In this tech age, who’s your target learner?

Making the case for learner-centric higher education by taking a look at elementary practices.

student-learner-centricWhat will university learners require in 10 years? Who will these learners be? How will they learn and what will they demand? Universities must innovate and evolve now to be prepared for the future. But how will they position themselves to be the best fit for students whose learning habits have changed with greater access to technology?

The traditional lecture class has existed for thousands of years and universities take great pride in classrooms that are steeped in history and tradition, where students can attend classes in the same room where their father, grandfather, or great grandfather physically sat before them to take lessons. Yet, during this time, the world has flown by and progressed in leaps and bounds—will this traditional experience be as satisfying for the learners of this coming generation?

Better Higher Ed Means Looking Back

According to CTIA/, two years ago nearly 80 percent of all learners between ages 12-17 had cell phones and nearly half of those were smartphones. Today, more than half the learners between ages 8-12 have cell phones. All of these students use cell phones, tablets or computers to work on schoolwork beginning in kindergarten and are much more likely to have intuitively worked with this technology even in pre-school.

Elementary schools have been early adopters of change. Learners in today’s K-5 schools expect to use a wide variety of technologies and are required to use it on a daily basis for many purposes. Reading, math, and spelling are three key subject areas where students are assigned daily homework utilizing a computer program.

These programs report back to the instructor with each child’s progress and automatically send the correct individualized assignment back to the student. Manual grading with its occasional errors has been all but eliminated and students routinely receive individual assignments electronically. Instead of timed completion of multiplication practice sheets, students strive to multiply enough numbers in time to “kill the monster.” Spelling practice on a computer ensures immediate feedback that is consistently correct and clear. Gone are the days of writing the same word ten times to learn spelling by rote, only to realize a student has actually learned to misspell the word.

In short, students today (as experienced by their elementary school days) expect instantaneous feedback and customized learning assignments that are engaging and allow them to progress at their own pace.

Savvy Shopping Applies to Institutions

While students have completely changed how they learn, they’re also questioning the return on investment for the cost of higher education. When students are considering making a huge investment in secondary education, which often requires a long-term commitment to paying back the loans with which it was financed, they want options, customer service, and a guarantee that a degree will be worth the price tag in the long run.

Learners are looking for the best way to get the highest paying jobs once they complete their education. They’re also looking at the complete university experience. Universities should be striving to adapt to prove to these savvy customers why their programs are the best long-term investments for a potential applicant’s future.

Fast- forward these technology savvy, experiential learners to college. It’s the year 2025, and technology has plaid a central role in these students’ entire educational experience. They have always had instantaneous feedback, the ability to practice a skill until it’s learned, and learning delivered in ways that are highly interactive, engaging, visual, and hands-on.

How do colleges and universities adapt to meet the needs of this new type of student? Do we expect them to conform to our traditional methods? Have these students ever sat for a 60 or 90-minute lecture? Is a one-size-fits-all strategy in the best interest of all students? With the rising cost of education, how do we provide innovative solutions using cutting edge technology to create the best and the brightest graduates? How does mobility fit in with your university strategy?

Students want and will expect to apply, register, pay for tuition, and more directly from their mobile device; and websites will need to be responsive to a variety of different mobile formats, so universities need to plan now and develop an engaging social networking strategy.

And, institutions of higher learning need to maintain academic rigor and challenging environments while guiding students to the right courses and careers choices to give learners the tools to be successful. At the same time, it is imperative that universities appeal to the student’s need to feel unique and important as an individual.

Universities need to become learner-centric.

Author Pam Buffington will be presenting a general conference seminar at EduComm Expo 2015 entitled, “Kids These Days: Who’s Your Target Learner,” on Wednesday, September 30th, from 1:00-2:00pm at the Georgia World Congress Center. For more information about EduComm Expo, or to register for this or any other educational seminar or workshop and learn more about digital communications technologies and strategies go to

Pam Buffington head shot300Pam Buffington is director of Platform Technologies, Center for 21st Century Universities (C21U) at the Georgia Institute of Technology. In addition to her role with C21U, she is also the Academic Programs Technology Director with the Office of Information. She has extensive experience at GA Tech, and has worked in a variety of roles and responsibilities since 1995 enabling innovative uses of information technologies in both research and academic/instructional capacities.  To date, she has managed the technology component for development of more than 20 unique MOOCs, including 3 sponsored through a Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation grant, as well as blended and flipped classroom pilots, and several related University System of Georgia initiatives dealing with innovation in the delivery of post-secondary instruction.