Communication and collaboration: the key to educating Generation Z

Girls on beach taking photos
Rosie Riordan

Rosie Riordan is the former Social Media and Communications Assistant at the ACU.

As someone who was born in 1996, I have always gone through life, precariously teetering between Generation Y and Generation Z. On the one hand, I often roll my eyes when teenagers ask me for my Snapchat instead of my mobile number (I don’t even have a Snapchat – I’m so old!), but I cannot escape the fact that I will never understand the bond between Millennials and their adventurous ambition and independence.

Generation Z is often described as one who cannot imagine a time before technology, a time before Google, and a time before endless entertainment and information was readily available at their fingertips. But I can. Sure, when I was a child we had computers, but they were slow and noisy and clunky and their main appeal was the ability to draw squiggles on Paint and fill them in with different colours.

Nevertheless, despite my slight feeling of displacement from these young people who insist that Facebook is dead (‘and besides, why waste a moment of multi-screen-multitasking on an inconsequential platform dominated by parents?!’), for the sake of convenience I will put aside my bias, and refer to the Z’s as part of my own.

So, Gen Z. Who are we?

We are unpredictable, even to ourselves.

George Beall from Huffington Post theorises: ‘Gen Z processes information faster than other generations thanks to apps like Snapchat and Vine. Thus their attention spans might be significantly lower than Millennials.’

So, we have supersonic brains, huh? That’s pretty handy, but it also means that we struggle to create and stick to future-goals because we’re so wrapped up in the whirlwind of present-tasks that we struggle to see beyond the next few clicks of the mouse. The only way I can describe this, is that everything feels like it’s happening all at once.

It also means that news stories and trends have a much shorter life-span. I can’t count how many times a teenager has rolled their eyes at me when I’ve mentioned some meme or social media trend, which in my eyes is very relevant and/or scandalous, but no! Nobody says ‘shook’ anymore (unless they’re being ironic of course).

What does this mean for our education?

In her blog 'Say hello to Generation Z', Dr Vianne Timmons suggests that, as internet-babies we can ‘customise our own learning experience’ and create our own views from a young age. This means that we can be more pliable in our opinions, but less likely to respond to authority.

We are a force to be reckoned with. Interconnectivity is our strength and an overwhelming influx of outraged comments is our weapon. We cannot be told what we must do, but rather we need to be inspired by the wisdom of our teachers to decide for ourselves on how to use our education. This may mean using a more hands-on, pro-discussion learning model and eradicating short-term factual memorisation systems in school.

But what should universities do?

Many non-Gen Z-ers, are insisting that higher education must move online in order to keep up with the technological generation. Most universities are off to a good start by moving all teaching and learning resources to an online portal.

But unfortunately, we need much more than that. What we crave is communication; connectivity. We need an easily accessible PC and mobile website, a Facebook page for information about future events, Twitter and Instagram accounts for current events and campus trends, and a fully functioning intranet app for staying up-to-date with emails, student support services and assignments.

Person on laptop checking phone

Gen Z technology

Everyone keeps calling us the generation of the future, but we are already there. In fact, we got here five years ago, and we are waiting for our institutions to catch up with us. Moving online will make the university experience more attractive and accessible to Generation Z and it is vital to take advice from Z-ers themselves on how exactly to do this. Ask your students, or your children, nieces and nephews for advice. And then hire one of us to manage your online accounts (we need jobs too you know!).

Does our current higher education system provide the skills to prepare us for the outside world of employability?

The simple answer is, no, not always.

Take humanities degrees as an example. In my opinion, as a recent English Literature graduate, these degrees are interesting (and a book-worm’s dream), but they teach us fewer and fewer life and employability skills every year. It is no longer the case that simply having a degree from a decent university will guarantee you a job. You must demonstrate the skills you have gained from said degree, and the knowledge of how these fit into the work place. But how are we supposed to gain these skills with only six contact hours a week?

Sure, my degree has taught me some skills so well that I would almost consider myself an expert. I am brilliant at written communication and have an astute understanding of literature. But what is the use in knowing how to translate old English into easily accessible modern text when I can’t for the life of me communicate out loud, in person? Public speaking, group presentations, knowing how to express myself in the spoken word; that is all extremely foreign to me. And as someone who feels very confident on paper, I often feel completely incompetent out loud. And this, I know, is a problem shared by many Z-ers.

Three people at a cafe with laptop

Gen Z kids working

Humanities courses often have less contact hours than STEM subjects, but why that is has always deceived me. We need to communicate, face-to-face, not just with each other, but with the academics in our field, in order to get the best experience from our degrees.

Dr Timmons proposes that ‘experiential learning opportunities add a practical element to courses, allow for the exploration of career options, and engage students by helping them make a difference in the world around them.’

So, I am going to say this again and then I promise I won’t say it anymore: we crave communication. Not just face-to-face communication which has been at the core of all human interaction before us; instant communication, easy communication, the new-wave internet communication. Unlike previous generations we have the ability to know things almost immediately and this has become a core need for us.

So, fellow Gen Z-ers, is there any hope for us at all?

Yes, most definitely. We are a strong and ambitious generation. We strive through collaboration, whether that be online or in person. But we need opportunities to create collaborative spaces, in order for us to innovate and develop into the next generation of leaders.

As the ambitious entrepreneurs of the future, it is imperative that educational institutions are able to offer us the most beneficial experience. We’re not as scary as we seem online (trust me), and as long as we are given the opportunity to communicate, be listened to, and implement new strategies towards a better future for everyone, we will flourish.

This was a response to Dr. Vianne Timmons’ blog, ‘Say hello to Generation Z’. Read her interesting (and far more academic discussion) here.