The next generation of students — dubbed Generation Z, or iGen — will soon be flooding into higher education. Millennials may be tech savvy, but Gen Z students are in a whole new league. They’re tech natives, spending nearly their entire lives immersed in technologies that are crucial to living and learning.
To educate these students effectively, professors may need to adapt their pedagogical approaches — for example, by adding more video content to the curricula. They’ll also have a fine line to walk, as a recent series in The New York Times suggests. Professors report that even though students can fluently navigate the Twitterverse, many have a lot to learn about tech-based educational applications, and that may be doubly true of the next generation.
That said, there are simple steps educators can take and intriguing new tools at their disposal to help iGen learners get the best education possible.
Use Technology to Make Learning More Personal
Generation Z is accustomed to personalizing everything, from Netflix shows to food at fast-casual restaurants. That leads to the expectation, in other spheres, that iGens will be able to pick and choose what they want (and, just as important, what they don’t want). These attitudes will inevitably influence education, and institutions are starting to adapt.
A University Business survey found 66 percent of higher education leaders are researching the use of artificial intelligence to analyze student data in order to personalize learning. With a nod to the Netflix model, 44 percent are considering using data such as students’ video viewing, grades, study habits, course enrollment, financial aid and extracurricular activities to develop educational videos based on their interests.
“The possibilities for how technology can personalize learning are endless,” says Kurt Eisele-Dyrli, the research editor for University Business. “This survey showed that higher education leaders see a lot of potential specifically in the combination of AI and academic video to create personalized education on a new level. It’s going to be fascinating to see how colleges and universities will use these tools in the future.”
IBM is already studying ways to integrate its AI interface, Watson, with educational tools. Watson Element and Watson Enlight, for example, analyze student data to provide insight to both teachers and learners on the latter’s academic progress and how instructors can modify coursework to address knowledge gaps.
For now, these tools are geared toward K–12 classrooms, where personalized learning took hold more quickly, but they are moving into higher education. One early application is digital versions of college textbooks. As EdScoop reports, textbook publisher Pearson partnered with IBM to create a college textbook that leverages Watson’s AI to deliver personalized quizzes, feedback and study suggestions.
Teach Digital Natives to Use Technology Responsibly
Although iGens may be tech wizards in some areas, many lack the digital literacy skills to be conscientious, responsible media consumers and members of the professional arenas they’ll soon be joining.
“The prioritization of digital literacy in higher education is being substantially influenced by the workforce,” according to the New Media Consortium’s Horizon Project. “For example, the World Economic Forum (WEF) predicts that by 2020, 35% of the skills considered vital for workplace success will have changed.”
According to that report, colleges will have a role to play in ensuring Gen Z students are familiar with workforce productivity applications and capable of creating and recognizing credible, meaningful content. As graduates, they’ll need to be proficient in programming and computer hardware use, as well as adapting these basics to a variety of digital contexts.
For educators, teaching information literacy — the ability to determine when information is credible — is a good first step toward developing responsible digital citizens. Content creation is another great avenue. Letting students create their own videos or programs is an engaging way to help iGens understand, from the ground up, what authentic digital content looks like.
Encourage Students to Take Initiative in Their Own Learning
There’s no doubt technology tools are both integral and powerful for iGens. Yet, as professors know, these have added a layer of distraction to classrooms.
More than 70 percent of iGen college students text 12 times per class, on average, according to a McGraw-Hill Education report, and laptop users may spend two-thirds of their time on nonacademic activities. The drastic answer might be to ban these technologies, but mobile devices are so integrated into the classroom, and offer so many opportunities to enrich learning, this solution is neither possible nor ideal.
Instead, educators should focus on creating environments and curricula that are student-centered, playing to the interests and preferences of Gen Z learners and engaging them as active participants. Collaboration technologies (including digital projectors, interactive whiteboards and associated mobile device apps) are making it easier to create engaging, interactive experiences.
At the University of Iowa, professors are using active-learning classrooms to empower students through collaboration. A connected audiovisual system supports two-way communication, letting both teachers and students share materials. Seated at group tables, each with its own monitor, students use devices not for distraction, but to interact with each other.
“University leaders who understand the connection between digital engagement and student experience will cause dynamic changes within their organizations,” notes education consultant Eric Stoller in a report from The Guardian. “Student-focused efforts, led via savvy social media practitioners, will win the day.”
As iGen learners reach higher education and as personalized learning becomes more commonplace, these new approaches to learning will become less of a novelty and more of a necessity. Colleges that want to stay ahead of the curve should start now to get to know this next generation of learners and develop the skills they’ll need to support them.
This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.