Finding the Best Learning Environment for the Gen-Z Student

With matric complete, a new cohort of Generation Z (Gen-Z) is now in search of optimum learning environments that will support their pursuit of knowledge and help them prepare themselves for the world of work. Often referred to as ‘digital natives’, Gen-Z’s stand out for growing up with a complete immersion in technology which has shaped the ways they find, process, learn and engage with content. As they enter our universities and colleges they also bring with them their generational worldview and traits.  Across the world, traditional higher education is challenged to adapt to provide learning environments that will set Gen-Z on pathways to success.

Gen-Z’s have been raised in an inter-connected world with unprecedented amounts of information immediately accessible to them through their devices.  The world’s problems are more apparent and visceral to them, and they tend to be innovative problem-solvers who are often driven by the need for social change.  There may well be many among them who are specifically looking for study programmes that will support their aspirations to make an impactful contribution to an ever-changing and uncertain world.  Notable for their adaptability, Gen-Z’s want to be equipped with skills that do not confine them to a single field of work. Rather, they prefer to develop universal skills that will help them to solve challenges in different work environments.

Another impact on Gen-Z has been growing up in a world that has been more protective of childhood and children, with parents more aware of parenting and aiming to turn out young adults with healthy self-esteem. As a consequence, Gen-Z’s have expectations of being engaged with as worthwhile individuals, whether that’s online, at home or in their study environment.  They value close personalised attention, recognition of their uniqueness and tailor-made plans to help them get to where they want to be in the most optimal ways.  They do better with regular, constructive feedback from those in charge, and are more open than any other generation to mentoring, coaching and counselling.

For many of Generation Z, the traditional Western university model, with its sprawling, anonymous campus, vast lecture halls and cloistered academics, is not the optimal route for their further education. Their preferences are shaping higher education across the globe, but it’s not that easy for long-standing institutions to transform in radical ways.  Lauren Martin, Clinical Psychologist and Head of Teaching and Learning at SACAP (South African College of Applied Psychology) believes this is one of the reasons there has been a steady rise in private higher education institutions across the world. “Private institutions have had the benefit of offering personalised, tailored educational experiences which allows them to remain agile in meeting the changing needs of students who enrol,” she says.  “Private institutions like SACAP are specifically geared to provide 21st Century learning environments that best suit the current generation.”

Lauren points out that the optimal higher education learning environment for Gen-Z, must include:

  • Providing social learning environments where Gen-Z can engage seamlessly with diverse content, educators, mentors and peers. Their learning environment needs to provide opportunities for sharing, engaging and debating. Smaller classes that allow for robust discussions on relevant world issues are important for Gen-Z’s.  “They need to be hands-on when it comes to their learning,” Lauren says.  “Their learning environment needs to enable them to be directly and deeply involved in their learning process.”
  • Providing on-demand services so that Gen-Z can at any time and with great ease access a variety of services that help them optimise their study experiences. Gen-Z’s are adaptable and can easily access information to assist with their own learning. Their needs rapidly change as they are exposed to new information and contexts, and they require a personalised set of support services to meet their needs. Their learning environment needs to be agile in developing and offering new and diverse support services, delivered flexibly and efficiently.
  • Providing career guidance, planning and focused learning opportunities because Gen-Z’s want to be involved in making a meaningful difference in the world. Providing opportunities for students to gain experience in various work environments or volunteer options during their studies exposes them to the needs in the community and allows them to practically think about meaningful career trajectories. Also, they value developing universal skills that allow them to create careers that perhaps have not even been thought of yet. Their learning environment needs to foster flexibility, autonomy and innovation.
  • Deeply integrating digital learning tools and engagement channels so that Gen-Z can learn the way they learn best – through technology and multimedia devices. “Gen-Z’s are accustomed to communication and learning through various technology platforms such as social media, smartphones and apps, Lauren concludes. “Their learning environments need to incorporate creative technology platforms, applications and in-class integration to keep Gen-Z’s thriving as they study.”

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