Online learning

Cross Generational Advantages of Online Education

Almendra Staffa-Healey

Almendra Staffa-Healey


Extraordinary time for learning and working

We need to remember across generations that there is as much to learn as there is to teach.

― Gloria Steinem

We’re at a very significant moment in educational and professional history. People of a very wide range of ages are working and learning side by side. Four or five generations are sharing today’s workspaces and adapting to online learning environments together. If we take a deeper look at generations as cultures, we’ll see that each one has distinct or espoused strategies, goals and justifications that shape their beliefs. These generational values, oftentimes, are unexamined or taken for granted by the generation. It becomes easier to understand, respect and empathize with the learner when we examine where each group has been, and where and how they wish to move forward within the context of learning.

Student-centered learning

Student-centered learning is not a new concept. The USAmerican philosopher, psychologist and education reformer John Dewey (1859-1952) observed children in public schools and worked to have course content presented so that students could relate the information to their prior experiences. The Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) developer of the constructivist learning approach helped educators to see students as individual learners who add new concepts to prior knowledge to construct, or build, understanding for themselves. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsy’s (1896-1934) concept of the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) connected the distance between what a student (apprentice, new employee, etc.) can do on their own, and what they can accomplish with the support of someone more knowledgeable about the activity.

Today, with the advent of the rush to educate online, remembering to put the student in the center of the learning process is as important as ever. But who are our learners today? Well, all of us are. Consequentially how do you strengthen learning online when your students range from age 3 (or less) to age 90 (or more)? How do you put a Gen Zer (1996-?) at the center of the learning process as well as a Baby Boomer (1946-1964)? How do their prior experiences shape how they will construct their own learning online? How can we determine what’s needed and provide the support necessary to ensure we’re really reaching them all as individual learners?

How do you put multiple generations at the center of learning?

There are two things I would suggest:

  1. getting to know how generational value differences shape the learning experience and
  2. leveraging cross generational collaborations to co-construct the learning process. 

1. How generational value differences shape the learning experience

In my opinion, one of the best resources that addresses generations as cultures is Cultural Detective® ( Dianne Hofner Saphiere, Adrienne Sweetwater and Gregory Webb authored the Generational Harmony package. This package examines  the values of each of the following generations and then explores how they interact together in the workplace:  

  • Traditionalists, The Silent Generation or the Great Generation (1915-1945) whose youngest members are 75 years old
  • Baby Boomers (1946-1964) whose members range from ages 74 to 56
  • Gen Xers (1965-1980) whose members range from ages 55 to 40
  • Millenials or Gen Yers (1981-1995) whose members range from ages 39 to 25
  • Gen Zers (1996 to 2012 approximately) whose members sange from ages 24 to 8

The authors emphasize interactions within a hierarchical environment, such as a small business, large corporation, and university setting. Their work provides an overview of the main values that shape each generation. Alongside each one, a possible negative perception to that value is presented in case you aren’t of that generation or if you don’t ascribe to that value even while being a part of it. Examples of incidents between generations help bring to the forefront how differences, if left unexplored, can lead to misunderstanding. They also provide a framework with which to, like a detective, draw meaning from those incidents and create cross culturally or generationally sensitive solutions to the problems presented.

To provide you with an example of the values they identify with each generation and how this might shape the learner’s experience, let me use my own. I am a Gen Xer. According to Cultural Detective®, the six basic values of my generation are self-reliance, work-life balance, pragmatism, entrepreneurial spirit, global thinking, and weariness/caution. The first of this list, self-reliance, is one of the values that pervades my generation’s way of interacting with the world. This ‘it’s up to me’ attitude was shaped by the moment in time when I grew up. We were the generation that found that we needed to fend for ourselves more, we were the ones who spent more time alone while our parents worked, and who had less supervision. To a certain degree this value shapes what I expect of my own learning. And if unexplored, how I think others should learn too because I’ll judge them based on what I know for myself. Others may perceive my learning style as that of a loner.

My children are today’s Gen Zers. Their list of Cultural Detective®’s values include realism, online identity, visual literacy, “go-getter” attitude, entrepreneurial spirit, and global involvement. If you see an overlap, well as a parent of this generation, my values have shaped theirs. While the commonalities can be readily seen, the circumstances in which they grew up are quite different than were mine. They’ve grown up with an online identity, -partially my fault since I was the one posting baby pictures and their milestones all over my Facebook feed-. They don’t know what the world is without being able to ask Google anything and getting an immediate response. The speed at which they process information shapes their learning experience too, and they expect others to be just as fast as they are. For other generations we may see them as impatient. This is a possible negative perception of their “go-getter” attitude value.

Comparing my generation’s learning process expectations with that of a Gen Zer’s, helps me appreciate which values are shaping each of our learning experiences. Doing this gives me the ability to center my focus. Because we’re now all learning online together, we need to explore how our values can help us in this undertaking. 

online learning generations

2. Leveraging cross generational collaborations to co-construct the learning process

Diversity as opportunity is often a topic of the intercultural management field.  The variety of perspectives in the workplace provides a wider angle from which to problem solve. Because we’ve been catapulted to the online learning space, similarly if multi-generational teams are leveraged well, they can provide innovative perspectives and troubleshooting skills that foster a shared learning experience. 

As I mentioned at the beginning, we need to put ourselves as learners in the center of the experience. One way to make sure that we leverage this unique moment of all ages adapting to online learning is if we think in terms of cross generational collaborations. 

I’ve been a witness and participant to parents and their children learning side by side when schools closed due to COVID-19. I’ve also observed how university professors and higher education professionals pivoted to virtual classrooms while their students adjusted to being alone instead of in a room with others. Our expectations of the learning experience were transformed. Where I saw success in adapting to this novel virtual space and learning environment was when collaboration arose between all those involved. And that meant collaborating across generations. While at first it was mostly about emergency survival skills, if I look closely it was successful when those involved co-created the process of learning. Those educators that have already been working for years in the online space point to how important it is for there to be buy in and shared meaning making. 

As a “loner” Gen Xer I can empathize with Gen Zers studying and learning in solitude. I can share tips and suggestions on how self-reliance can work. Gen Zers can share tools with me to better and more quickly find answers online if I am willing to lower my criticism of what I perceive as their impatience. The more we become aware of how our lived experience and values shape our learning approaches, the more we can create bridges between generations in the virtual space. Each of us can become the student and the teacher as we collaborate and co-create our approach to learning online.


Image credits:

Collaboration | Diversity | Education | Virtual learning

Say Hello!

Are you interested in joining the Global Case Study Challenge or signing up for our Educator Certification Program, or maybe you want to partner up with us? We are open to all forms of cooperation as we believe in quality education that is available for everyone!