1.10 The changing nature of university student generations

Educators cannot, on their own, define and control engineering education because (at least in non-centrally-directed societies) it is necessary for students to sign up before an offered programme can be viable. It matters not whether we call them ‘Generation X or Y’ or ‘Millennials’ or ‘digital natives’ or even ‘binge drinkers’; The background, attitudes and expectations of students are changing increasingly rapidly. Each generation grows up in a different technological environment, in a different economic climate and according to different social mores. Engineering education cannot stand aside from these factors, even if we believe that many of the fundamental concepts and practices of our chosen profession are relatively timeless. It has to be the business of engineering educators to motivate students to engage with modern engineering and to relate their offered programmes to the contemporary environment, both in content and style.

We should also take to heart the words of Marc Prensky [2001]: ‘It is amazing to me that in all the hoopla and debate these days about the decline of education … we ignore the most fundamental of its causes. Our students have changed radically. Today’s students are no longer the people our educational system was designed to teach.’  Prensky gives a specific example of the difference this can make: ‘A group of professors came to his company with CAD software they had developed. College students were finding it difficult to master so they wanted to explore making it into a game. The professors wanted to teach the various skills in linear fashion and had made movies of five to ten minutes to illustrate various points. They were persuaded to inject faster pace, shorten the movies to 30 seconds, allow random rather than step-by-step access to the tasks and jettison written instructions. The game was a huge success and students engaged with concepts they had previously found too difficult.’ [Gwen Goodhew, 2009]
A related issue is keeping up with student usage of technology and social networking. In my opinion academic staff cannot lead in this area – we have to observe what our students do, note it and follow.  We need to be aware of student behaviour (in so far as it impinges on learning) largely so that we can avoid wasting time by trying to force different behaviours.  The futility of trying to be “cool” (already an outdated term) is well explored in Anthony Finkelstein’s blog at profserious (blog.prof.so posted 26th March 2013).
Read on …  (but first leave a comment)

2 All Responses to “1.10 The changing nature of university student generations”

  1. Peter Goodhew

    A related issue is keeping up with student usage of technology. In my opinion academic staff cannot lead in this area – we have to observe what our students do and follow. DONE

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  2. Peter Goodhew

    Another thought: we like to beat ourselves up in universities for failing to attract or retain engineering students, and for the fact that only about half of them end up in engineering jobs. Should not employers take at least an equal share of the blame? Do they do enough to make it known that a job as an engineer is (or should be) fulfilling, exciting, stimulating and well rewarded? Is this indeed generally true? DONE

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