Generational Differences Affect Tech Initiatives in Higher Education

From millennials to boomers, from Gen X to Gen Z, higher education sees unprecedented diversity in students and staff.

When Victoria Rosario, the associate vice chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District, wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on generational differences in technology adoption in 2012, she included a finding that will likely resonate with many higher education professionals: “The perception of what a technological innovation is to a boomer is not an innovation to a millennial or Gen Xer.”

That insight, along with others from her research, now informs Rosario’s approach to new initiatives at Los Rios. With four colleges and six education centers serving more than 77,000 students, the California district caters to an incredibly wide range of learners. That challenges administrators to choose, implement and launch technology tools that work well for everyone — and that everyone will embrace.

Universities Now Have Vast Demographic Diversity

Colleges across the country are confronting this dilemma, as demographic shifts move us further away from the 18- to 22-year-old group that once defined the typical college student. Today, the population of learners who are age 25 or older is growing faster than the traditional college-age group, a surge projected to continue. Add professional development and continuing education programs to the mix, and the age diversity gets even wider. Now yet another demographic group, Gen Z, is poised to begin their college careers.

College campuses, of course, are also employers, and here too we see an increasingly multigenerational workforce. Millennials, who now make up the largest group in the labor force, are staff members and even faculty. Meanwhile, plenty of baby boomers are still on the job, and will be for a long time. Together, all these factors create a generational mix of students, staff members and faculty that is often dynamic, perplexing and challenging.

IT Departments Create New Strategies for Success

What does this mean for IT departments? They need to recognize that different generations may approach technology in distinct ways, and that has implications for new rollouts. One study found that millennials and baby boomers even tend to take different approaches when they run into technical problems and need IT support. Boomers are used to handing over the computer and letting IT staff perform their magic, whereas millennials are more likely to try to fix the problem first or work together with IT to resolve the issue.

At Los Rios, Rosario led the development of a major initiative to restructure the district’s student support services, one of several projects that the district has built around tech solutions. Regardless of age, Rosario says, rolling out new programs requires everyone to learn new tools and new processes. But she acknowledges that overcoming resistance from team members who are reluctant to embrace the unfamiliar may call for special strategies.

Often, Rosario says, simple exposure and repetition can help users get comfortable with new technology — taking tools from “new and confusing” to “known and familiar.” She also notes that full adoption may take time, particularly if the benefits of new tools are not immediately evident. Users who expect immediate proof of a solution’s benefits may need reminders to focus on the long-term gains.

Finally, she says, when teams do include people who are eager and curious about new technology, IT departments should make the most of their positive attitudes and energy. Leveraging the buy-in of enthusiasts can help to disseminate that to team members who may be more skeptical.

We can’t, of course, expect broad generalizations to apply to every member of a particular generation. But understanding their tendencies about technology and adoption is an important way that IT teams can help support campus initiatives.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.

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Sep 20 2016