The Rising "Phigital" Student

Education must adapt now to accommodate Gen Z — but how?

Featured Columnist

      Maris Stansbury

A major generational clash is underway, says a foremost expert, and it’s affecting all industries, including education. The clash is coming from so-called Gen Z, the first generation to be considered fully “phigital” — unwilling or unable to draw a distinction between the physical world and its digital equivalent.

So what does that mean for educators? Well, buckle up and hold on.

In an article published in, of all places, Delta’s Sky Magazine, writer Allison Kaplan details her interview with generational expert and author David Stillman on how Generation Z will begin graduating from college this year and what businesses should expect. Here’s a hint: Don’t expect Millennials.

And though Gen Z is starting to graduate this year, there’s still a massive amount of them within various levels of education — nearly 73 million (born between 1995 and 2012), according to Time magazine.

Since education has been focusing more on adapting itself to its students, rather than students learning to adapt to its educators, there’s never been a better time to re-examine strategies ranging from classroom pedagogy to campus-wide technology initiatives.

Here are three things K-12 and higher ed must know about the rising "phigital" student:

  1. Digital is King

According to Stillman and his 17 year-old son and co-author Jonah, Millennials can still remember a time before the internet. However, Gen Z are truly the first digital pioneers, in that they cannot remember a time when they were not Wi-Fi connected.

“Gen Z has only known a connected world, and as a result, they don’t draw a distinction between working in an office and working in a coffeehouse — it’s all work; they’re always online,” writes Kaplan. According to the Stillmans, Jonah sees dialing into a meeting via video conferencing as no different than sitting face-to-face in a boardroom. This has coined the term “phigital” when referencing the mindset of Gen Z.

For education, this means heavy focus should be placed on incorporating not only digital materials in the classroom, but incorporating mobile devices in class and mobile strategies within the school or institution.

Already, K-12 schools are beginning to leverage the E-Rate for a digital transformation [read here and also here]. And more schools are incorporating mobile tablets and smartphones into their curriculum [read about the staggering growth of Chromebook implementation here].

For higher education, it’s never been more important to allow prospective students to explore their potential institutions via mobile and online methods. For example, according to business recruitment specialist Jeff Boodie, the uptick in job candidates coming to his web-based employment platform via mobile is astounding; so much so that he created his new venture, JobSnap—a smartphone app that lets users upload a 30-second video to showcase their personality, and lets businesses swipe left or right, like Tinder, when choosing job candidates.

Already, mobile has shown to yield tremendous results in student recruiting, and leading colleges and universities are creating mobile apps to communicate campus messages, curb sexual assault, gain instant student feedback on classes and events, create inclusive social experiences, and provide unprecedented access to student-based services.

Top universities are also harnessing IT talent to help satisfy Gen Z’s diversified web needs both in and out of class.

Higher ed is also leading the way in online presence to attract and retain phigital students, like with state-of-the-art websites [read also what mistakes to avoid in campus website creation here].

Yet, even though higher ed is on its way to becoming the leader in digital integration (especially in its implementation of digital textbooks compared to K-12) there is still a long way to go in order to please Gen Z’s phigital nature. According to a recent multi-national research study, one-third of students polled feel that student administration systems do not meet their expectations, making them less likely to recommend the institution. Students also say a lack of digital technology options and tedious online protocols make them think less of their university.

  1. Individualization is Critical

This is where K-12 is leading the way in accommodating Gen Z.

The Stillmans note that while Millennials were raised by Baby Boomers who believe that if everyone pitches in then everyone wins, Gen Z were raised by an “angsty” Gen X, who “know that 401(k)s don’t always grow, jobs often get cut and there are no extra points for ‘participation’ in Little League,” writes Kaplan.

Because of this upbringing, Gen Z would rather focus on their own unique talents and interests, rather than pre-determined skills and interests agreed upon by a group. The Stillmans say that Gen Z typically likes to work independently and likes to create their own job or project title/description.

Mirroring this trend, innovative schools are making personalization and individualization of instruction for every student a major priority.

But outside of individualizing instruction through adaptive learning and LMS and teacher-based pedagogical strategies, some schools are going a step beyond by giving students choice in both learning materials and how they plan to reach project-based learning goals.

In higher ed, some institutions are allowing students to determine their own course placement, as well as tailoring their online programs to individual student preferences.

  1. Real-World Relevance is a Must

With all of Gen Z in a phigital mindset, the real-world is never more than a click away. According to the Stillmans, this constant connectedness to a borderless world full of possibility means Gen Z is not afraid to try different things (often simultaneously), and is picky about wanting to work on projects or look for jobs that prioritize real-world issues and social causes that often align with their own.

In K-12, future-looking schools are designing the classroom to reflect the real-world by using innovative device strategies and incorporating entrepreneurial tactics throughout their learning. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both test scores and engagement have soared.

Other schools are taking a heavy cross-curricular approach, incorporating student choice and online elements to learning.

However, these schools emphasize that though student choice and digital strategies work well for students, it’s also just as important that these phigital learners are guided in their learning; which is why librarians have never been more critical to education than now.

In higher education, many colleges and universities have begun tailoring courses, like journalism, to the real-world by harnessing edtech to mirror current job expectations. They’ve also started creating entirely new programs to address current student and job market interests. In fact, emerging program creation has led institutional goals for the last few years as the number one priority among U.S. colleges and universities.

Many institutions are going a step further in not only allowing students to create their own pathway to careers through competency-based learning and credentialing alternatives, they’ve also begun partnering with industry to create tailored student pipelines to some of the world’s most desirable careers.

Bottom line? If education wants to attract prospective students, keep students engaged, increase student achievement, and launch students into successful careers, it’s time to go all-in on phigital.

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