Say hello to Generation Z

Collaborative workspace with five laptops
Vianne Timmons
Dr Vianne Timmons

Dr Vianne Timmons is President and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Regina, Canada.

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When I think about the next generation of students, I can’t help thinking of the lyrics to a song by Cat Stevens that was part of the soundtrack of my own life 40 years ago: ‘Oh very young, what will you leave us this time?’

It’s hard to imagine all the possibilities that exist for this so-called Generation Z, and the many contributions they will make in the years to come. Our challenge, as universities, is to work out how best we can prepare them to make those contributions. As university administrators and professors, we must reverse the question to ask: ‘Oh very young, what will we leave you this time?’ So, what do we know about Generation Z?

Getting to know Generation Z

First of all, Generation Z students are not digitally connected like their predecessors; rather, they are digitally innate. They cannot remember a time when the internet did not exist for the simple reason that it has always existed in their lifetime. Google has been an integral part of their lives essentially from day one, providing immediate – albeit not always correct – answers to anything they might ask.

As a result, these students have been brought up to question conventional wisdom and sources of information, and do not necessarily view their professors as experts. We don’t instantly command their respect as our own teachers might have commanded ours in generations past.

Having such information at their fingertips for their entire lives has also enabled this new generation to customise their own learning experience. They have had more opportunity than previous generations to pick and choose what they believe is relevant to their lives and interests.

Their immersion in social media has also had an impact on their relations with others. Being in immediate (and sometimes constant!) contact with their peers has helped them develop a strong collaborative spirit that infuses their desire and ability to work with others.

Just as importantly, many members of Generation Z have a quality born not out of the digital age into which they were born, but rather out of the real-life experience of their parents and older siblings. Having witnessed the employment prospects of older family members evaporate in the past past decade or so, many Generation Z students are incredibly industrious and entrepreneurial, and have a clear idea of the career paths they hope to follow – paths that often involve starting their own businesses rather than relying on others for jobs.

Engaging with a new demographic

Although these qualities might not be universal to all members of the Generation Z demographic, they are common enough – and evident enough – that we as universities must pay increasing attention to them as we consider our curricula and teaching practices. How might we do this?

For one thing, we must rethink the extent to which we provide online education options for our students. Generation Z want and expect the flexibility and convenience of online courses, enabling them to customise their class schedules around work and other activities.

We must also heed their desire to customise their learning experiences in other ways. Too often, our curricula are collections of courses rather than specific programmes of study. If we listen to our students – students who are increasingly goal oriented and career focused – it’s clear we need to offer more coherent programmes, with more explicit paths to careers. This doesn’t necessarily mean something as dramatic as eliminating areas of study and adding entirely new ones. Instead, it can mean working creatively with what we have – packaging existing courses together in new ways and offering multidisciplinary programmes with multiple pathways to a degree.

Three people working on laptop

Engaging with students

We must also pay special attention to the relevance – or perceived lack of relevance – of what we teach. Our students want a university education to be ‘relevant in the real world’, and we do them a disservice when we do not demonstrate that relevance. Making our curricula more relevant to our students does not necessitate ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. In almost all cases, the critical thinking skills and technical knowledge we impart already have the relevance that our students seek, but our students are not always fully aware that this is the case. By rethinking how we present our course material and communicate our intended learning outcomes, we can help our students better understand how they can apply the knowledge they have gained in the real world.

Bringing the classroom and the ‘real world’ together also appeals to an emerging generation of undergraduates who have a strong interest in social activism. 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.

The naturally collaborative nature of Generation Z students also provides opportunities for us to enhance our learning environment. We should explore ways of allowing our students to work more meaningfully with each other, foster learning cohorts whenever possible, and try to incorporate the technologies students use in their daily lives into their learning experience.

We also need to remember that Generation Z students have grown up in a digital world without national borders. They are far more aware of the diversity that exists in the world than we ever were at their age, and providing them with international study opportunities is more important than ever. They are already global citizens by the time they reach university, and it is incumbent on us to build on this to help develop the next generation of leaders.