Google is 20 years old this month. That means the students about to join masters in management classes at business schools — so-called generation Z — have lived pretty much all of their sentient lives alongside the mighty search engine. Think of it: from the ages of three or four, the answer to any question that has entered their heads has been available instantly.
That seems miraculous to those of us whose childhoods were spent rifling through dictionaries and encyclopedias. But according to the academics who will be teaching these 22-, 23- and 24-year-olds, there is a trade-off. Students, they say, are curious, connected and fast — but their attention spans are alarmingly short. Who needs the hard cognitive work that comes with committing facts to memory?
Are attention spans really shrinking? It’s hard to tell. At first glance, research for Microsoft in 2015 would suggest those business school educators’ classroom observations are well-founded. A well-publicised survey concluded that the average attention span had fallen from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to eight seconds by 2013. According to chief executive Satya Nadella, we were moving to a future where “the true scarce commodity is increasingly human attention”.
How reliable that statistic might be is debatable. But, say the educators, the problem is that students (like journalists) can find statistics to back any theory without much effort. Educators are competing with a proliferation of “facts” — many of which are misleading, questionable or just wrong. Combine that with students who are easily distracted and it is clear that they need help not only to focus but also to organise the information.
So convinced is Neoma, the French business school, of this generational shift that it is overhauling its entire pedagogical approach, moving away from just providing knowledge to helping students sift information that is out there already. Perhaps inevitably, part of its approach involves gamification — necessary, Neoma says, to hold those wandering minds. That means bringing an element of fun into class — a concept known as “ edutainment” that has been around for a few years. It may sound gimmicky, but the business school is serious.
“Our role is changing,” says Delphine Manceau, the dean and a professor of marketing, with an air of resignation. “To pretend otherwise is pointless. We are not so much providing information as helping students evaluate and use it responsibly.” That, she says, means catching young people’s attention, then helping them to process whatever it is that they have learnt.
Conventional lectures are mixed with grabbier, gamified elements. A class on management theory, for example, might start with a half-hour virtual reality session to bring a challenge to life, followed by a half-hour lecture to distil the facts, then finish with a half-hour class discussion.
The school has developed three virtual-reality case studies, at a cost of between €40,000 and €50,000 each — including one in partnership with a French hypermarket chain that aims to bring the theory of supply chain management to life as students wander around in a virtual warehouse. “Supply chain is not an easy subject to teach,” says Prof Manceau. “In many ways it is harder than core subjects such as finance and marketing, if you really want to understand what is at stake.”
The school’s next edutainment project will focus on the efficiencies of that most 21st-century experience of professional life: co-working in shared office space.
Other business schools are putting faith in edutainment and information-sifting as the right response to the digital age. Many are investing in classroom gamification. In the past 12 months I have been dazzled by virtual-reality demonstrations on campuses of famous professors’ avatars emerging from a tangle of pixels, Star-Trek transporter style. My face has been scrutinised in a mocked-up store for signs of anxiety or exuberance by facial recognition software designed to help retail staff understand when customers are most likely to make a purchase (anxious people often spent less, the data show).
I also sat in on virtual boardroom meetings where a robot behavioural psychologist pointed out which of my virtual colleagues was fidgeting (it recommended I sack her).
All of this technology is delightful, of course, but at some point teachers must still teach. The point, according to the schools, is not to duck that difficult business (lectures are still part of the mix), but to respond to the habits of a new generation in an intelligent and thoughtful way.
The challenge for the rest of us is to reserve judgment until this sifting, sorting, gamified generation joins the labour market.
Helen Barrett is the FT’s Work and Careers editor