24 March 2023 Blogs, Academic, Faculty, Librarian

How to create meaningful digital learning experiences for Gen Z

Clarivate user experience (UX) designers Lane Bowman and Christie Heitkamp share the defining characteristics of Gen Z and Gen Alpha, their technology landscape and UX principles for engaging them

By Beth McGough, special to the ProQuest Blog

“Nearly every single person said their favorite form of communication was ‘in person.’”
– Melissa DeWitte, Stanford News

Generation Z or Gen Z, often called “Digital Natives,” are the first generation to grow up with easy access to the internet and broadband. A common image of Gen Z, born between 1997 and 2012, is a teen staring at their phone. Surprisingly, a study published in 2021 revealed that Gen Z prefers to communicate in person over all other methods, even text. Nonetheless their phone is always within reach. Almost two thirds (64%,) check Instagram once a day and more than half (54%) spend up to four hours or more on social media.

Cause for alarm? Perhaps not. Mobile devices and digital tools empower Gen Z to easily navigate the world and foster their self-reliance. Further, digital access has instilled in young adults an awareness of global environmental, social and political issues. Gen Z’s pragmatism and interest in collaboration motivate them to actively support global issues and easily adapt to change.

Connecting with Gen Z and its successor, Gen Alpha or A, born after 2010, is easier when we consider the environment – where technology, internet access and digitalization proliferated – in which they are coming of age. Gen A may be too young to have identifiable values and characteristics, but technology is expected to be a strong influence.

Gen Z and Gen A are the U.S.’s most diverse generations. According to the 2022 Census, Gen Z is expected to be predominantly non-white and Pew Research indicates about 30% of Gen Z know someone who uses gender neutral pronouns.

Gen Z deeply values authenticity – online and offline – driving the expectation of equality for all. While Gen A’s defining values are still being shaped, their parents, Millennials, deeply value equality like Gen Z.

Technology expands possibilities for students

“Being hyper-connected, [Gen A] become experts in the use of new technologies, which facilitates their digital learning and opens up a wide range of possibilities.”
Ibedrola blog

Gen Z and Gen A’s comfort and creativity with digital technology impacts learning in many ways. Sixty-one percent believe they can express themselves better through photos and videos. According to a Digital Natives survey from Clarivate, 86% have viewed learning-related content on YouTube.

As content creators Gen Z is eager to share video, photos and graphics and their desire to share knowledge and collaborate extends to learning. Respondents to the Digital Natives survey from Clarivate found that Gen Z goes to their peers for help with school assignments more frequently than other generations. Yet, they rate their peers as the third “most useful” resource after internet searches and class resources for school assignments.

The preference for video and interactivity reflects Gen Z’s predominant learning style – learning by doing. Barnes & Noble College conducted a survey in 2022 indicating 51% of respondents learn by doing, 38% learn by seeing, and only 12% learn by listening.

Growing up with artificial intelligence

“AI technologies, such as ChatGPT, have the potential to radically change the way people search, find, and analyze information.”
– Christie Heitkamp, Clarivate UX Designer

ChatGPT, released in late 2022, created a sensation with examples of poems, stories and nonfiction generated by the chatbot shared across the news media and social media. Whether or not we are aware of it, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is increasingly a part of our daily lives.

EdTech tools and programs with GPT or Generative AI innovations are developing to improve learning, save time and encourage creativity. For example, AI is used in K-12 personalized learning environments and for real-time assessment helping students with comprehension and retention. Ultimately, striving for equal access to high quality education.

In higher education, research assistants such as Elicit and SciSpace help students and faculty by summarizing, organizing and managing articles for research and literature reviews.

While the potential application of AI across education is full of possibilities, it’s not without problems. It can be a great source of inspiration and feedback, but it’s important to recognize that it only knows patterns rather than facts. It should not be used as a source of truth. Educators are grappling with usage policies for tools such as ChatGPT. Despite AI’s potential risks in a school setting, such as plagiarism, preparing students who will work alongside generative AI and teaching them its strengths and weaknesses will be critical to their future success.

Designing for Digital Natives

“The hardest part about making YouTube Shorts is coming up with the idea for the video. The easy part is creating and posting it.”
– Christie Heitkamp’s 10-year-old son

EdTech designers must understand their audience to positively impact learning and foster creativity in both a physical and digital environment. With insights about Gen Z, EdTech designers can use UX principles to build meaningful digital experiences.

Bowman and Heitkamp recommend the following UX principles:

  • Personalization: Tailor experiences to meet user needs and preferences. Use your user’s preferred name. If you can, provide recommendations based on past behaviors.
  • Interactivity: Invest in digital services that enable you to send and receive communication and foster interactivity. Listen carefully to your users and treat feedback as a gift. Remember Gen Z’s preference for in-person communication – find opportunities for face-to-face interactions.
  • Multi-spatial: Meet users where they’re at. Provide mobile-friendly services and be sure your online and physical presences are aligned. In the Gen Z world, community is important and extends beyond the physical. Their online world in no less important than the physical world. Moving fluidly between these spaces is important.
  • Multi-media: Facilitate learning through a variety of media. Think beyond text-based resources and standard formats. Consider audio, video and game-like experiences. Provide learning experiences that are immersive and encourage interactivity.
  • Chunking: Break content into bite-size portions. Design for short attention spans – you’ve got eight seconds to grab Gen Z’s attention. Keep it short and sweet! Reduce the clutter and make things easy to scan.
  • Integrity: Practice and promote honesty. Think about your library’s brand and how you live it: Make your values clear, deliver on your promises and make communication direct and transparent. Embrace Gen Z’s interest in collaboration to do great work together.

Bowman and Heitkamp go deeper into putting each principle into practice in the CHOICE webinar and you can watch the recording of Designing Meaningful Experiences for Digital Natives.

ProQuest, part of Clarivate, designs its research and learning solutions to meet the changing expectations of Gen Z and inspire their academic journey. For example, ProQuest One Academic combines authoritative video content – often a first stop for Gen Z -- along with more challenging content like scholarly journals and dissertations in a single resource. Learn how ProQuest resources can help your library meet the needs of this unique generation of students.

Beth McGough

Beth McGough

Special to the ProQuest Blog

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