Gen Z's surprising response to remote learning

Professor who studies digital distraction offers remote teaching insights

Newswise — Research has shown that “Generation Z” students — those born after 1996 — have surprising preferences for face-to-face learning, even though their parents rarely see them without their smartphone in hand.

University of Nebraska–Lincoln broadcasting professor Barney McCoy has studied this age group as part of his ongoing national research on digital distractions in the classroom. As education in America makes a historic technology shift in the face of COVID-19, instructors may face some unexpected challenges and pleasant surprises with today’s college students.

His third survey of student use of digital devices in college classrooms was published April 15 in the Journal of Media Education. His survey of more than 1,000 students in 2018 and 2019 found a decrease in the amount of time and number of times Gen Z students used smartphones and other devices for non-class purposes during the school day.

“Gen Z grew up with technology, yet most of them prefer in-person communication over tools like texting and videoconferencing," McCoy said. "My research found this is happening in classroom settings and has remote learning applications, too."

In 2019, Gen Z students reported spending 19% of their class time using a digital device for a non-class purpose. That’s a decline from 2015, when millennial students reported spending nearly 21% of class time looking at their smartphones, tablets and laptops.

“Gen Z students are better at focusing in a classroom,” he said, “but they do have a shorter attention span than their millennial counterparts.”

McCoy’s findings dovetail with other research that has found that digitally savvy Gen Z students are more likely than their millennial counterparts to prefer taking notes by hand and to prefer teacher-led learning to online classes and self-directed coursework.

McCoy believes his findings reflect changes in the ways Gen Z uses technology, as well as changes in the way instructors teach. He adds that both factors have implications for successful remote learning strategies during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Remote learning is not a stretch for my students,” he said. “But roughly 80% of my Zoom reporting classes on Monday and Tuesday (March 30 and 31) said they’d rather be in a classroom.”

McCoy said Gen Z students are active learners who respond well to a blended approach that includes more on-demand learning tools and collaborative learning techniques. For example, he recently assigned reporting students to watch one of his “Broadcast Style Writing” videos, react to it in an online discussion board and then brainstorm as they researched coronavirus broadcast stories during a live Zoom meeting.

“They are truly the digital natives – when they were born, it was all here already,” McCoy said. “They are a force now in college, and they are going to change the dynamics of the workplace, too.”

McCoy will make a poster presentation about his latest survey during the virtual convention of the Broadcasters Education Association April 17-24. He had been scheduled to present the research at the group's convention in Las Vegas before COVID-19 struck.

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