Higher Education, Blended Learning and the Generations: Knowledge is Power-No More

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Higher Education, Blended Learning and the Generations:

Knowledge is Power-No More

Charles Dziuban, Patsy Moskal, and Joel Hartman

Research Initiative for Teaching Effectiveness, LIB 118

University of Central Florida

Orlando, FL 32816-2810

Telephone: 407-823-5487

Fax: 407-823-6580

  1. dziuban@mail.ucf.edu

  2. pdmoskal@mail.ucf.edu

  3. joel@mail.ucf.edu


The authors explore blended learning environments from metaphorical and generational perspectives. They suggest that the language of higher education reflects metaphors that evolve for the academy, faculty, and students. Generational markers for Mature, Baby-Boomer, Generation X, and Millennial student cohorts interact with blended learning satisfaction. Principal components analysis identified two satisfaction dimensions – learning engagement and interaction value. Student scores on the two components showed that Millennials responded least positively to their blended learning experience. The authors conclude that the metaphor “knowledge is power” is evolving to more accurately reflect asynchronous learning networks (ALN) in higher education.

  1. introduction

The title of this paper foreshadows our belief that blended learning is transforming higher education by altering the metaphors we use to define our profession. Sir Francis Bacon’s famous proclamation that “knowledge is power” has been the foundation of the academy for hundreds of years [1]. This supposition implies that knowledge is a commodity and access is the key. However, even a casual review of the ALN and blended learning literature indicates change in higher education.

The structure of metaphors provides us with a device for understanding the world and our actions in it. Lakoff & Johnson, for instance, contend that, “Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature” [2]. Cytowic agrees, affirming that metaphors explain how we think and act [3]. By describing an object or idea in terms of something else, we provide ourselves with a concept map and a universal language of understanding. For instance, the common metaphor in our society, “good is up; bad is down,” is found in language such as, “She went to a top university, but he bottomed out.” Another example, “argument is war,” is described by phrases such as, “He attacked my main point.”

Over time metaphors have evolved for higher education other than “knowledge is power.” A good example is that the university is an ivory tower intimated in words such as, “That program is a bastion of excellence” or, “At the university, he isolated himself from the real world.” Another illustration might be that the university is a ship; “The president is charting a wonderful course for us.” Additionally, metaphors surface for the role groups at the university. Alternately, we characterize students as consumers, empty vessels, clients, disciples, raw material, budding flowers, and blank slates among many others [4, 5]. Faculty experience the same metaphorical descriptions as storytellers, performers, task masters, facilitators, counselors, coaches, directors, oracles, mentors, and cheerleaders, just to name a few [4, 5, 6].

Given this definitional theory, it is no surprise that metaphors are developing for blended learning [7, 8, 9]. For instance, blended courses are a hybrid species – “From the way he teaches now, you wouldn’t recognize the class,” or a confluence – “Her face-to-face and online teaching are really coming together.” Undoubtedly, the metaphors we use impact the language for conducting business in higher education (or vice versa). The student as consumer leads to a particular model aligned with the university as a community and the faculty as facilitators. In a sense, reconciling our metaphors defines the linguistic strategic plan for the university. Undoubtedly, however, generational time periods give rise to quite different metaphors for students, faculty, and higher education. With that in mind, we would like to explore some recent developments about today’s students and their satisfaction with blended learning.

  1. The New Learner

Recently, scholars have turned their attention to a phenomenon named the new or next generation learner [10, 11, 7]. This development emerges from sociological, cultural, economic, and political perspectives rather than individual preference or psychological constructs as one might incorporate when studying learning styles. Defining today’s students as new learners suggests a fundamental difference in the way they approach knowledge acquisition, problem solving, and moving into the workforce [12]. The paramount questions become: is higher education meeting the needs of the present generation learner and, possibly more important, who is generation-next? These questions cause speculation about how we might transform or rebuild higher education. Let’s briefly consider the generations that populate our campuses at the present time.

  1. The Generations

When investigators consider the generations they generally reference four groups: Matures (born prior to 1946), Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1980), and Millennials (1981-1994) [13]. Undeniably, these classification dates are arbitrary: for instance, someone born in 1945 is labeled a Mature while another person born in 1946 is a Baby Boomer, although their life-shaping political, social, and economic milestones are nearly identical. However, these categories do provide useful referents for contextualizing behavior.

A. Matures

World War II, the Korean Conflict, The Depression, and the New Deal were some of the major markers of this generation. Even though those persons born later in the cohort didn’t directly experience these events, they shaped their lives, nonetheless, because this generation lived in extended families (same house, same block, same town) and told stories. Later Matures remember well their parents recounting (over and over) the impact of World War II and the Great Depression. These narratives had a profound impact. Furthermore, there were consistent messages in these conversations, on the radio, in the movies, and in newspapers and magazines: “hard work is the key to success,” “the common good above all,” “be thrifty and save your money for a rainy day - there are hard times ahead,” “there are good people and there are bad people,” “authority deserves respect,” and above all, “one should be loyal to one’s family, friends, job, country, and community.” These events and themes played a powerful role in shaping the mindset of the Mature generation. Technology markers for this group included such things as trans-Atlantic radio signals, stereo phonographs, and the development of electronic computers These citizens, who believed in an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, saw the university as an ivory tower: “Go to college, I want better for you.”[13, 14, 15]

B. Baby Boomers

Baby Boomers, through their sheer weight of numbers, have had a monumental impact on the country – politically, economically, socially, and culturally. The beginning period of the generation saw rapid and sustained economic expansion, giving rise to a strong sense of financial security. Life was good; however, other events impacted this generation: divorce, consumer debt, the Cuban missile crisis, the Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, and Vietnam. Even in the face of these events, Boomers remain optimistic, are willing to go into debt, remain process-oriented, and strive for convenience. They occupy high positions in government, commerce, and industry, and are becoming legendary for their potential impact on the social security system. Some of the major technology markers for this generation include PLATO, the fax machine, the BASIC computer language, and the minicomputer. For the Boomers, the university was a great expectation: “Buy it now, pay later. Everything is going to work out once I get my degree.” [13, 14, 16]

C. Generation X

Generation X experienced a significantly different set of markers from the Baby Boomers and was the first generation to feel the profound impact of technological developments. They encountered events such as Watergate, anti-war protests, excessive inflation, massive layoffs, the Challenger tragedy, the energy crisis, Three Mile Island, AIDS, and the Exxon Valdez. After school they became resourceful, since both parents were working, forming the first “Latch Key Generation.” As a result, Gen-Xers grew up skeptical and mistrustful of established organizations, institutions, and traditions. Viewed as disrespectful, they speak up and look out for themselves because they feel societal expectations such as employment and security are ephemeral. Because they see job security as a myth, they work to live, putting very little stock in future stability. For Generation X, versatility provides security. There were many important technology markers for this generation: Windows keyboard mouse, the UNIX operating system, Intel’s introduction of the 4004, 8008, and 8080 microprocessor chips, the C programming language, and the foundation of Microsoft, and Apple Computer. For Gen X-ers, their university experience was an uncertain mediation: “I have no idea what’s happening after graduation.” [13, 17, 18]

D. Millennials

The Millennial generation is described by many as the new learner, the Net Generation, Generation Y, Generation Why?, Nexters, and the Internet Generation. Media exposure has taught these young people to challenge any tradition, institution, value, or person they choose, and in many respects they are confused by media-highlighted scandal and dishonesty in industry and the government. They have seen a meteoric rise in stock prices and grew up in a world of cell phones, pagers, the Internet, and the Web. Millennials take class notes on personal digital assistants, get their information from blogs and wikis, and are asked by their professors to turn off their cell phones in their face-to-face courses. They have access to worldwide events that are unprecedented in history. However, they view these sometimes gruesome situations through the aloof templates of television and unfiltered websites that are repositories of pornography and extreme violence. At the same time these influences tell them what to think. They see political campaigns as media spin and job expansion at the minimum wage level. Millennials are the most diverse generation in the history of our nation and can navigate complicated software with such ease that they intimidate members of previous generations. They can complete a task, listen to the portable CD player, and talk on the cell phone simultaneously, but employers report that their basic skill levels, critical thinking ability, and initiative are developmentally lacking. Millennials bring a mindset and approach to the workplace and the world community that many simply cannot comprehend. Their technology markers are impressive indeed: the PC is introduced, the Internet is established, CD sound systems marketed, Microsoft introduces the initial version of Windows OS, Apple introduces the Macintosh, the development of HTML, and the first e-commerce sites appear in the Web. The technologies of the decades after their boundary year (1994) have been even more impressive: the first Internet search engines were developed, DVDs marketed, the MP3 audio format released, the number of Internet hosts exceed 172,000,000, and Google claims a database of 4.28 billion Web pages. The Millennial generation experiences the university through bricolage: “I’m piecing together a program from four departments.” [13, 19, 20]

  1. Literature Review on Blended Learning

A. Today’s Students

Today’s students are increasingly more diverse than ever before. Incoming undergraduates are in many cases more technologically proficient than their faculty with 80% reporting that they have a computer by the time they reach college. With the majority of these students having already “surfed” the Internet for homework purposes (78%) and two-thirds having used e-mail, they are approaching college courses already experienced in Web technologies [21].

Undergraduates also appear to be more non-traditional than in years past with 43% being 24 or older. The majority of these older undergraduates also report being employed (82%) and, as a result, are approaching college with responsibilities above and beyond what they encounter in their classrooms [22].

B. What’s the Perfect Blend?

Many faculty and universities are now experimenting with courses that utilize both fully online and face-to-face instruction. Faculty, students, and administrators are realizing a number of advantages in these blended courses and many see them as offering the best of both instructional worlds. Webster’s Revised Unabridged Dictionary defines “blend” as “to mix or mingle together; esp. to mingle, combine, or associate so that the separate things mixed, or the line of demarcation, cannot be distinguished” [23]. Within the context of blended courses, this definition can be related to the combination of web and face-to-face that is necessary to produce a course utilizing the best of both instructional worlds. Some educators define blended learning approaches as “finding a harmonious balance between online access to knowledge and face-to-face human interaction” [24] or the “thoughtful integration of classroom face-to-face learning experiences with online experiences” [25].

Courses that replace a portion of face-to-face instruction with Web components allow for the flexibility of utilizing Web resources to reduce the on-campus time, yet allow face-to-face interaction as well. Just how many of the face-to-face components are replaced with online instruction varies widely by universities and instructors. This mix is influenced by many factors including the course instructional goals, student characteristics, instructor experience and teaching style, discipline, developmental level, and online resources [24]. In fact, there is no defined standard as to how much or what part of courses go online and it varies widely [25, 26]. Many replace 25-50% of in-class time with Web components [7, 27, 28].

Programs are beginning to see the usefulness of utilizing blended learning, particularly when they serve students whose lifestyles preclude them from attending full face-to-face courses, such as graduate nursing programs [28]. Through utilizing blended learning, accreditation and high standards can be maintained while providing the additional flexibility that students require.

The number of universities utilizing blended courses is growing rapidly. Some estimates are that between 80 and 90 percent of the course will someday be hybrid [29].

C. Why Blend?

There are a number of potential advantages to blended learning that are emerging. Some of these revolve around accessibility, pedagogical effectiveness, and course interaction. Many of today’s college students are non-traditional, attempting to balance family, jobs, and university life. Coming to campus is often difficult for many of them and through reducing the number of face-to-face hours required, blended learning can help them meet this challenge. Universities and faculty are looking for ways to reach and retain these students. By putting course materials on the Web, students can access the material at any time of day and review it as needed, which provides them with increased flexibility [28, 30, 31]. Busy students don’t have to spend time commuting and parking, so blended courses can add up to significant time savings for those with long commutes [26, 29]. Students like the ability to access course materials anytime, anyplace, and are positive about the convenience and flexibility this provides them [7]. Because many students are older and working, blended courses help provide them with the flexibility they need to juggle jobs, school, and family [32, 33, 34]. By reducing time and space commitment, access is easier and thus many students have come to prefer these courses over the face-to-face counterparts.

D. Increased Interaction

An additional benefit often reported in blended classes is an increase in interaction over what students and faculty typically perceive in face-to-face courses [35, 33, 7]. Web resources, and course management systems offer easier access to both students and faculty through discussion groups and e-mail, and they also allow access to material and experts who might not be available otherwise. The end result is a learning environment where students can be actively engaged, potentially learning more than in a traditional on-campus classroom.

Faculty at Mercy College are finding an increased sense of community and collaboration in the blended format because their pedagogical strategy has been to “address varying learning styles, increase interactivity, promote community, and meet the special needs of online students” [36]. Researchers from Brigham Young University also use the blended format to compensate for student differences in experience with content, realizing that some students had prior experience with the material and, thus, might not have to review the material as much as other novices [37]. Being able to review online material as often or as much as needed can be a strategy by which faculty address students’ varying learning styles or those with English as a second language who might need extra practice [28].

Through available Web resources, faculty change the organization of the course and add enhancements to accommodate unique needs or learning styles of some students. Students who need more repetition and exercises can have that opportunity without taking face-to-face class time away from those who might not need the extra reinforcement [33].

Blended courses have the potential to facilitate a community of inquiry. By forcing students to be independent and have control over their learning, blended formats can help foster critical thinking and facilitate collaborative learning [25]. To maximize the benefit of individualizing instruction through blending, Schwartzman & Tuttle [38] provided redundancy to students in the form of audio, video, and textual versions of modules and increased the variety of ways students could engage the material. Without the bounds of in-class time, students can spend as much time as necessary to master the material.

An increase in student engagement in blended courses also occurs as students and faculty experience a level of comfort facilitated by student-to-student and faculty-to-student interactions [38]. When students become comfortable with the instructor and their peers, they become more involved with the course material.

E. Student and Faculty Perceptions

While there is much variation in blended courses (and in face-to-face courses as well), one finding that appears to be consistent is student and faculty satisfaction with this modality. Both students and faculty are positive regarding the flexibility and convenience and the perceived increase in interaction they have with blended courses [39, 40, 7, 37].

Students rate the quality of their blended experience as high as or higher than their face-to-face courses. They also report high satisfaction with instructor interaction. Course weaknesses often refer to problems with technology, including difficulty with course management systems [35]. Researchers at Ohio State University surveyed 201 students from three universities about their experience in courses spanning the distance education continuum from completely face-to-face to completely online. What students indicated was that the intuitive structure of the course – clearly defined objectives, assignments, deadlines, and encouraging dialogue and interaction—were most important in satisfaction with the course [41].

Rovai and Jordan [42] compared three education graduate courses—traditional, blended, and fully online—and found that students in the blended course measured highest in a sense of community, similar to those students in the face-to-face section, but higher than those in fully online section. They stated “since students in the blended course exhibited similar sense of community and variability as students in the traditional course, offering the convenience of fully online courses without the complete loss of face-to-face contact may be adequate to nurture a strong sense of community in students who would feel isolated in a fully online course” (p. 13). Students in the blended courses touted the benefits of the online portion of the course which allowed them the freedom to perform some of the course instruction at their own flexibility, a feature important for these students, many of whom needed to work. However, many of them also mentioned the value of the face-to-face component which they felt helped them both academically and in building professional relationships and a strong sense of community. In addition, some students in the fully online course misread the instructor’s comments as being “sharp and frank” while students in the blended and fully online courses did not convey such impressions, possibly because of the opportunity for face-to-face discussions which allowed everyone to become acquainted.

For the most part, faculty report that student performance in blended courses is as good as, or in some cases better, than face-to-face [35]. The Pew Grant Program in Course Redesign found improved student learning in 19 out of 30 projects with 11 having no significant difference from face-to-face sections [43]. Comparing face-to-face and blended introductory statistics courses, Utts, et al, [44] found performance was equal, although hybrid students were slightly less positive.

O’Toole & Absalom [45] found students in the blended format, accessing both online resources and attending lectures, performed better than students who attempted to perform without attending lectures. They posit that the lecture provides high motivation for students to maintain progress, thus equating to higher student achievement.

  1. A study of generational satisfaction with Blended learning

A. Methods

The investigators conducted a satisfaction survey of the blended learning student population at the University of Central Florida. Five-point Likert scale questions formed the basis of this study, asking students to index their blended learning experience with respect to overall satisfaction, ability to integrate technology into their learning, ability to control their own learning, study efficiency, ability to meet their educational objectives, willingness to take another blended course, ease of interaction, amount of interaction with students, quality of interaction with students, amount of interaction with the instructor, and quality of interaction with the instructor.

These items were inter-correlated and the (11x11) matrix subjected to a principal components analysis [46]. Components were extracted according to the number of eigenvalues of the correlation matrix greater than one. The components were transformed using the promax [47] procedure. Coefficients in the transformed pattern matrix absolutely greater than .3 were considered salient. Prior to any “factoring” procedures the domain sampling properties of the data were indexed with the measure of sampling adequacy (MSA) [48]. Component scores for each responding student were computed using the regression method. Subsequently, a one-way analysis of variance was completed for the component scores by the generations (Boomer, Gen X, and Millennial). Finally, decision trees were derived for each set of scores using generational membership, gender and ethnicity as predictors. Chi-square Automatic Interaction Detection (CHAID) [49] derived the tree structure on the sample that was validated with a ten partition fold. The objective of these procedures was to gain a better perspective of the generational perceptions (metaphors) of blended learning. Of the 2000 survey instruments distributed, 491 were returned.

B. Results

Table 1 presents the percentage distribution, with no Matures responding to the survey, and showing the majority of student respondents (80%) representing Generation X and Millennials. The majority of Millennials (92%) represent undergraduate education while the majority of Boomers (78%) come from graduate classes. Generation X is split between the upper undergraduate level (42%) and graduate classes (51%).

Table 1

Percentage of students responding to the survey instrument and registrations

Questionnaire Responses (n=487)

Student Registrations



Low Und %

High Und %

Graduate %







Gen X












Table 2 gives the promax transformed pattern matrix for the principal component analysis with a measure of sampling adequacy (.87) indicating excellent domain sampling. The eigenvalue selection criterion (>1) retained two components. The pattern coefficients for component one show substantial values for overall satisfaction, integrating technology, more learning control, study efficiency, willingness to take another blended course, and meeting educational objectives. The construct associated with these coefficients is probably best described as learning engagement. The second dimension is entirely related to interaction value: ease, quantity, and quality with students and instructors. The correlation between the two components is .47.

Table 2

Promax transformed pattern matrix

Principal components solution for students’ rating of blended learning (n = 491)




Overall Satisfaction




Better Integrate Tech.




More Learning Control




Study Efficiency




Take Another Blended Course




Met Educational Objectives




Easier Interaction




Amount of Student Interaction




Quality of Student Interaction




Amount of Instructor Interaction




Quality of Instructor Interaction







% Variance



Measure of Sampling adequacy = .87

Component Correlation = .47

Decimals Omitted for Pattern Coefficients


Table 3 presents the results of the one-way analysis of variance of the component scores for learning engagement and interaction value scores. The reader should be cognizant that component scores are not a simple sum of the items with high “loadings” but rather a function of the transformed pattern values used as regression coefficients. One advantage of component scores is that, because of their scaling, they produce values in a unit normal metric, thus presenting differences in standard deviation units. The learning engagement scores produced a significant difference (p=.00) showing Boomers most positive (.404) and Millennials least favorable toward their blended learning experience (-.204). Those values place Boomers and Millennials over one half a standard deviation apart. The interaction value component scores produced a similar result (p=.00) with Boomers showing an average component score of .246 and Millennials producing an average score of -.273, again locating those two groups over one-half standard deviation apart. Note from Table 3 that the correlation between the learning engagement and interaction scores was .71 – supporting the supposition that student satisfaction is positively related to interaction.

Table 3

Average learning engagement and interaction component scores by generation in blended course

Learning Engagement










Gen X


















Gen X








*Probabilities based on one way analysis of variance

Learning engagement/interaction component score correlation = .71

Figure 1 presents the decision tree for learning engagement using generational membership, gender and ethnicity as predictors. One conclusion from Figure 1 is that of the predictors, only generation and gender were selected by the decision rules. Three noteworthy outcomes appear in Figure 1 – male Millennial students can be expected to score over one-half of a standard deviation below the mean on learning engagement with the distance between Boomers and Millennial males being almost one complete standard deviation. Also, male Millennials (-.545) scored considerably lower than female Millennials (-.061) who have an average value close to the group mean. Figure 1 indicates that the correlation between age and learning engagement is quite low, r =.172.

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