Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach. (Prensky 2001 p1) For that, we have to thank advances in technology.

Who are our students?

Students who entered higher education straight out of high school for the 2016 school year were born in or near 1998. In popular culture, this is the year knockout (and technologically advanced) films such as Armageddon and The Titanic were released. In technology, this is the year Microsoft announced Windows 98, Google’s public search engine (which had already indexed around 60 million pages) was taking over the market, and Apple unveiled the iMac.

In 2001 (15 years ago!), average college grads spent less than 5,000 hours of their lives reading, but over 10,000 hours playing video games and 20,000+ hours watching TV (Prensky 2001 p1). Just imagine where that number sits now.

How this knowledge helps us understand our students’ needs

Today’s traditional students are what many term “Digital Natives”, born with accessible technology at their fingertips. Their predecessors are often referred to as “Digital Immigrants” — those that saw the technology boom during their formative years, and have since only come to expect more from it. The digital generations have spent their entire lives surrounded by technology. They’re accustomed to the presence of multiple devices and the internet in their lives, and they’re constantly connected. They rely on it.

When first wave of Digital Immigrants entered college, they understood the growing pains of introducing new technology. Some things didn’t work quite as expected, some things were still a work in progress, and maybe it was just better to whip out the pen and paper again. It wasn’t necessarily acceptable, but it was accepted.

Now, the Digital Natives are entering college. They’re used to bug-free technology with advanced graphics and a great user experience. That quickly reject technology when it doesn’t work the way they expected — which can negatively impact their opinion of our institutions.

How education should respond

As educators and institutions, we must evolve to keep up with the matriculation of digital generations because they think and process information fundamentally differently from their non-digital predecessors.

And higher education has changed in response — kind of. More technology is being added to the classroom, and more institutions offer online programs. But innovation is moving faster every year, and higher education has been one of the slower fields to stay abreast of the wave.

10 years ago, innovative schools started moving to online and blended learning using technology. The platform of choice for creating these programs was a Learning Management System. The “online” part of blended courses was just posting the syllabus and lecture notes. If there were recorded lectures, it would mean fantastic news for students, who could couldn’t make it to class. Quality was usually poor, often featuring long PDFs, 2-hour lecture recordings, an endless stream of multiple choice questions, and low-resolution graphics (if any at all). In the beginning, it didn’t matter; by virtue of being online, schools gained competitive advantage.

Now, as more institutions come online and “digitally wise” students continue filling our classrooms, physically or virtually, institutions need to differentiate their offerings even more. Digital Natives (justly and deservedly) expect to receive the same greatness from their online learning experiences as they do from their video games and mobile apps. Today, what matters is focusing not just on the Existence of online education, but on the Quality.

To get students excited and engaged in their education, we must create great digital learning experiences that are interactive and adaptive (as technology has been guiding for a few years now). On top of that, in the same vein of thought as movie and video game experiences, we should provide online learning that is beautiful graphically-rich (UI) with a well-designed user experience (UX).

Here are some examples of what we mean by great digital learning experiences:

That’s the Quality learning experience technology such as Smart Sparrow helps people create, and that’s what educators need to aim for if they want to keep up with their Digital Native students.