Generation Z is the youngest of the five generations, active in today’s economy. They are already the largest generation in the U.S. and will represent 40 percent of the population in 2020. In the world of higher-education, Gen Z accounts for all of the students enrolling today. Generation Z has experienced the most change in their short time on earth. Most of those changes center around technology. Gen Z is disrupting decades-long practices in our education system, forcing colleges and universities to adapt at a rapid pace or become irrelevant.
Millennials were different and required some modifications, so higher-ed has been adapting to their needs. Millennials were the first generation to come to campus, laptop in hand. Gen X may have used desktops in computer labs on campus. The Millennials forced educators to begin using technology as a teaching tool. Gen Zs were born with technology. They will never know what life was like without the internet. Gen Z learners don’t see technology as a tool, they see it as a regular part of life.
While Millennials used three screens on average, Gen Z students frequently use up to five. Most use a smartphone, TV, laptop, desktop, and a tablet. These devices occupy ten hours of Gen Z’s daily activity. The constant stimulation and access to all the world’s information at their fingertips has given them an eight-second attention span and has trained their brains to expect instant gratification. Sitting in a hall or classroom listening to a lecture is Gen Z torture. Gen Z students want a chance to be part of the learning process, not a passive bystander.
Gen Z students are much more pragmatic and skeptical than generations before. Many experienced their parents’, and friends’ families lose everything in the Great Recession. They felt intense pressure as their parents did all they could to get them into college. Because of that experience, they are very worried about college debt, and demand colleges provide a good return on their investment. A Gen Z survey from the nonprofit, College Savings Foundation showed seventy-nine percent said costs are a factor in college choice. Thirty-nine percent said high costs caused them to change their path and enroll in state schools, community colleges, or vocational and career schools.
The financial stress continues once Gen Z students enroll. The high cost of textbooks is prohibiting some students from pursuing their choice of classes and majors. A survey of more than 22,000 college students found 49 percent reported taking fewer courses per semester, and 45 percent reported not registering for a course because of the high cost of the textbook. Sixty-four percent of students opted out of buying textbooks for the first day of class.
I’ve seen this with my college sophomore son. He will wait as long as three weeks after a class starts before he decides whether to purchase an expensive textbook. He tells me that some professors won’t even use the book, so he waits. He has even dropped classes after learning how much the textbook will cost.
Fortunately, many professors and their institutions are saving students money by migrating to digital textbooks and course materials. Education companies like Pearson provide Pearson’s Inclusive Access Program for students that can save them upwards of 80 percent off the price of a new print textbook. Offering digital textbooks also makes it possible for students to receive their course materials the first day of class. Professors can begin teaching immediately without concern that half their students do not have required materials because they either can't afford it or are spending time searching or borrowing to save money. In addition to the cost savings, digital textbooks appeal to Gen Z students because they can access course materials on the same devices they already embrace.
Gen Z wants to seamlessly jump from their personal experiences to their educational experiences on-demand and do it outside the classroom anytime, anywhere. Seventy-eight percent of students prefer digital course materials. I am not surprised because they provide three Gen Z “must-haves.” Cost savings, convenience, and interactivity. Being able to scan for specific topics, or click on audio and video links keeps those eight-second attention spans engaged in the course materials.
Professors and institutions benefit as well. Digital textbooks provide data on how students are engaging in the content. This is invaluable feedback that can help educators identify struggling students and make adjustments when needed. More than 425 colleges and universities across the country have partnered with Pearson to provide digital course materials, and they are starting to see real results in student achievement.
The primary focus of my book is to help each generation become self-aware of their own generational preferences. When educators become self-aware, they can ignore common Millennial, and Gen Z stereotypes and embrace their unique strengths, preferences, and learning styles. Many Boomer and Gen X educators struggle with this, and it is understandable. Technology has caused Gen Z to see more changes in ten years than older generations will experience in their lifetimes.
Change can be hard, and it can be good, especially when it helps young people grow, learn, and become successful adults. Experienced educators should do everything they can to make learning fun, interactive, and engaging for their Gen Z students. Utilizing digital course materials and other technologies that can provide that kind of experience is a step in the right direction.