Oct 31 2006

Meet the Millennials

Here's how to ensure that your campus keeps up with the dynamic expectations of the new wave of digital-minded faculty.

A new wave of young, tech-smart professors will soon join faculties across the nation. Is your campus ready for them?

By now, everybody knows that our students are changing dramatically. They have been taught by Google, Amazon.com and instant messaging to bring unforgiving expectations with them when they go off to college. Few would argue that colleges and universities need to work hard to be more responsive to the changing expectations of these Millennial or Net generation students. There are compelling books on the subject, such as Educating the Net Generation, edited by Diana and James Oblinger, and any number of consultants are making a decent living PowerPointing out the dire straits if action is not taken.

Even so, higher education is not known for embracing change quickly, and there is a real risk that by the time this challenge is fully attended to it will have already evolved into a more complicated and comprehensive problem.

Such is the case with all the next-generation talk. The student situation continues to unfold, but within the next four years the oldest Millennials will turn 30, and more and more campuses will be hiring faculty from the same generation causing such current consternation.

According to a recent NSF report, Time to Degree of U.S. Research Doctorate Recipients, the median age of those receiving their doctorate is 33, which means 2013 will be the average age that the oldest Millennials will get their Ph.D. degrees. Master’s degree recipients will apply for community and technical college positions well before this.

High Stakes

The stakes are high. After all, as colleges and universities face intensified competition, recruiting and retaining the best faculty will make all the difference in the world. “Students come first, of course, but the most successful colleges and universities understand that serving students means investing in finding and keeping the best faculty possible,” according to Ed Leach, vice president of the League for Innovation in the Community College, a Phoenix-based organization dedicated to catalyzing the community college movement. As any campus dean will quickly tell you, the days of students sticking out a given course simply because they were told they needed to take it are quickly fading. Students increasingly see themselves as consumers, and their expectations for faculty are growing as fast as their cell phone bills.

Pointing out that the wave of Millennial faculty will be ready for hiring right about the same time that we expect a wave of retirements, Leach stresses that “campuses will need to work hard to attract the best of this cohort, and work just as hard to weave these new faculty effectively into the fabric of the campuses they join. The next 20 years of campus competitiveness and organizational climate will depend on the hiring decisions and socialization efforts made in the next few years.” He recommends that colleges develop “hiring practices that identify and facilitate the selection of candidates with advanced technical skills, orientation strategies that help new faculty become familiar with the college and its students, and faculty professional development programs that take into account the technology skills and expectations that Millennial faculty bring to campus.”

Higher education needs to take both incremental and immediate steps to prepare for the influx of next-generation faculty, and there are several national best practices to point the way.

Creating Team Culture

Academic freedom is a fundamental tenet of higher education from which a strong tradition of faculty autonomy has developed. In contrast, recent research on Millennials suggests that these faculty will not only welcome more collaborative environments, they will expect opportunities to work together.

Faculty teamwork and collaboration can take many forms, from team teaching to shared governance. Michele Neaton, a professor and faculty development coordinator at Century College in White Bear Lake, Minn., has made college collaboration a professional focus. Along with leading a “peer consulting” initiative that allows faculty to work with other faculty to enhance their teaching, the college’s nationally lauded network of Teaching Circles creates opportunities for faculty to work together as a team to tackle issues and opportunities.

Teaching Circles, Neaton explains, involve between six and 10 faculty members — including both full- and part-time — meeting throughout a semester to discuss areas of interest in teaching and learning and to foster what she calls an “environment of support and discovery where faculty can learn from one another.” Each Teaching Circle requires the faculty involved to integrate what they learn as part of a collaborative team into their teaching. Topics for current Teaching Circles include e-folios (electronic portfolios), using reflection in the classroom, transforming classroom competitiveness into collaboration and effectively incorporating Web technology in the classroom.

Critical to the success of the initiative, Neaton insists, is the campus’s willingness to invest in funding stipends for participants and faculty facilitators. “It’s especially important to new faculty that the administration demonstrates its support for teamwork in this way,” she says.

Demanding Technology

Millennials are fascinated by emerging technologies and the multitasking and productivity boosts they promise. The new generation of faculty will be digital natives comfortable with instant messaging, chat, email, blogs, vlogs or whatever the next technology turn brings. These faculty will bring their notebook PCs to department meetings and respond to student e-mails after dark.

Instead of joining some current faculty who may despair over having course management systems and other technologies forced on them, these new faculty will clamor for more functionality, more interoperability and more innovation.

Here are a few ways campuses across the country are gearing up for the coming change:

• Campuses must not settle for so-so portal platforms. Campuses must set the bar high now when it comes to portal ambitions if anyone expects to have first-rate portals running in time to greet our next-generation faculty. This means identity management, single signon and true interactive functionality. For next-generation faculty and students alike, the model and the core expectation is nothing less than Amazon.com, and campuses must plan now to have the capability to send students those uniquely Amazon-like e-mails (“Anne, based on the 12 courses you have taken over the last three years and your declared major in speech …”).

• Campuses need to take the plunge and deliver standards-based systems and not rely on proprietary systems if this means they will not prove to be interoperable with the growing body of standards (e.g., IMS, SCORM, W3C). New faculty will not care as much if they have to learn a new platform or application, but they will not tolerate instructional technology tools if they do not play well with others.

• Campuses need to be flexible. Making every classroom a multimedia classroom is neither strategic nor affordable. Instead, campuses should aim for more deliberate variability. Some faculty will need Internet2 but not a projector and screen; others will want high-end graphics capability but not Internet. The key to meeting more expensive technology needs will not be raising the lowest common denominator but providing unique and variable teaching spaces that will meet the dynamic needs of next-generation faculty. Of course, ubiquitous broadband wireless connectivity is assumed.

Campuses such as the University of Minnesota have been thinking about the next-generation of the professoriate for years. Its one-year NextGen program offers new faculty access to mentors, consultant services, and a $1,000 stipend to purchase hardware or software as part of the start-up package.

"NextGen was created to provide new faculty with mentors already using technology in their disciplines,” says Billie Wahlstrom, the university’s vice provost for distributed education and instructional technology. “Our intent was to ease the transition of new faculty into the tech-rich university environment through a year-long series of panels, hands-on workshops and individual mentoring.”

“In the years since [NextGen’s] development, however, new faculty have changed, bringing with them expectations for services and tools that keep pushing outward the envelope of instructional technology,” she continues. “NextGen has changed to meet this altered universe, offering current faculty the chance to catch up with their newer colleagues as well as early adopters among the established faculty an opportunity to be champions of technology for the entire system instead of mentoring to individual faculty."

University of Minnesota CIO Steve Cawley is responsible for the school’s technology infrastructure, but he admits that this is a moving target. “As new faculty become more tech-savvy, their expectations for hardware, software, applications support and services are growing exponentially,” he says.

At Century College, new faculty member Stewart Hunt says he knows he is pushing boundaries with his software and hardware needs. “As my career moves forward, I want to try new ways of integrating technology in my classes,” he says. “I’m glad to be somewhere that will give me the tools I need to grow as a teacher and endorses my attempts at innovation.”

Visible Rules

Millennials respect and expect an array of clearly stated ground rules. When they were students, their involved and sometimes hovering parents taught them to take comfort in policies and procedures that ensure order and fairness. Rules make achievement possible, and reaching goals is important to this generation.

Millennial faculty will expect a commitment to shared governance and consultative decision-making. After all, they have been taught to expect that their views are important and unique, so they expect to have the opportunity to provide input — and to be treated fairly. Here are a few suggestions:

• Establish policies regarding intellectual property that clearly identify who owns what, especially when it comes to the e-learning materials these faculty will be more inclined to develop.

• Compile a detailed faculty handbook to define roles and responsibilities, and provide contingencies in the event a dispute arises.

• Clarify decision-making processes and procedures that affect faculty, and clearly identify any appeals options. Failure to do so will result in unnecessary multiple appeals up the chain of command and/or end runs.

• Consider implementing a shared model for technology governance, such as the Teaching, Learning, and Technology Roundtables promoted by the TLT Group (http://www.tltgroup.org/). “Many new faculty will be ready to participate in a much more open approach to campus decision-making related to technology and new approaches to teaching and learning,” says TLT Group CEO and founder Steve Gilbert.

Community Involvement

Howe and Strauss call Millennials the “next great generation” for many reasons, but community involvement is essential. In fact, this generation is singularly capable of nothing less than “rebuilding powerful political and economic institutions and re-energizing a sense of community and public purpose,” the authors say in a statement on the Web site for their book Millennials Rising: The Next Great Generation. Campuses working to integrate service learning outreach across the curriculum will make a big impression on these faculty.

It is the faculty hired in the last few years who are most interested in incorporating community service components into their classrooms, according to Barbara Holland, who directs the Learn and Serve America National Service-Learning Clearinghouse, a program of the federally funded Corporation for National and Community Service. "Already, I see growing numbers of young faculty making intentional choices to work at institutions that embrace service learning and engaged scholarship,” she says. “Many of the new generation of faculty had service learning during their own educational experiences in the 1990s, and therefore, they now want to see academic knowledge making a difference locally and globally."

A Slow Turn

When it comes to culture change, the academy moves like a large ocean liner: regal but slow. This being the case, colleges and universities need to start the turn now toward creating a campus infrastructure, organization and culture that will welcome and retain the next generation of faculty and see them thrive.

Trying to fathom future needs now is doubly important because there is a decided element of unpredictability when it comes to next generations. Diana Oblinger’s work on understanding the new students has helped us all comprehend the needs of Millennials; however, she is quick to point out that it may be “too early to tell” when it comes to Millennial faculty. “Just because they are comfortable with technology doesn’t mean they are comfortable teaching with it,” she observes. “After all, we are just now starting to see many nuances.” Nonetheless, a planful approach at this time to the coming trends as we understand them will help colleges and universities respond flexibly and appropriately as we welcome this next wave of faculty to our campuses.

John O’Brien, Ph.D., serves as the chief academic officer at Century College, a community and technical college in White Bear Lake, Minn. He has served as associate vice chancellor for instructional technology for the nation’s seventh largest higher education system, and he has been a faculty member in English and faculty association president at Normandale Community College.

Millenials: Who Are They?

• born after 1980

• always connected, multitasking

• team-oriented, collaborative

• expect structure/fairness

• community-oriented

• drawn to new technologies

• optimistic & confident

• goal & achievement-focused