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Gen Z Education Trends Higher Ed Institutions Need to Know

How to Design Socially Engaging & Inclusive Online Learning Environments that Gen Z Students Love

3 young students on smartphones

Gen Z gets a bad rap for their record-high consumption of social, video, and mobile content. But, can we blame them? They were the first generation to not know life without the Internet or mobile devices. (And honestly, who wants to go back to the days of printing Mapquest directions when we can just use Waze?)

Instead of feeling frustrated by Gen Z’s obsession with digital connection, you can use it to your advantage to build engaging online learning programs where they can do what they do best: connect & engage.

An Introduction to Gen Z

Say hello to a new generation.

Born between 1995 and 2012, Gen Z — also known as the iGeneration or Zoomers — accounts for almost a third of the global population. With more than 2.56 billion belonging to the generation, you’ve likely engaged with members of this diverse and dynamic generation on your campus.

Their impact on the world around them is also already significant. Gen Zers are some of the top influencers on social media. Their social justice movements are affecting change both in the U.S. and globally. When they’re not TikToking, they’re coming up with new ideas and even launching businesses—before they even get to college. Born into mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy and dubbed ‘the global generation,’ 95% of 13- to 17-year-olds report­ hav­ing access to a smart­phone and spending more than 8 hours a day online.

With the ability to instantly access peers, trends and news from all over the world, Gen Z students lead a tech-infused lifestyle that was only supercharged when the pan­dem­ic moved all learn­ing online. In the months that fol­lowed, Gen­ Z stu­dents had unprece­dent­ed expo­sure and expe­ri­ence using tech­nol­o­gy to con­tin­ue their edu­ca­tion out­side the tra­di­tion­al brick-and-mor­tar school setting. So when it comes to college, they’re not too keen to sit on a waitlist just to get into a 600-person live lecture on Thursday nights.

This means that engaging Gen Z in their learning is really a matter of meeting them where they are—and right now that’s in social spaces, both online and off. Today’s students are digital natives and accustomed to communicating with one another online, creating connections and building community virtually.

Because of that, these students expect this to bubble over into their learning experiences naturally. And if we want to engage Gen Zers in the college experience, we’ll need to continue creating learning environments that are collaborative, interactive, and meaningful.

Download the Gen Z Guide

Gen Z Demographics

Gen Z is diverse, determined, and digital.

It’s also quickly becoming one of the most researched generations on the planet. Here’s a quick rundown of what you need to know.

  • Generation Z is the most diverse generation in the U.S. A bare majority (52%) are non-Hispanic white (2020). More than a third of Gen Zers know a non-binary person. And this generation, for the most part, regardless of political affiliation, also views diversity as a good thing.
  • Growing up in the aftermath of 9/11 and the Great Recession of 2008, Gen Z already has a reputation for being cautious and pragmatic (who can blame them!). The upside? They are clear-eyed about their futures and are looking to post-secondary education as an important step toward job security.
  • Gen Z isn’t just mobile-friendly, they are mobile-only. 95% of Gen Z own a smartphone. 55% use their smartphones for 5+ hours a day and 26% for 10+ hours a day.

How Learning Happens for a Gen Zer

From the data, Gen Zers are eager to learn and become deeply engaged in their growth.

How and where they learn isn’t necessarily in the traditional physical classroom. They are motivated to learn new skills that they can put to work quickly. They like studying with friends, and more than half say they enjoy helping their friends learn. While they are comfortable learning in groups, when they get to college, they want some control over how those groups function — preferring to organize the group’s responsibilities on their own.

Despite their focus on social media, they’re active learners and expect to be fully engaged in the learning process. More of them say they learn by doing (51%) rather than by listening (12%). And more than 80% of today’s teens note that YouTube and video have helped them learn something or improve skills that will help them prepare for the future.

Let’s not forget…they live life online. Studies show that they spend three to four hours each day on social media, which probably explains their inclination to consume information in small, bite-sized pieces. If you’re groaning, consider that science is on their side. Microlearning is very effective. According to RPS research, microlearning improves focus and supports long-term retention by up to 80%.

While this generation is more prepared for college than previous generations (yay!), they expect that their coursework will be interesting, that their professors will care about their success, and that their education will prepare them for a career. That raises the bar for colleges and universities.

Most Gen Zers plan to go directly from high school to college. Close to half of older teens have already taken a college course, and 84% of younger teens plan to do the same. Still, about 75% of Gen Zers think that there are other ways of acquiring a good education, aside from going to college.

The proportion of all enrolled college students who take at least one online class continues to rise, edging up to nearly 35 percent.


5 Ways to Engage Gen Zers in their Learning

Never fear…Gen Zers aren’t giving up on formal higher education just yet!

In fact, they’re really looking for opportunities tailored to their interests, that puts students at the center, and that align with their values. That means to continue retaining, engaging, and preparing students for life after graduation, institutions must adapt and tailor their instructional approach in ways that fall more in line with Gen Z priorities.

1. Balance collaboration and autonomy

Don’t shy away from collaboration in an online setting.

While it’s easy to shy away from collaboration during online courses, we all know that online learning can lead to isolation. We also know that as humans, we are social creatures. We need human interaction. And when students are not collaborating with classmates, they miss out on that social element, new perspectives, alternative ways to solve problems, and opportunities to practice providing and receiving feedback.

Do consider implementing instructional strategies and tools that can mimic in-person collaboration opportunities online.

Gen Zers are ultra-collaborative. They throw themselves into new situations and enjoy immersive, interactive experiences–particularly online. They like to participate in the learning process and enjoy working and learning with others online and off.

Because they are an always-on generation, they also value their independence and often prefer working out solutions to problems on their own. In the classroom or online, create unique opportunities for group collaboration, one-to-one peer review, student-facilitated discussions, student reflections, and ample instructor-to-student feedback sessions.

And be sure to keep expectations clear. While they enjoy flexibility in how things get done, it’s important to set your Gen Z students up for success by providing clear milestone due dates, as well as expectations around communication and interactions.

2. Appeal to their sense of community & inclusivity

Don’t take a one-size-fits-all approach.

It’s important to make it easier for shy or struggling students, nontraditional students, or students with disabilities to contribute to the course and interact with others in the ways that make sense for them.

Do promote social & inclusive learning.

Gen Zers are socially engaged! Three out of four believe their generation will change the world. They are accustomed to using technology to share ideas and seek support for them. As one of the most diverse generations, they embrace new and more inclusive ways to listen, learn from one another, and be heard. Their learning environments should reflect these values by providing a model for engaged discussion and guided collaboration.

To do that, leverage tools that help you create a vibrant social learning environment that is inclusive of diverse learners. Fully accessible discussion options give students of all abilities a way to participate and express themselves. Be open to running polls, setting up small groups, or enabling anonymous posting to include students who otherwise might not contribute. As a quick way to kick things off and heighten students’ sense of social presence, invite them to answer fun background questions about themselves in video discussion boards and have them introduce themselves to each other, so they’ll feel more comfortable interacting, collaborating, and asking questions throughout the course. What will result is a genuine Gen Z appreciation for the opportunity to be seen, heard, and valued for their own uniqueness.

3. Build in opportunities to learn and grow from each other

Don’t rely on top down communication.

Instructor-to-student communication is important. But relying on one-way communication during direct instruction is a surefire way to disengaged Gen Z students. Multidirectional communication will keep them hooked.

Do make Gen Zers active participants in their learning.

Gen Zers love to learn. They also love sharing what they’re learning with one another—whether online or face-to-face. This means supplementing your synchronous, direct instruction with additional opportunities for more hands-on learning or using online discussions where problem-solving, ideating, and student-to-student feedback can happen in real time. Remember, Gen Z expects their online experiences to be as social as their face-to-face experiences, so take advantage of new tools and platforms to invigorate your courses.

4. Remember that video is THE medium of choice

Don’t rely on the dreaded thread.

Heavy, long, threaded text isn’t engaging to anyone — and text-heavy instructional delivery will certainly have Gen Z running for the hills!

Do double down on video!

When it comes to learning, Gen Z’s go-to medium is video. They rank learning through YouTube just behind learning from teachers but well ahead of lectures, textbooks, and learning apps. Whether they’re using YouTube or Instagram live, Gen Zers gravitate toward the visual—and they particularly love user-generated content. So make sure that your online platforms not only support video creation and annotation, but that it’s fun and easy to use.

Don’t be afraid to mix it up. Gen Z appreciates variety in their learning. Consider incorporating multiple multimedia options, like audio and images, as well as other modes of communication familiar to them, such as text-like chat, polls, reactions, or tagging, to better engage this group.

5. Whatever tools you use, make them seamless and natural

Don’t create barriers.

Don’t make things hard to access, hard to follow, or hard to use. Rather, find technology and tools that are intuitive to students. The best employ features and interfaces most people are familiar with and already know how to use — think social media. This is important because most online learners are looking for the quickest way to achieve their goals and expect speed at all points in their online learning experience.

Do your homework to make the best technology choices.

Most of us want our technology to work seamlessly across whatever apps and systems we happen to be working in. When it doesn’t work how we want, most of us simply sigh and make do.

Gen Z reacts differently. They already perceive their technology as an extension of themselves. That means they expect flawless execution across all of their devices, making technology choices paramount for retaining and engaging them. To keep your Gen Z students excited about their learning, make sure your digital tools deliver content easily, support social and visual learning, are as mobile as your students are, and function as a cohesive and natural part of your courses. Instructors will thank you too!


Download the Gen Z Guide


The bottom line is that today’s students are looking for unique ways to connect, collaborate, and make an impact. They value skills, prefer a mission to a major, and want to forge their own paths — with the right support and guidance. Helping Generation Z find their way will require new tools to engage, support, and nurture them. And intuitive online discussion & collaboration tools that blend seamlessly into their everyday learning is an important piece of the puzzle. 

Harmonize elevates the learning experience with a suite of LMS-integrated discussion & collaboration tools, that improve student retention and engagement. Request a pilot to try it free, or schedule your demo today!

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