When Nick Bohner was 11, he took his parents’ snowblower and went door-to-door down the street soliciting work. Last winter, he had more than 330 clients for the snow removal part of his business, Nick’s Snow and Mow.
The high-school student from Stratford, Ont., handled the workload with three plows and a staff of five, including his dad who helped out when he wasn’t at his government job.
As someone who’s been using a computer since he can remember, Mr. Bohner runs “pretty much everything” on his smartphone, including adding clients who can sign up online. Tech is also ingrained in his personal life. Mr. Bohner says he likes to communicate by texting and loves watching videos.
“YouTube is one of my favourite ways to learn, especially for business,” he says. “I absolutely prefer it over reading, but I like podcasts, too. When you’re working, you can just be listening to stuff all day.”
Mr. Bohner turns 18 in June, making him a true Gen Z ( defined by Statistics Canada as those born since 1993). And he’s typical of the wave of young adults who are flooding postsecondary education.
Gen Z has already been labelled as having a shorter attention span than the millennials before them and a bit of an attitude. On the plus side, these digital natives are characterized as tech-savvy collaborators with entrepreneurial instincts.
So what do college business schools need to do to prepare for and satisfy Gen Z teens like Mr. Bohner, a Grade 12 student at Stratford Northwestern Secondary School who plans to study marketing at Fanshawe College in nearby London this fall?
Rumeet Billan, president and chief learning architect of Viewpoint Leadership Inc. in Toronto, says incorporating experiential learning into the delivery of business school programs is key to engaging Gen Z students like Mr. Bohner. That means going beyond just having co-ops to incorporating experiential learning in an intentional way in the classroom.
“Born with an iPad in their hands, Gen Z are both visual and kinesthetic learners who enjoy hands-on experience,” says Dr. Billan. “They want to see and do and interact with things. Educators need to understand that how they learn, process and retain information is different from the previous generation.
“When you look at Gen Z as visual learners,” she continues, “content is important, but the way it’s delivered is equally important [especially for online business education programs]. So making content beautiful with graphics is a huge component. You’re dealing with a generation that grew up on Instagram.”
Dr. Billan also recommends that educators use technology to incorporate game playing into the classroom experience to engage Gen Z, with programs such as Kahoot, a game-based learning platform. Another idea is embedding microlearning, which is learning in little bits.
“Standing in front of a class for three hours and lecturing isn’t effective for students used to three-minute video clips on YouTube,” Dr. Billan says. “Are you using different mediums in order to deliver your content? Are you using video and interactive components? It’s really the delivery of the content that matters for business schools.”
Schools have already taken notice and are responding.
Liz Gray, a professor at the Lawrence Kinlin School of Business at Fanshawe College, says experiential learning is the only way to go today, Gen Z or not.
And given that the philosophy at Fanshawe is to learn by doing, the vast majority of what she teaches in class is hands-on application-based learning. Her search engine marketing course is funded by real businesses that want to explore how the Google ad-words platform can help drive qualified traffic to their websites, for example.
“These companies fund my student teams with $250 in cash to create, run and optimize a live pay-per-click advertising campaign on the ad-words platform over a 21-day period,” says Prof. Gray.
“Students get the hands-on application learning under my guidance and also experience managing client expectations, client communication and results-based activities in terms of measuring return on investment. Nothing is theoretical. It’s using real dollars to run live advertising campaigns. We’re simulating real life, as much as you can in a short time frame with a limited budget.”
Prof. Gray feels that it’s critical, as faculty, to make the classroom experience really rich because teachers often have students face-to-face for just three hours a week. That’s because she finds the vast majority of students today have employment outside of college.
“We have a responsibility as educators to adapt to their reality and to change what happens in the classroom because there are so many other things competing in their lives,” Prof. Gray says.
“You need to be able to look at your time with the students and make sure you’re maximizing every minute and being flexible with your delivery. That may look like me giving the most important information they need in little digestible chunks or getting around to see as many as possible on a one-to-one basis.”
Don Bureaux, president of Nova Scotia Community College, believes in providing an environment “focused on meeting learners where they are.”
But he also wants to be careful that they don’t just do surface level changes. As a result, the college is doing much more work with faculty and staff in helping them understand Gen Z’s learning style difference and how the physiology of the brain has changed over the past number of years.
“Gen Z are digital natives,” Mr. Bureaux says. “That kind of interaction with technology actually does change the way the brain functions. There’s a physiological change in the way people think, hence, a shorter attention span.
“As a result, Gen Z wants to access their learning in a very different dynamic visual way, so we’ve moved to shorter courses and flexible learning platforms where you bring your own device. At one time, institutions would provide a laptop for every student, but that’s gone by. We have to create a system and learning environment where they can bring their own platform and not be hindered by a common platform that we provide to them.”
Because of their different attention span, he notes that Gen Z students also want to bundle programs in a very different way, including for business.
“We have students who don’t commit to a four-year degree at one institution any more,” says Mr. Bureaux. “They expect us to collaborate with our other partnering institutions to be able to bundle or ladder the educational experience. So now we’re having to be very creative. You can come to us for a year, go to university for a year, back and forth, and we can co-create this bundled experience.”
Other differences he sees are that there’s much more learning within groups, with more of a social environment to learning, and that Gen Z wants to make a difference in the world.
“Through our business programs, we’re able to connect them with the real world by interacting with businesses toward helping that change,” says Mr. Bureaux. “What we’re finding is they’re very loyal and committed. There’s a legend out there they want to be president after a year. We don’t really see that, but they want meaningful work. They’re very interested in helping companies do well financially, but they also want to help businesses be socially and environmentally responsible.
“We’ve had to train the businesses as well,” Mr. Bureaux continues, “but the reaction from the business community has been extremely positive. We’ve had success in getting the business community on board. We can’t just focus on the changes we must do from the classroom door in. We also have to focus on change from the classroom door out. It requires a holistic approach as opposed to just putting more stuff on YouTube or on social media.”