Dispatch from the Digital Frontier: Insights From and About Generation Z

If you haven’t started thinking about “social learning” models or about a strategy for deploying your learning programs, in whole or in part, for access via mobile hand-held devices, data from a recent survey might provoke a rising sense of urgency. A faculty committee at University of Missouri’s School of Journalism recently asked students and faculty to complete a questionnaire about their technology usage and their opinions regarding technology in education. From my reading, some important themes emerge that have big implications. (Thanks to Mike McKean and Hui-Hsien Tsai for allowing me access to the data they collected.)

Context first. Journalism students at Mizzou (The University of Missouri) must have a Mac laptop and a handheld mobile device (preferably an iPhone or iPod Touch) to enter the program in their junior year. Journalism courses often involve technology, sometimes intensively so, as students learn the tools of their craft. Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, that 97.8% prefer taking courses that involve moderate or extensive usage of technology, with 72% of respondents saying they either agree or strongly agree with the statement, “The use of IT improves my learning.” At the J-school, technology questions focus on “how,” not “whether.”

Social networking is the most often-reported usage of technology by students, regardless of device: 85.2% of respondents said they use social networking sites “several times a day.” Fully 60.1% of students classify themselves as “experts” in social networking (as opposed to 15.2% of faculty, not incidentally). Regardless of ability, 60.6% of students say they use social networking for their classes.

When questions focused specifically on mobile phones, 92.5% of students reported using their phones to access social networking sites, 82.7% send text messages “several times a day” (as opposed to 17.1% who send instant messages that frequently), and 65.9% use their mobiles for tweeting. Notably, 76.6% of student respondents agree or strongly agree that a mobile phone is useful for learning; 57%, by turn, disagree or strongly disagree with the statement, “I don’t see the benefits [of using mobile devices for learning purposes].” 83.9% find “mobile learning” easy to use.

Today’s J-school students are at the leading edge of what some call the Digital Generation, or Generation Z. Educators and sociologists are beginning to weigh in on the defining characteristics of this generation. These include: a technology-dominated lifestyle to the exclusion of outdoor activities (which is contributing to an alarming increase in obesity); an emphasis on individualism over collaboration and team work; self-direction; constant multi-tasking and a syndrome that some call “acquired ADD”; impatience; and being hard to teach. These traits are evidenced by some other student responses to the Mizzou questionnaire. For example, 75.8% say they learn better when course activities require them to conduct their own research using multiple resources. Contributing to discussion forums, blogs, wikis, and receiving feedback – the description provided by the questionnaire for “collaborative activities with others” – was also identified by 61.6% as enabling them to learn better.

Already, members of Generation Z are entering the workforce, bringing their experiences and expectations with them. Presumably, they share the sentiments of questionnaire respondents in anticipating their usage of mobile phones in the next three years, 66.5% of whom “intend to use a cell phone or other handheld Internet device for learning purposes in the next three years,” and 78.2% of whom “predict” their use of such technology for “course activities” will increase in the same period, at which time they will, presumably, have entered the workforce. Further, 78% “plan to do many things on a cell phone or other handheld Internet device that [they] currently do on a laptop or desktop computer.” What inhibits them from doing so now? 62% cite the cost of the data service.

The implications of these findings for eLearning and mLearning are significant, given the strong differences in behavior, lifestyle, and expectation between Gen Z and their older siblings of Gen Y. Whereas Gen Y-ers are highly proficient technology users, these incoming members of our workforce are not just confident in their use of technology, they can’t imagine life – or work – without it. Mobile Internet devices, whatever the form factor, are escalating in prominence for them. They’ve experienced the value of mobile devices as learning tools and see themselves continuing to learn using these same and more advanced technologies. The prospect of these tools not being available to them seems never to have entered their minds.

The kinds of learning activities that Generation Z find most effective, while social and collaborative in one sense, are also singular. For these people, it’s technology, not co-location, that creates and enables social connection and collaboration, and using mobile Internet-access devices only furthers this view. Moreover, the kind of teamwork that has been a hallmark of Generation Y, indicated by a spirit of “everybody working together” and gaining consensus, has morphed into more of an exercise in aggregation that might be summed up in saying, “I do my part, you do your part, then we put the parts together.”

If we are to successfully fold these young people into our work environments, we must understand how they function and what motivates them, of course. These data offer useful insight into what’s in store for us all as we plan for their arrival.

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