 strat­egies 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.
Connecting ‘our world’ and ‘theirs’
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.
Chronology and terminology
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.
How ‘Generation Y’ think
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.
How ‘Generation Y’ use technology
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;

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 presented visually.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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 classes.

  1. 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.
1. 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.
2. 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 (OCLC, 2006).
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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
6. 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 experiences.
7. 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.
8. 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.
9. 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 the norm.
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.
10. 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.
Final thoughts
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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