Digitally savvy

Educating the first Internet generation poses new challenges

Amber Stokes
9 November 2012

4 min read

With their enthusiasm for consumer high-tech devices and social media, today’s students differ significantly from those of previous generations. Compass looks at what this new breed of connected learner offers to educational institutions and the business world . . . and what they expect in return.

The proliferation of consumer technology and social media has made the current generation more mobile and socially connected than ever before, changes that have considerable implications for both colleges and future employers.

“A different kind of person is emerging from higher education that can be called a global graduate, but most importantly he/she will be a self-evolving personality,” says Olga Kovbasyuk, president of the International Higher Education Teaching and Learning Association (HETL). “Therefore, he/she will have experiences in global learning studies, and is able to apply global knowledge and skills to effectively interact and collaborate with world cultures. He/she is more self and globally aware, and has multiple perspectives on the world issues and business.”


Young adults of Generation Y have never been more globally connected, with access to data and contacts anytime, anywhere. It is second nature for them to use technologies such as smartphones, tablets and game consoles to interact with various communities and social networks, including Facebook, Twitter and China’s equivalent, Weibo. Higher education institutions must keep up with this demand and so are incorporating these technologies into their curriculums.

“Students have to show us the way,” says Dr. Agnes Kukulska-Hulme, associate director for learning and teaching in the Institute of Educational Technology Professoriat at the UK’s Open University. “They are often ahead of ‘us’ in using the  technology. We need to tap into their knowledge – not only about technology, but also about different ways of studying.” “Any major change in the way people communicate is bound to have major implications for education,” says Daniel Clark, program leader for the Bachelor of Science program in Leadership, Enterprise and Management at London’s BPP Business School. As such, students of the future will expect access to educational resources whenever, wherever they wish. “Some will have had many years of experience creating and sharing content, perhaps quite complex, perhaps to do with education,” Clark says. “Will they be happy to accept timetabled classes  and sit through lectures?”

In “Social Media: Why It Matters to Everyone in Education,” Clark explains that the use of social media in education has changed in phases over time. “Phase One was when faculty started to use the potential of social media to support each other and for their personal and professional development,” Clark explains. The second phase dealt with how educators used social media to provide resources to each other and to students.  

Phase Three, Clark says, which began recently, “is when students start to originate educational content.” For example, students of today are engaging in ‘social learning’ with blogs and peer-to-peer contacts over social media sites.


So how can these students’ future employers benefit from their connectedness and social-media savvy? “These new ways of teaching and learning can improve learners’ intercultural communication competencies, which facilitate improved international relations and generate intercultural capital,” Kovbasyuk of HETL says. They also can raise students’ global self-awareness (see sidebar) and help students mature more quickly and fully.

Clark cites the example of Monica Rankin, a history lecturer at the University of Texas, who experimented with Twitter to increase the engagement in course discussions of students from a 90-person class. “I wanted to find a way to incorporate more student-centered learning techniques and involve the students more fully into the material,” Rankin says. Despite the fact that Twitter limits each ‘tweet’ to 140 characters, the experiment “encouraged students to engage who otherwise would not.” Using mobile technologies in and out of the classroom also gives students more flexibility to fit their studies around other activities, a trend that has implications for lifelong learning. “Mobile learning provides more flexibility in terms of time, place, and resources and can adapt to their lifestyle,” Kukulska-Hulme says. “Learners can be more actively engaged in determining what, when, and how to study, that is, choosing their activities and the time and place to perform them.”


Just as students are pushing the adoption of new technologies in the classroom, they will expect similar – or better – levels of access in the workplace.  “Androids, iPads, Google Docs, Dropbox – these and other technologies are everywhere in enterprises today,” Accenture states in “The Genie Is Out of the Bottle: Managing the Infiltration of Consumer IT into the Workforce,” published in 2011. “Often, (these devices) enter the workplace with employees, not under the company’s auspices,” the report says. “They may raise alarms, but they also present valuable opportunities to those who successfully harness them.”  

Accenture surveyed more than 4,000 employees in 16 countries across five continents and found that employees believe the technologies they use enhanced innovation, productivity and job satisfaction. More than a quarter (27%) said that they would pay for their own devices and applications to use at work if the alternative was to do without.  

To benefit from this enthusiasm for technology, some businesses are leveraging social media tools to build private networks that create tighter links with their employees while giving everyone improved visibility into activities across the organization.

 For example, Miguel Zlot, the enterprise social networking evangelist at Molson Coors, introduced Yammer, a professional social media tool for enterprises, to the beer brewing and distribution company. “Not only is it a great way to stay connected with colleagues from different countries, but it also teaches me something new about our business every day,” Zlot says. “It could be a story about a new account from our sales team, an update on a marketing campaign that is taking off, or even a video of a new can line at work in one of our breweries.”


According to an Accenture survey, 27% of interviewed employees said that they would pay for their own devices and applications to use at work if the alternative was to do without.

Another company on the cutting edge of applying consumer technology to the workplace is internet corporation Yahoo!. When introducing the program Yahoo!. Smart Phones, Smart Fun!, CEO Marissa Mayer embraced the idea that the company’s employees must use the same devices as the company’s customers so they can understand how Yahoo!’s users think and work.


As globalization and technology continue to shape the future, businesses must strive to keep pace if they want to keep their current and future employees happy and take full advantage of their capabilities.  

“IT consumerization will be one of the biggest tests for organizations in the next five years, but resisting it is simply not an option and is tantamount to capitulation,” says Jeanne Harris, executive research fellow and senior executive at the Accenture Institute for High Performance. “A good first step is to learn just how extensively consumer IT has embedded itself into your workforce. Consider how to manage the risks and opportunities, and experiment with ways to channel employees’ enthusiasm for consumer technology.”

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