Picture this: You’re a postsecondary leader who wants to engage the newest generation of learners. But instructors keep coming to you with stories about students who can’t stop looking at their phones during lectures.
a) Enact a permanent ban on personal devices in lecture halls?
b) Circulate a memo advising instructors to just ignore the behavior?
The answer is actually c) none of the above.
Thankfully, with the rise of edtech solutions, there is another option — what we call “a connect and redirect” approach for engaging Gen Z (the cohort born between 1997 and the early 2010s).
Given that Gen Z learners make up a significant proportion of the student population in undergraduate studies today, it is worth understanding this generation’s learning preferences and needs.
According to extensive research conducted by Corey Seemiller and Meghan Grace, co-authors of the book Generation Z Goes to College, Gen Z learners share many characteristics with their Millennial counterparts — but the younger generation is a distinct cohort with unique learning needs.
Other research has revealed that Gen Z learners are more likely than Millennials to prefer YouTube, in-person group activities, and learning apps. The newest generation also gravitates towards personalized, self-paced learning. And while members of both generations get distracted by personal devices during class time, they use these devices in very different ways.
The bottom line is that, unlike previous generations, Gen Z was born digital. This means that higher learning institutions can’t stop adapting--they must continue to refine their policies and practices if they want to keep students engaged.
Keeping digitally-absorbed students involved in learning activities is not about surrendering to a technology “free for all,” however. The technologies and social media apps students use in their everyday lives — from Alexa to TikTok to YouTube — weren’t necessarily designed for learning engagement.
Here’s the good news: edtech solutions are built with learning outcomes in mind. Digital textbooks, for example, can be delivered as part of a learning platform that integrates fully with library and university systems.
With the right approach, higher learning institutions can cater to Gen Z’s digital preferences and nurture productive learning habits simultaneously. Here are five tips for using tech to keep this generation engaged:
The fear of being without smartphone connectivity is a thing. It’s officially called NOMOPHOBIA. This probably explains why students (particularly Gen Zers) can’t resist looking at their devices — even during class time.
But what if there was a way to compete with the distractions of modern technology? As scholars from the University of Nebraska point out in this paper, “digital device distractions may be minimized by imposing multitasking behaviors in classrooms that can more strategically allocate students’ cognitive resources."
Electronic textbooks, which can be accessed via an e-reader installed on a desktop or mobile device, provide instructors with the opportunity to do just that. Instructors can design in-book quizzes that give students a “break” from reading long passages while helping them stay focused on the course content.
Members of Gen Z who are now entering college were around four years old when Google officially became a verb. It’s not surprising, then, that these students prefer using online research for assignments.
But while their search skills may be excellent, younger students often need to be reminded that they can’t believe everything they read on the Internet.
This is where e-textbooks can be a big help. One of the more innovative functionalities found in some digital platforms is the ability to stream all university-provided content instantly. Students pull from thousands of books and see the most relevant paragraphs, figures, and diagrams in seconds.
This way, students experience the best of both worlds: instant access to information and the most credible sources.
Gen Z students tend to shy away from open-ended assignments. Experts often point the finger at standardized tests and cuts to arts education in high schools.
Whatever the cause, this lack of creativity is a concern, particularly if it gets in the way of a student’s ability to demonstrate the kind of critical thinking required at the postsecondary level.
This is where innovations that enable academics and their students to have discussions within an e-textbook can be a benefit. Professors can embed commentary right into the reading material and ask probing questions like: How does this research support or refute your thesis? How does this research support the broader theoretical perspectives discussed in class?
Using this approach, instructors can encourage Gen Z to do more than just absorb information by engaging in active learning.
In the era of Netflix and Hulu, students are accustomed to seeing content that suits their unique interests and tastes. There’s a reason why streaming services are so successful at this: they know what people watch.
In contrast, most academic leaders, libraries, and faculty lack insight into how students use learning content. Having limited data-driven insights into content use means missing opportunities to improve student engagement and success.
But with the most robust learning platforms, academic institutions have access to analytics, giving them actionable data-driven insights. They can understand which content resonates the most with learners and determine which resources to offer students.
Younger college students grew up during the Great Recession and are now facing the uncertainties of a post-lockdown economy.
As history professor Steven Mintz notes, even students from middle-class families are now dealing with worries about student debt and future job prospects. “It would be a mistake, in my opinion, to dismiss such concerns as non-academic,” he writes.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, between 2006 and 2016, the cost of college textbooks rose by 88%. Some students sacrifice trips home or even their first choice of major to pay for textbooks.
But there’s hope. With BibliU's Universal Learning approach for digital textbooks, institutions pay a low set price per student per class, ensuring that all students have access to the content they need. The outcome? 30% lower costs than Amazon. By removing cost barriers associated with textbooks, higher learning institutions can make education more accessible and equitable.
It can be easy to dismiss this generation as a cohort of tech-addicted learners with short attention spans. But many of these characteristics are due to factors beyond their control. Gen Z was born into — and came of age in — a digital world full of uncertainties.
So we owe it to this future generation of workers to meet them where they are, acknowledge their preferences, and guide them on a path to success. With the power of edtech solutions, instructors and higher learning institutions can unlock the true learning potential of Gen Z.
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