18 practical steps to help universities better serve Generation Z


We need to understand Generation Z better. These young people, born after the mid- to late-1990s, have lived with technology as an embedded part of life. Their experiences have defined what they perceive as “normal”. They are of the digital age.

They have made assumptions about how they will engage with learning and life at university. Whether or not we feel comfortable in the virtual world they inhabit, this is where they are, and we must meet them there. To help us understand Generation Z’s relationship with technology, some colleagues and I spent an afternoon with 20 enthusiastic year 10 students at Longfield Academy in Melton Mowbray (aged between 14 and 15).

Here are their key messages and how I believe we should respond if we are to be ready for their arrival on our campuses.

“We expect it now”

They are not used to waiting for things. Digital channels provide them with immediate social connection, immediate service fulfilment, immediate access to information and entertainment. They are not especially entitled or impatient. Instant is just normal.

So we should:

  • Provide access to university services anytime, anywhere

“We love our smart phones”

They use a constellation of devices but their smart phones are at the centre. They happily watch and read material on these tiny screens.

So we should:

  • Provide access to services and resources from any device but deliver for mobile first

“We still love an experience”

They enjoy shopping in shops, reading books and going to gigs and performances. They like vintage clothes, vinyl records, even cameras that use film.  They often choose these and other non-digital approaches.

So we should:

  • Incorporate digital rather than replace analogue
  • Create a converged physical and digital environment within our buildings, libraries, laboratories and performance spaces
  • Provide joined up and equivalent service across all digital and face to face channels

“Being sociable = being online”

They find it hard to imagine a fulfilling existence that does not depend on social networking tools. They fear the social disconnection that comes with poor WiFi coverage or flat batteries. They seek online communities with niche interests that match their own.

So we should:

  • Provide WiFi everywhere as a basic human need
  • Engage with the social media conversations that underpin our university communities. “I don’t do Twitter” won’t do

“We like to read but we prefer to watch”

Video is the preferred medium. They find it fast, convenient and effective to absorb information and ideas this way.

So we should:

  • Be video makers as well as writers

“We follow the personal recommendation trail”

They follow the machine recommendations that point them forward to the next film on Netflix or the next article. Without these personalised signposts the world’s information sources appear vast and impenetrable. They are used to an environment that learns from their behaviours and predicts and meets their perceived needs.

They use Amazon, Google, YouTube and even Mail Online because “everything is there”. They are manipulated by the media and technology giants who know how to keep them scrolling and clicking.

So we should:

  • Teach them to be critical as they challenge the provenance, authenticity and balance of information sources
  • Help them to set their own goals, to decide what will be “time well spent” in support of these, and to resist manipulation as they navigate online information
  • Learn how to use data and analytics to help us provide the right support at the right time for each student

“We are happy to share data”

They use their social media accounts to sign on to new apps. They are not aware of the implications of losing control of personal data in this way.

So we should:

  • Incorporate information about cyber security and personal data protection as part of our digital literacy programmes

“We trust and choose the brands we know”

They are overwhelmed by choice. They rely heavily on brand reputation and the endorsements of those they trust. They are highly influenced by sentiments that propagate virally.

So we should:

  • Use sophisticated marketing and campaign management tools to grab the attention of potential students and collaborators
  • Listen to, respond to and protect the way our university’s reputation is expressed and experienced across all digital media

“Adults need help”

They are their parents’ digital teachers. They think adults focus narrowly on online shopping, Facebook and WhatsApp (which mum uses to send pictures to granny). They are generally unimpressed by the way older people use technology.

So we should:

  • Welcome students as co-creators of their learning environment and digital makers
  • Promote digital literacy and confidence across our whole community
  • Employ students as mentors and “digital tour guides”
  • Promote and encourage student “hackathons”

Above all we must listen, watch and learn from this generation. How else can we envision the digitally resonant curriculum and experience that will draw them in? How else can we imagine the “in silico” research environment that will attract the best talent?

If your university has “digital strategy” on the agenda, a visit to a local school might just be a useful starting point.

Author Bio: Mary Visser is a digital strategist and experienced university chief information officer. Her company is Coact Consulting.