Making smart edtech choices in a Gen Z world

If you remember school as a blur of multiplication tables, worksheets, penmanship practice and study halls, you are not alone – and you will be amazed by developments in classrooms today. Waves of technology have passed through schools in recent years, each bringing the promise of dramatic educational evolution. Occasionally they deliver on their potential. More typically, they miss the mark–by a mile.

To truly serve the needs of modern students, edtech needs to support Generation Z, a group of young people born between 1995 and 2014, expected to comprise nearly a third of the global population of 7.7 billion people by next year.

This generation is unlike any before it. The first demographic group born into the digital age, Gen Zers have a unique relationship with technology, seeing it as integral to their lives at work and home and as an extension of who they are as individuals. About 95 percent of Gen Zers own a smartphone and spend nearly 75 percent of their free time online, according to a CommScope study. Additionally, studies show they are easy to distract with an attention span of about 8 seconds compared to 12 seconds for Millennials.

For this generation, face-to-face communications is old school. Passive one-way teaching does not work. Most are accustomed to consuming information through search engines, apps and video. And they conduct most communications–even those with teachers–through a screen. As such, every instructor must think digitally when it comes to their lesson plans and instruction. Similarly, administrators must be highly discerning about the edtech they choose for teaching.

Here are a few important rules-of-thumb for purchasing edtech in a Gen Z world:

Edtech tools should be extensions of students’ lives
For Gen Z students, technology is more than a digital tool that simply replicates an analog process. It is how they communicate, express themselves and prefer to interact with others.

Teachers should not be afraid to leverage online environments students are already using. This can mean utilizing platforms like Snapchat to conduct Q&As or offer private mentoring. It could involve leveraging social media tools to help improve English literacy for refugee students by working with them in a familiar and comfortable online space that inspires further practice and better use of written English. The possibilities are endless if teachers and administrators are up-to-speed on the digital environments captivating the attention of their students.

Edtech tools should modify and redesign the work students do
Edtech experts often refer to the SAMR model, a four-step process toward the educational future consisting of Substitution (think of e-books replacing textbooks), Augmentation (completing assignments on computers and handing them in digitally), Modification (adding things like multimedia to traditional essays), and Redefinition (creating new kinds of projects that are unimaginable without the latest technology).

Most schools can and have tackled substitution and augmentation, the two easy steps. But even if putting 25 students in front of 25 laptops seems like technological progress, it isn’t. Things get much tougher when have to reinvent curricula to modify and redefine the kinds of projects students tackle.

As digital natives, Gen Z students will quickly become bored with technology that is not integrated in a meaningful way. Edtech must redefine the educational experience. It is one thing, for example, to bring a virtual reality headset into a classroom. It is quite another to build it into an interesting lesson plan that conceptualizes solutions to real-world issues.

It is easy to predict the challenges involved. Turning away from traditional classes—math at 10:30, English at 11:15—and moving toward project-based learning is tough. Transforming teachers from lecturers into digital tour guides and facilitators raises issues of control that can take months of contentious meetings and planning to resolve.

One thing is certain: project-based learning and simulations help students stay engaged and improve knowledge retention–and training Gen Z students to be collaborators and problem solvers better prepares them for life outside of school.

Edtech should connect students, not isolate them
We often think of the age of digital technology as isolating, but Gen Z is redefining that paradigm, and curricula must reflect that shift. Today’s best edtech tools facilitate collaboration, not only across the room but around the world.

Gen Z has seen how the digital world can amplify social impact, and they want to be a part of that impact. Projects that blend research, writing, social studies, art, and presentation skills are easy to imagine for these types of students.

Every new Google search can inspire more curiosity and send a student down another path of learning. The best uses of technology do not yield greater memorization of rote facts. They generate interest, cultivate imagination, inspire curiosity and provoke students to ask questions. Gen Z students have potential to become masters at finding the right information and then devising creative ways to turn it into action.

Edtech is a process, not a purchase order
Buying lots of gear may seem effective, but it won’t feel good when all the equipment ends up gathering dust in a supply closet. To maximize return-on-investment (ROI) from edtech spending, schools should start budgeting for professional development. They should plan and create their demand for technology by first educating teachers about how it can truly enhance their educational programs–and then strongly encourage them to use it.

Changing school culture in a meaningful way involves time, discussion and debate. Educators should build out their curriculum and development programs before making big investments in technology. Just as important, they should constantly test and learn as they go. The best way to do that: observe their Gen Z students to see what truly captivates them.

Gen Z is the first generation to experience a fully-connected world from birth. If given the right tools, the right curricula and the right learning environments, they will grow up to change the world in ways unlike any other generation.

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