Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation

Part 8: Attribute #6: Digital learners prefer “just-in-time” learning

by Ryan L. Schaaf

Series Synopsis: Due to continuous digital bombardment and the emergence of the new digital landscape, today’s youth process information, interact and communicate in fundamentally different ways than any previous generation before them. Meanwhile, many of us, having grown up in a relatively low-tech, stable, and predictable world, are constantly struggling with the speed of change, technological innovation, and the freedom to access the overwhelming sea of information online - all defining characteristics of the digital world of both today and the swiftly-approaching future.

“All the world is my school and all humanity is my teacher.”

― George Whitman




How many readers had a parent who worked at the same job, or worked in the same industry for more than 20 years? Many, we suspect. Those were different times. In the past, it was common for someone to spend their entire working lifetime in a single career.

Nowadays, the idea of having a single career for life is very uncommon. We live in a Hunger Games economy - where it’s everyone for themselves. Our circumstances are constantly changing, and fundamental uncertainty and instability are the new normal.

In their critically acclaimed book The New Division of Labor: How Computers Are Creating the Next Job Market, writers Frank Levy and Richard Murnane state that today’s generations of students should not anticipate having 4 to 7 careers. They should anticipate having 10 to 17 or more careers (not jobs working in the same industry, but distinct careers) by the time they’re 38 years old. And this career hopping isn’t failure or indecisiveness. To be clear, having 10 to 17 or more careers should not be interpreted as a sign of failure or lack of commitment or self-discipline on the part of modern workers. What it reflects is the new economy, and the new employment reality workers are facing today.

Often knowledge and skills acquired by the age of 20 are obsolete by the age of 40, if not before. As a result, it is easy to forecast that today’s students will have to replace almost their entire body of knowledge several times during their working lives. Increasingly, we’re living in a world where people have to manage their careers and constantly be figuring out what their next move is to keep themselves relevant and employed.

In place of the old school-to-work model, we now live in an age that can best be described as school-to-work-to-school-to-work, repeat. If there’s one certainty about what today’s digital generations will be doing a decade or two from now, it’s that they won’t all be doing the same thing; and they certainly won’t be drawing on the same body of knowledge that people are using today.

Because of the rapidly changing nature of the economy, it’s easy to project that the top 10 in-demand jobs that will be available ten years from now probably don’t exist today. In the new economy, we are literally preparing students for jobs that don’t exist, using technologies that haven’t been invented, to solve problems we haven’t even begun to anticipate. So as educators, one of the questions we need to be regularly asking ourselves is: if our students are not just competing locally, regionally, and nationally, but also globally with both people and increasingly machines, for jobs and careers that don’t yet exist, how do you create learning experiences for a world and a new economy that also doesn’t yet exist?

An issue with education today is it is primarily organized around the just-in-case model of teaching and learning (JiCTL). The message sent to students is that you have to learn this information, you have to learn this content – just-in-case it happens to be on the exam – just-in-case you might need to know it in order to pass the course – just-in-case you require it to graduate – just-in-case you eventually get a job that requires the information.

There absolutely is a place for JiCTL. But because of their digital mindsets, digital learners prefer to learn things not only just-in-case but also just-in-time. They are the ‘On Demand” generation. They are not used to waiting for anything because, in the new digital landscape, anything they want to know is just a click away.

The digital generations have the ability to acquire the necessary skills and knowledge just-in-time to solve a problem, just-in-time to play a new video game, just-in-time to perform their new favorite song on the piano, just-in-time to coordinate a gathering, just-in-time to settle an argument, or just-in-time to explore a new passion.

In comparing the just-in-case teaching and learning with the just-in-time teaching and learning approach, the fundamental question we need to ask is, what world are we preparing our students for? Are we preparing them for the just-in-case world of yesterday – just-in-case they need to pass the test, pass the course, pass the grade or to graduate? Or, are we helping prepare them for the 10 to 17 or more careers they will have in their working lifetime? Are we preparing them for their future or our past? Are we preparing them for the economy of yesterday and today; or are we preparing them for the world that awaits them once they leave school?

There are numerous resources and strategies educators can use or adopt to embrace just in time learning.

We know that today’s generations prefer learning using their digital devices. YouTube has taken advantage of this and assembled massive amounts of engaging video-based material in one place. Learners can search for a particular topic and find a vast selection of relevant YouTube clips.

TED Talks (Technology Entertainment Design) are a set of global conferences whose presentations are captured on video and offered for free viewing online at To date, more than 2,500 talks have been uploaded to the site, and TED's YouTube channel contains over 100,000 clips with over eleven million subscribers. These videos have been viewed more than one billion times worldwide.

TED Talks are not only enjoyable and informative, but when carefully selected, they can be an effective way of getting students interested in various topics.

If you want students to develop information fluency at the same time, they’re developing just-in-time skills, have your students do the Fast Five. At the beginning of your class, have them use their digital devices and give them five minutes to identify five online resources that will help them learn how to do something new and exciting - write a haiku, tie a tie, make a new food dish, learn to juggle balls, play chess, chart family history, become a Wikipedia editor, create a podcast, sketch an object...the list of possibilities is endless.

For additional strategies, please consider purchasing the award-winning book Reinventing Learning for the Always-On Generation: Strategies and Apps that Work. In our next installment of the series, we will explore the digital generations’ preference for instant gratification and immediate rewards, as well as simultaneously looking for deferred gratification and delayed rewards.

FETC January 27 - 30, 2019

Ryan Schaaf will be presenting for three sessions at the Future of Education Technology Conference (FETC 2019) from January 27th-30th, 2019 in Orlando, Florida. The conference will bring together thousands of educators and technology leaders for an intensive, highly collaborative exploration of new technologies, best practices and pressing issues. Registration is now open.

Ryan will be presenting at the following sessions:

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