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Digital Curriculum and Generation Z: The Research Behind the Learning Style of Today’s Students

Tuesday, September 12, 2017 -- Shannan LaMalfa

I recently had an experience that caused me to truly reflect on today’s learners. My daughter Hope is 12 years old and attends our local public school, Central Middle School, in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. Recently, we finally found an engaging physical activity that she enjoys and looks forward to. If you are the proud parent of one of these Generation Z kiddos, you probably understand the ongoing-battle to find a physical activity or sport that your child will commit to for the long term and the difficulty to get them to spend some time away from technology that could engage them 24/7. For Hope, mixed martial arts has been the long-sought answer, and I’ve enjoyed adding it to our family schedule. Last week, Hope got lotion on her martial arts shirt, so of course, she wanted to wash it right away before she went to practice in the evening. But, I had my own commitments for the night and needed to get out the door. I helped her get the washing machine started, and she was observant and determined to begin using this machine without parental guidance. Knowing she needed this shirt as part of a uniform for her class that evening, I called her a short time later, anticipating that she would need reminding and instructions to get the shirt out of the washer and into the dryer. However, she quickly responded, “My shirt is already dry.” I was a little baffled, and she went on to tell me that the Web had provided her with all she needed to know to operate the dryer.

Her decision to use her online resources to learn how to use the dryer isn’t exactly rocket science. After all, “Google it” has become a common response for many of us when others ask us something we don’t know the answer to. However, my reflection on this exchange was more about the realization that I have a Generation Z child and what that actually means. I spent years working as a teacher and administrator, and I now work on Edmentum’s Research Team, so I know plenty about education. But, I had never really considered how a student’s generation fits into planning curriculum.

I know Edmentum’s modern digital curriculum is powerful and research-based; I used to be the product manager for our online Courseware. During my tenure, we surveyed over a thousand educators, and I never received feedback directly related to the generation of a learner. In fact, my last project in that role, developing our brand-new algebra courses, was driven by two clear themes: incorporating real-world applications and offering more opportunities for practice, practice, practice. I’m very proud of how these courses turned out, and thanks to the educator feedback that we used to build them, I truly believe they meet student and teacher needs. But, throughout that entire process, I never stopped to think about how those needs are being shaped by societal and generational changes and how those shifts impact how students learn.  

My colleague Dr. Jeff McLeod, Edmentum’s chief psychometrician, recently released a  white paper on the Research Base and Instructional Design of Edmentum Digital Curriculum. As I read it, I found myself thinking, “Wow, that’s my Generation Z kid.” I always thought her learning preferences were more about her being an only child, but I’m coming to realize that they’re much more shaped by her generation. And, research shows that digital curriculum might uniquely meet the needs of these Generation Z learners, and it has potential to better serve students in later generations as well. Research evidences that these learners need:

  • Hands-on learning: This generation’s work style tends to be hands-on. Digital curriculum, of course, is built to be interactive. It enables students to use tools—like interactive historical timelines, mathematical function explorers, maps, and more—to explore concepts in concrete, applied ways that are difficult to create in traditional classrooms.
  • Working flexibly: Generation Z prefers an independent, flexible working style. Digital curriculum allows students to work irrespective of platform and physical location, perhaps more so than any other learning mode. This approach doesn’t preclude lessons where students work collaboratively in groups, engage in discussion, and give feedback. But the modality of online learning is uniquely suited to independent work not bound by location or time.
  • Working at their own pace: This generation prefers self-directed work. Teachers do what is practically possible to help students work at their own pace, but with a classroom full of unique students, there are limitations. Digital curriculum can help teachers and students achieve a more individualized experience than other instruction modes allow because there is more leeway for self-pacing. Courses are customizable to fit the learner’s individual needs, help them build mastery as they progress through different skills, and allow them to work at the pace that is right for them.
  • Working solo: Unlike students in previous generations who favored working in groups, Generation Z tends to prefer working solo. Digital curriculum offers an intimate, one-to-one encounter of the student with the course material. Perhaps students gain a greater sense of accomplishment by working through material successfully on their own. Or perhaps students get overwhelmed in a group setting and feel that their individual ability and talent doesn’t stand out. In any event, one of the factors essential to deliberate practice in the behaviorist learning model is practicing alone, as opposed to in groups, and digital curriculum provides that ability.
  • Working on practical interactive learning exercises: This generation tends to view teachers as facilitators of learning and prefers not to be “lectured at.” Generation Z students are masters of asking “why?” They want to see the point of what they’re learning, understand how it can benefit them in the real world, and take the opportunity to learn through application.

As I read more of the research evidence on generations included in Jeff’s study, I grew to appreciate Edmentum’s instructional designers even more. As a company committed to being educators’ most trusted partner, we are constantly looking for opportunities to innovate, update our courses and curriculum with new material, and apply the latest research. Our digital curriculum development team considers the characteristics and needs of today’s learners in addition to the distinct principles of effective instruction, which has a sound basis in theory and research. These principles guide the creation of all of our online curriculum:

  • Constructivist learning
  • Skills mastery focus
  • Practice
  • Real-world applications
  • Rigor, relevance, and complexity
  • Multimodal learning
  • Passion, perseverance, and grit

In the past, I thought of the concept of “generations” as stereotypes more than anything else, and I never really took them seriously. I wasn’t focused on the research behind generational differences. However, my recent experiences with my daughter, as well as my Edmentum team’s in-depth work, has shown me that there is solid research on Generation Z, including Generation Z Goes to College published by researchers from the University of Arizona. I’ve realized now that there are many things my own child does that affirm her Generation Z status. For years, she’s loved to create videos with music choreographed to actions. She works independently but, in the process, collaborates with children around the world who provide her with the tips, experience, and knowledge she needs to complete the videos with the effects she wants. She is constantly editing and creating, often looking up how to do something with the help of Google or YouTube. All this time, I thought that much of my daughter’s learning style was a result of being an only child—my “a-ha” moment of understanding today’s learners from a generational viewpoint has changed this, and it’s very exciting to me.

For more information on the instructional design behind Edmentum Courseware, check out our latest white paper. And, don’t forget to check out all of the exciting summer and fall enhancements we’re releasing to provide an even more engaging and rich experience for educators and students!