Fortune magazine had an article last month about how UPS transformed its training practices to address the unique ways that Generation Y tends to gather information, communicate, and learn. The story is fascinating for me as a professor because it shows the power of active learning.
Let me explain. Lectures invite passive learning; the student sits and listens quietly as the professor drones on and on... The student isn't involved in the creation of knowledge; they are an empty vessel hoping to be filled up with knowledge. Active learning involves participation by the student in the educational process. It involves discussion, hands-on projects, simulations, experiential exercises, etc. Ideas and knowledge emerge from the process of trying to apply concepts to real problems.
UPS recognized that Generation Y tends to react in a particularly negative way to passive learning techniques. Thus, they shifted to an approach that emphasizes hands-on training - very much an active learning orientation. Here is one great example from the article:
The final kinetic-learning module - or for non-academicians, hands-on learning tool - is the crowd-favorite slip-and-fall simulator. UPS incurs significant costs every year from slips and falls, and it is first-year drivers who succumb the most. Lucky for first-years then that Thurmon Lockhart, director of the Locomotion Research Laboratory at Virginia Tech, has devoted his entire life to the issue. In his studies Lockhart has found that the only way to help people avoid falling is to "perturb" them - i.e., to put them through the motions of falling - which causes their bodies to adjust during subsequent encounters with falling hazards.
To that end, Lockhart's lab houses a falling machine - a nine-foot-high metal frame with a body harness attached to it. A subject puts on the harness and gets comfortable walking back and forth, and then someone sneaks up behind her and spills soapy water, causing the subject to slip, scream, and flail around before getting caught by the harness. It sounds funny - until you wipe out. For the record, having experienced this first-hand, I was perturbed, and my gait remains adjusted. "This type of research has been going on since the 1920s," Lockhart says, "but UPS is going to be the first to apply it. And when their guys get out of the program, they'll almost be ergonomists. The training is that good." Now there's a shiny new brown version of the simulator at the training center.
The article reports that UPS has experienced much success with these new training methods. My belief is that active learning always trumps passive learning, though perhaps that is even more true with Generation Y. The lesson of this UPS story applies in a range of settings... from the classroom at business schools, to corporate training programs such as the driver training at UPS, and even to corporate leadership development programs populated by senior executives. Let the lectures cease!