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AI: The Connection to Generation Z and Education

AI: The Connection to Generation Z and Education

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By Dr. Shelley Pumphrey
Faculty Member, School of Business, American Public University

Characteristics of various generations may offer some insight into a student’s propensity to accept artificial intelligence (AI). Each generation shares experiences during its formative years that influence the group’s views. Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2015) may be the most technology-accepting generation so far.

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This generation does not know life without the internet. Almost half of Gen Z are connected to the internet for at least 10 hours a day. Instagram and YouTube are their most popular social media outlets. Therefore, they might not only embrace AI but also expect it in the college classroom.

Millennials Move Over for Generation Z

Millennials represent those born between 1981 and 1996. They have been the focus of attention for over a decade, but now must make way for Gen-Zers who are quickly making a name for themselves.

Moreover, technology is shaping Gen Z’s view of the world and the classroom. From a very early age, this group became connected through mobile devices. According to Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, their lives are marked by instant connection. As a result, we can expect that Gen Z’s constant connectivity will influence what goes on in the classroom.

Higher Education under Attack

Recently, higher education has been under attack from those who doubt whether college degrees are necessary for a successful career. According to Pew Research, however, most Americans still see value in higher education. This is evident as enrollment in colleges and universities continues to rise steadily even though Gallup and other polling research have found that confidence in higher education has declined.

Gen-Zers are already entering colleges and making their mark. They see higher education as a place to develop practical skills for their careers and life. They are future-focused and seek colleges and universities that offer career preparation courses and services. They are quick to disengage if they do not see relevance. According to a Harris Poll, the goal of 65% of Gen-Zers is to make it to the top of their profession and college is an important step in this direction.

Generation Z Expects Technology

According to Pearson Education, Gen Z does not see technology as transforming education. Instead, technology is taken for granted. In addition, Gen Z does not lose sight of the role of the professor. They see the professor as an important factor in the student’s education and career development. In fact, many Gen-Zers prefer teacher-led instruction. However, this is not to be confused with classroom lectures. Formal lectures will often lose the student. Gen Z expects more hands-on learning experiences such as interactive apps and games.

Gen-Z students feel connected to each other even if only through technology. They see this as a benefit connecting them to a diverse group of learners. And they like to share their experiences through such apps as Instagram, Snapchat and YouTube.

Gen Z Challenges

Generation Z students are not without their challenges. The lack of feedback in their high school courses does not prepare them for the higher expectations of college professors. They also expect to have busy schedules, combining learning with other experiences such as working and caregiving. They do not see a work-life balance but a work-life blend.

According to Steven Mintz, a professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin: “Synchronous online classes, hybrid classes, practicums, field-based experiences, mentored internships” are potential means to “better meet student needs without diluting rigor or compromising quality.”

Gen Z and Artificial Intelligence

To encourage learning, activities must be rooted in what students already know. Meeting the needs of Generation Z makes a strong case for expanding AI in the classroom. They crave technology-enhanced learning. AI meets students within the culture they know, a technology- and information-rich culture.

Gen Z wants to see the relevance in the learning activity. AI supports this demand by going beyond automating activities. Gen Z prefers more self-directed learning. Initially, AI can be used to support establishing student learning goals and objectives by developing individualized learning strategies. The use of an AI tutor can gauge progress and modify content and activities based on individual progress.

While Gen-Zers value the professor as a mentor, they are easily distracted, according to Tim Elmore, the president of Growing Leaders.  Therefore, the traditional classroom is a challenge for Gen-Zers. Moreover, Generation Z expects to be connected all the time. The role of the professor is enhanced through AI by providing flexible activities through a media-rich environment not limited to specific time and space.

AI is dependent on user ability. Previous generations, while open to technology, were burdened by learning new applications while also learning subject content. Gen-Zers, however, grew up learning the computer world and are quick to embrace and enjoy the challenge that new apps present. They also prefer sharing videos and learning from YouTube.

AI critics claim that the technology is dehumanizing and discourages human interaction. Gen Z does not see a dehumanizing influence. Quite the contrary. Gen-Zers began connecting through technology at a young age. They see technology as a way to engage with a larger, more diverse group. They like sharing experiences and information through the networks they create. Educational systems can use this appreciation for a larger network by supporting workgroups and expanding learning experiences.

Gen Z, especially Gen Z males, see gaming as an important part of their identity. They enjoy interactive games that require them to make choices. The use of the AI tutor enhances the gaming experience by motivating students.

Are Colleges and Universities Ready for Generation Z?

Colleges, like businesses, must constantly adapt to keep up with the pace of change and the needs of students. Those colleges and universities that cannot let go of old structures and frameworks will miss opportunities and will lack the support students will expect to succeed. AI will be the link to the next generation.

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About the Author

Dr. Shelley Pumphrey is an academic and business leader with over 20 years of teaching experience in technology and business courses at a variety of colleges and universities. She is a former Manager of Communications at Baltimore Gas & Electric and served for over 30 years in the energy industry. Dr. Pumphrey earned her Ph.D. in information security and has published in the areas of alternative fuels and information security.

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