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Designing learning for millennials

A few years ago, my parents were looking for a building company to do some work on their house and, I swear this is true, they consulted the Yellow Pages. Not Google, not even The Yellow Pages.

The copy they consulted must have been sitting around the house since the early days of the millennium. The company they eventually landed on left a hole in the house for 2 months and installed the windows so that they didn’t open properly.

Five minutes of googling told me and my sisters that the company had been a bad choice and we roundly told my parents off for not using the internet to check them out.The fact was, it simply hadn’t occurred to them. It just wasn’t the way they were used to doing things and demonstrated the difference in mindset between their generation and mine: the much-maligned millennials.

Defining characteristics

In order to write this blog, I spent some time researching millennials and the characteristics that supposedly define us; the most noteworthy of which seems to be how annoying we are.

Millennials, it seems, are impatient, needy and require instant gratification. One article commented on the ‘sense of entitlement’ that makes us believe that we should and will be able to make a difference to society because we’re such special snowflakes. I was told that we can’t concentrate, mostly because we can’t keep our eyes off our phones, which also makes us terrible communicators.

One article lamented that ‘ tend to think of themselves as exclusive entities with distinctive perceptions.’ What monsters. Most annoying of all, apparently, is our need to constantly question; to refuse to accept the status quo; to constantly ask why.

What. Utter. Monsters.While sighing and despairing of the younger generation, however, the articles that I read were also desperate to explain how millennials’ annoying character traits and values could be harnessed in order to communicate ‘on their level’ and also to sell them things.

It made me wonder about whether designing learning should be approached differently for a millennial audience.

I decided (generously) to accept the abuse that had been hurled at my generation as true and investigate.

Instant gratification

Maybe we could call the course something clickbaity and catchy. ’12 ways you’re probably exposing your company to cyber threats. Number 5 will blow your mind!’ Hmm, maybe not.

Millennials probably do value instant gratification, in that we’ve grown up in a world that moves increasingly fast, where information and services are just a click away.

So, we’re practical. We look for the quickest, most efficient way to do things, and this should apply to e-learning too. Whether we’re designing for millennials or anybody else, we should be trying to keep courses short and focused on key messages.  

‘How can they fit any learning in when all they want to do is take selfies and post on Instagram?’, cry the baby boomers. To which I reply, why not try to fit some learning in in between?

Studies have shown that training is best delivered in short bursts, spread out over a longer period of time, anyway; an approach known as spaced practise.

Instead of making training a 2-hour ‘event’ we should be trying to release activities and exercises one or two at a time, over a longer period, with increasing difficulty. Spaced learning is recognised to be one of the most effective ways of embedding skills and knowledge.


If millennials are impatient it’s only because our upbringing (by which I mean the internet) has taught us to expect speed, ease and efficiency when it comes to finding out information.

I would argue that this is no bad thing, especially when it comes to designing training.

We no longer need to provide all the information that learners could possibly need and then force them to click through it page by page to make sure they’ve read it.

Millennials are used to exploring and searching for the information they need at their own pace. We need to give them access to all the information they might need, make it easy to navigate, and then let them use it.

We can test that they’ve understood what they’ve read through meaningful, in-depth exercises.

Sense of entitlement

As a millennial, you hear over and over again about the ‘participation awards’ and ‘helicopter parenting’ that led to you believe you were special.

Luckily the invention of gamification means that we can easily make our millennial learners feel special. Use gamification elements such as badges and stars to encourage learners to apply themselves to activities.

We could even create a ‘participation badge’ that the learner receives as soon as they sign up for the course.

Poor communicators

The fact that much of millennials’ communication now happens via smartphones or social media has led to them being branded, poor communicators.

In fact, they are highly effective communicators. Think how quickly ideas spread around the world when shared through social media. Millennials expect to be heard and appreciated and to feel as if they are making a difference, but are more used to doing it in an online setting.

As online training designers, we should be providing ample opportunities for learners to continue their training through online discussion. Whether it’s through forum discussions, a comments section, or through social media, we should be encouraging and facilitating discussion in any way we can, as it’s one of the most effective ways to learn.

We could, for example, introduce a hashtag that learners can use to comment on their learning or share their experience, whether that’s to discuss what they’ve learned or give us valuable feedback about the learning.

Can’t concentrate

I remember my teacher mum’s frustration as she asked my sister, ‘How can you possibly revise History while scrolling through Facebook and carrying on three different conversations on your phone all at the same time? Why can’t you just concentrate?’

It’s true that millennials have grown up in a world where stimuli assail your senses from every direction, all the time; but it hasn’t made us hyperactive or unproductive; it’s made us into multi-taskers.

Millennial learners are likely to be doing ten other things at the same time when they go through our courses, so how can we get them to engage with in-depth concepts and skills practise?

Why not harness their multi-tasking ability instead? Millennials can be reading a key document at the same time as doing an activity based on it, whilst also taking part in an online discussion about another part of the training; so let’s make that happen.

Give them the resources they’re likely to need, in an easily accessible format, and then give them every opportunity to complete learning tasks and discuss what they’re doing with each other.

Very special snowflakes

One of the areas of learning design that’s currently being developed in interesting directions is personalised learning, which is especially important for millennial learners.

Millennials have learned to expect that they’ll be able to personalise their devices, apps and products to how they live their lives. Adaptive learning is currently undergoing a period of development, with artificial intelligence being used to personalise the learning experience.

This, along with the ongoing curation of content from all over the internet, will seem more natural to millennial learners than the traditional 30-minute, click-through-once style of learning experience. It’s important to recognise that one size does not fit all, and this is true for all learners, not just millennials.

Trying to create a more personalised experience forces us to engage with learners on a deeper level, which is always going to lead to better learning.

The other thing that my generation has been taught to expect is the personal touch. It may seem annoying to some that smoothie bottles have started talking to us as if we’re lifelong friends (“I contain four of your 5-a-day! Why not follow me on Twitter?”), but this phenomenon too contains important lessons for learning design.

More than ever, it’s important to say it straight, to explain why something is important and why learners need to understand it. Cut the business jargon and unnecessary complication – millennials are straight-talkers.

Can’t take their eyes off their phones

I can’t argue with this one; it’s definitely true. Millennials have set us a challenge; creativity and innovation are important to them, but so is technology, and they expect the seamless transition from desktop to mobile with no compromise.

They have come to expect total control over where and when they access the internet, and this should apply to internet-based learning too.

Always asking why

Well, I’m not going to help you with this one. Yes, millennials ask why a lot, often when faced with a system or other accepted idea that seems illogical, awkward or unnecessary.

Asking why is, and always has been, the most effective way of bringing about important technological and social changes.

Take advantage of millennials’ need to contribute. We’re told that every millennial believes him or herself to be a very special snowflake who is going to change the world – why not let them try?

I think it’s important to note, before finishing, that seeing everything through a generational lens could, in fact, be pointless, or even counter-productive.

The fact is that millennials aren’t that different from other adults and the things that I’ve highlighted here (spaced practise, focusing on key messages, enabling collaborative learning and personalisation), which millennials supposedly value so highly, can, in fact, translate into good principles for learning design for any adult.

Millennials are right to feel ‘entitled’ to good learning experiences. They are. Everyone is.


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