A Case for Updated Methods of Online Learning

Is Your Pedagogy Relevant to a New Generation?

group of young students smiling

A common topic in K-12 education is the idea of being culturally responsive, relevant, and/or sustaining in one’s approach to teaching (Gay, 2000; Ladson-Billings, 2009; Paris, 2012). To take up a culturally responsive frame, a teacher must put the multi-faceted diversity of their student body in the center of their teaching and decision making.

Culturally responsive teachers frame their lessons in the strengths and assets of their students’ lives and cultural practices. If our concern is with making our teaching relevant and responsive to cultural difference, we must also take seriously the difference in the ways youth and young adults encounter and learn those values, practices, and structures compared with their older counterparts.


When we turn from K-12 to Higher Education, putting the student in the center of the educational decision making becomes less common. Students often arrive to class on the first day and receive an exact road map of readings, assignments, and expectations that the professor has previously set and likely used many semesters in a row.

We would like to contribute to the scholarship of Gay, Ladson-Billings, Paris and others by considering generationally relevant pedagogy as a subset of culturally relevant pedagogy. The idea of enacting generationally relevant pedagogy, like culturally relevant pedagogy, would mean teachers adjust instruction to put students’ lives and practices more in the forefront of their own education, specifically thinking through the lens of adapting our teaching and learning to new and ever changing perceptions of generation. With so much emphasis in the rest of the world (outside of K-12 and academia) on social media, technology, mental health, and more, we question reflexively, what are we doing to change our teaching to reflect new ways of learning for a new generation?

Why this Matters

Social scientists have long questioned whether generational difference can be reduced to age cohorts (i.e. “millennials” or “gen X”), birth years, or even important historical events (i.e. “post-9/11 generation”) (Mannheim, 1928; Fortes, 1949; Kertzer and Keith, 1984). Many have instead come to see “generation” as a social process whereby young people reproduce and adapt cultural practices, values, and social structures, establishing continuity for a sense of “we” across time (Bucholtz 2002). In this sense, a person’s birth year does not matter as much as the moment in time when they encountered a set of cultural practices and values. For our purposes, this means generational difference emerges from when someone started using the internet, or online learning technologies specifically.

For instance, a person whose first digital tools were Snapchat and TikTok may approach online discussion boards differently than someone whose first digital communications were threaded discussions on used car forums. Similarly, a person whose first contact with online learning began with Zoom classrooms during COVID-19 will have a different sense of how the internet facilitates or hinders education than a teacher who has been using course management software for decades.

This means a discussion of “cultural relevance” must extend beyond a reflexive discussion of place (Where is my pedagogy from? What are the implicit cultural values of that pedagogy’s foundation? And for which students will it feel foreign and familiar?) to include a likewise reflexive consideration of time (When was this pedagogy developed? What are the values of that time? How will they hail or alienate the present generation of students?). In the case of online educational technology, we must consider the cultural context of our own first encounter with the internet both broadly and as a tool for education, and how that shapes our pedagogy today.

Literacy scholars consider literacy deeply connected to culture and often use the term in the plural, as in literacies. Making the term literacy plural implies that literacy is not static or achieved but ever-changing based on historical factors and cultural usages (Heath, 1991), transactional and background experiences (Rosenblatt, 1978), and types or formats of text and content (New London Group, 1996) When we consider the new literacies of new generations,  we must ask ourselves how our students are practicing literacy (and therefore learning) differently than generations before them? In what ways do they transact with images, print, and audio/video differently than perhaps we do? In what ways do our students construct, generate, and receive new knowledges and literacies?

The Problem

This idea began in an interview about why I use Harmonize in my courses. I found myself saying:

“My current students are juniors who were born in 2001. They’ve never seen the internet the way that Canvas is.”

Traditional discussion boards follow a thread that mimics the internet of old. Students who attend college now are likely those who were born with the internet. By the time these students were in elementary school, say 2006-2011, Facebook was already largely popular and their internet activity likely looked like a series of flashy images, icons, and tags. By the time our current students were in middle school and high school, say 2012-2020, they were fully engulfed by Snapchat (images only), TikTok (videos with text that stack and build off each other creating its own literacy), Youtube (videos), and more.

Anyone who isn’t familiar with these platforms and attempts to join them knows how difficult they can be to fully grasp and understand, let alone engage with and produce content of one’s own. This experience solidifies to the outsider that reading, writing, and comprehending these new literacies can be difficult. So we, as professors wonder, what are we doing to adapt our teaching styles and methods to meet our own students possibly new and different expressive and receptive literacies?

This Question Isn’t Fluff

We are not asking professors to make courses into a series of TikToks, what we are proposing is that we consider how students see the world differently than students did when online learning began. The days of Blackboard threaded discussion posts are long gone- so far gone that our students don’t even know that the internet used to be like that.

When I consider using the idea of generationally relevant pedagogy in my courses, I want to try to adapt my ways of viewing, reading, producing, and receiving to be more relevant to my students and less reflective of my ways of practicing literacy in a world that is no longer the mainstream. Harmonize gives me a platform to begin this process. Here are some examples:

My students can easily post pictures and links which adds a level of comprehension to the post.

For example, a student posted about learning something new on a topic by easily inserting the link and the thumbnail from their source. By viewing this thumbnail, the reader/audience learns a lot more from this post from a literacy standpoint- before perhaps you, as the reader, even get to the post, many literacy related events have already occurred- likely some background knowledge on time period (black and white, hair style) has entered your thoughts, you’ve probably activated your schema for the topic- maybe civil rights, politics, news. If you can read the headline, it gives you a brief summary to further prep your brain/activate your background knowledge for what’s to come so you can better attend and it possibly engages you to want to learn more- all from a thumbnail!

My students can easily connect other tools into their discussion boards.

For example, I gave my students a sample standardized test question and asked them to break down what they thought the answer was, defend why it was right and why the wrong answers were wrong. One student posted two incredibly detailed graphic organizers breaking down her train of thought and defending her answers. Harmonize’s features allowed my student to express herself in the way she wanted to instead of just a block of text- she organized her thinking in graphic organizers and inserted them into the post- brain science says she will remember these better as she has organized them in ways that make sense to her.

My students can easily and comfortably choose their own mode of expression. 

For example, I modeled posting the discussion topic in a video format instead of text and invited my students to do the same. One student, who had struggled week after week with his posts, took this opportunity to make a video response instead. On the post with his video he wrote, “I apologize for my poor camera quality, but I prefer to talk things out sometimes over reading. It allows me to be a little more natural and express my thoughts and feelings on a topic more accurately.”


When students can summarize readings by posting an image, meme or a song that captures their perception of what was important in that assignment, they get a chance to communicate in ways that they and their peers understand.

When my students are able to tag me or their peers to direct threads at a speaker or comment, they are able to communicate directly to that topic or speaker in ways they are familiar with.

When they can express themselves through graphic organizers or videos, they are more likely to communicate their actual thoughts and more likely to remember them.

When I can easily post directions as videos (and subtitles) with embedded links for further information, my students are more likely to be successful at accessing them.

As you can see, these Harmonize tools are simply one more way for me to be more relevant to their literacy and learning practices as a new generation.


Bucholtz, M. (2002). Youth and cultural practice. Annual Review of Anthropology 31, 525-552.

Fortes, M. (1949). Time and social structure: An Ashanti case study. In Social Structure: Studies Presented to AR Radcliffe Brown. Oxford University Press

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, & practice. Teachers College Press.

Heath, S. B. (1991). The sense of being literate: Historical and cross-cultural features. In R. Barr,

Kamil, P. Mosenthal, & P.D. Pearson (Eds.). Handbook of reading research, Vol 2 (3-25). Longman.

Kertzer, D and Keith, J. (1984). Age and Anthropological Theory. Cornell University Press.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children (2nd ed.). John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Mannheim, K. (1928). Das Problem der Generationen. Kölner Vierteljahreshefte für Soziologie, 7 (2-3), 157-185, 309-330.

New London Group, The. (1996). A pedagogy of multiliteracies: Designing social futures. Harvard Educational Review, 66, 60-92.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practice. Educational Researcher, 41(3), 93-97.

Rosenblatt, L. (1978). The reader the text the poem: The transactional theory of the literary work. Southern Illinois University Press.