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Lynsey Whitmarsh

Hemsley Fraser

Head of Digital and Innovation

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Why aren’t young workers engaged by online learning?


It’s often assumed that young people will gravitate towards online learning. However, a new study from the CIPD, which examines the challenges of developing 16-24-year-olds in the workplace, reveals that online training is their least favourite way to learn.

This finding, on the face of it, is surprising, but what’s the full story? The study actually argues that young people are not averse to online learning; they simply have very high expectations of technology – and, understandably, they become frustrated if they’re presented with boring, unwieldy online learning tools or e-learning courses that aren’t fit for purpose.

The CIPD’s study raises questions about how employers should develop young workers. So, here are three guiding principles that can help you to engage young people with digital learning (and yes these principles are no different to developing any other generation). They are:

1. Understand what skills they need to build. The first step with any form of development is to identify what you want to achieve. The key skills for young people are likely to include communication, teamwork, time management and commercial awareness. A study by Ashridge Business School found that young people often need to develop their self-awareness, analytical thinking and emotional intelligence. Having established ‘what’ they need to learn, the next step is to consider how best to develop those skills.

2. Choose the right development blend. The CIPD’s study finds that young people want to be engaged by a practical and entertaining learning experience; they want to work collaboratively with others and receive constructive feedback. This is supported by a US study of Generation Y, which found that young people have a strong preference for face-to-face interaction. Classroom-based training or more informal approaches such as on-the-job learning or mentoring could therefore pay dividends. However, bear in mind that young people are likely to feel more engaged in an inspirational environment in which learning, knowledge and experimentation can blend together. Today’s next-generation learning classrooms – which feature ‘personalisable desks’, fun zones, re-configurable room layouts and multiple points of display – can certainly provide a motivational learning environment. But why stop there?

This is where digital learning can add real value to the learning experience. Learning apps, e-books, infographics, online courses, TED talks, YouTube videos, webinars, business games, simulations, animations and ‘telestrations’ can all be used to supplement classroom-based training, as they can be incorporated before, during or after a face-to-face session. In truth, you can combine digital learning options in many different ways to excite young learners, to stimulate their interest and curiosity and to provide a seamless, personalised learning experience that will give them true flexibility in how they learn.

But – and this point is crucial – if you’re going to use digital learning, it has to be interactive and visually stimulating. The CIPD’s report states “the user experience is king when implementing learning technologies, as expectations among ‘digital natives’ are so high”. In other words, you have to provide the right content in a format that young people want to receive. So, design your digital content from the learner’s perspective. Consider how they’ll access and interact with it, how easy it is for them to use – and quickly find what they are looking for – and what experience they’ll gain.

3. Embed learning as a continuous process. Another Ashridge study found that young people prefer to look for information when they need it, rather than memorising knowledge. A key advantage of digital learning is that it can be accessed just-in-time. Having engaging learning content instantly available at the touch of a button can not only help young people to improve their performance at the point of need, it can also encourage them to take greater responsibility for their own learning. If you’re able to foster a culture of continuous learning, you’ll provide a vital competitive advantage for your organisation.

Applicable to all

The three principles above clearly apply to any learning audience, regardless of their age. No doubt, every generation would want to learn job-relevant skills in an inspiring environment supported by engaging performance support materials that they can access whenever needed.

In my experience, many of today’s younger workers are ambitious and dynamic individuals with very positive strengths. They have a strong desire to make an impact, to enjoy their job and to develop at work. Their youthful optimism and enthusiasm can be a real asset for any employer.

Whatever the age of your learners, the essential principles for developing them are the same. But if you truly want to meet the needs of a multi-generational workforce, you need a new way of thinking about the possibilities of delivering learning, a belief in the potential of digital assets and the courage and vision to try new approaches that can appeal to different learning styles.

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Lynsey Whitmarsh

Head of Digital and Innovation

Read more from Lynsey Whitmarsh