For some of us, TikTok is simply the sound a clock makes, but with 75% of its nearly one billion users under the age of 34, the video app has captured a generation – Generation Z.(1) Does this technological divide represent a generational gulf? Are Gen Z really a species all of their own? And what does that mean for your online training strategy? Let’s find out!

By 2025, Gen Z – people born between 1997 and 2012 – will make up over a quarter of the workforce.(2) This is a generation who have never known life without the internet, and who grew up surrounded by technology. Because of this, they have specific traits that differentiate them from their older colleagues.

When you’re investing in new workplace resources, this is who you’re creating training for. The good news is that Gen Z value training. A recent study found that online training and resources and mentorship are in the top 10 reasons Gen Z employees stay in their jobs.(3) The challenge is to develop engaging, effective training opportunities that will meet the needs (and standards) of these tech-native workers today and in the years to come.

Let’s dive into Gen Z’s common characteristics and how they might impact your approach to online training.

Skip to the solutions:

Microlearning

On-demand learning

Mobile learning

Gamification

Diversity & accessibility

Blended learning

Custom learning paths

Gen Z are… “Snack media” consumers

Gen Z consume media differently to older generations. They are the largest consumers of bite-sized or “snack” media – like short clips on TikTok that rarely last more than a minute or two.(4) They consume media little and often, with 90% of TikTok users visiting the app more than once a day (and some up to 55 times in a day).(1) Perhaps unsurprisingly, Gen Z have shorter attention spans than previous generations, meaning a three-hour online module will be about as effective as a phone with no battery.(5)

Consider…

Microlearning

Microlearning refers to short, focused, bite-sized pieces of training that are typically between two and seven minutes long. Microlearning is not a watered down version of a longer course; each bite is designed to meet a specific learning outcome. Microlearning can be a stand-alone piece (for example, a short demo of a new software feature), or part of a broader learning journey that links several pieces of microlearning delivered over weeks or even months.

Digital microlearning (videos, PDFs, short interactive modules) can also be used to support and reinforce instructor-led training programmes. You might already be more familiar with microlearning than you realise. Popular learning apps, like Duolingo, encourage users to log in everyday to practise for just a few minutes.

Microlearning suits the shorter attention spans of Gen Z learners (though you’ll still need to make sure your content is engaging), but it makes scientific sense for the rest of your learners too. In the 1800s, psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus found that we typically lose 80% of the knowledge we’ve learned within a month! It’s inevitable: when we take on information that we don’t consider critical, the knowledge gradually degrades over time.

This is where microlearning comes in. Chunking content into small pieces and recalling different parts of it over time can help improve knowledge retention. In Ebbinghaus’ memory retention graph, you see that when we first learn something, we retain all of that information. As the days pass, memory retention begins to drop. But if we regularly review information, we retain more and more of it.

 

Graph. On the Y axis memory retention is mapped in percentage. Recalling time is mapped on the X axis. There is a peak for each recall time (1 to 5). The peaks get smaller each time indicating a lower percentage of recall as time passes.

Check out this magnificent guide to microlearning from Valamis for more information.

Gen Z are… Natural information seekers

We should always remember that we’ve got more in common than we think! And one trait that both Gen Z and their older millennial colleagues possess is that they automatically google anything they don’t know.(6) What they definitely do know is how to find the information they need quickly.

Both millennials and Gen Z are used to learning things from the internet, whether that’s crocheting, cooking or quantum physics. In fact, a recent Pearson study found that YouTube is Gen Z’s preferred learning method.(7) So, it’s hardly a surprise that a Barnes and Noble study concluded Gen Z students flourish in any learning environment where they can “flex their aptitude for self-reliance and their ability to self-educate”.(5)

Across all generations, we’re using the internet more and more often to find information. More than 70% of us use search engines to learn information that helps us do our jobs.(8) This suggests that organisations are not equipping their employees with the information they need internally. Your employees turning to Google is a problem because search engines can’t provide information or resources that are specific to your organisation.

Consider…

On-demand learning

Workplace training often consists of long courses that must be completed within a certain time window. Then, once learners are back to their usual tasks, the learning can seem disconnected from the day-to-day of their working lives.

On-demand learning is an online training strategy that empowers learners to access a knowledge base at any time. It addresses both their need to access information quickly, and our penchant for pestering the net with our work-related problems.

A knowledge base could contain short courses, written instructions, video tutorials, podcasts – the possibilities are endless! With on-demand learning, the content can be used at the point of need – when a complex form needs to be filled out or a difficult HR situation arises, for example. On-demand learning can address what employees may search for online, but in a way that’s relevant to your company and how you do things.

And, perhaps most importantly, on-demand learning allows learners to take control of their own learning experience; 36% of Gen Z say flexibility in their schedule is a reason to stay at a job. In fact, it’s the top reason.(3) On-demand learning provides a flexible learning experience that fits around learners’ schedules and allows them to find what they need when they need it.

Gen Z are… Mobile natives

The vast majority of Gen Z owns a mobile phone and they’re on those phones for a significant proportion of the day. In fact, over half of Gen Z uses their smartphone for five or more hours per day. And, of those users, 26% use it 10 or more hours each day!(7) But it’s not all Snapchat and selfies; 47% of Gen Z like to use interactive learning apps and games to learn (compared to 41% of millennials).(5)

Consider…

Mobile learning

Mobile learning – or mLearning – is training that’s available at a time and place that’s convenient for the learner. It’s often, though not exclusively, available on a smartphone. Mobile learning works well for on-demand microlearning as learners can use their mobile devices to access relevant and timely information at the point of need, whether that’s on the shop floor, when faced with mechanical failure, or when tackling a data compliance issue. Mobile learning encompasses downloadable content that learners can access even if an internet connection is not available.

However, there are a few things to consider if you’re thinking about mobile learning. Just being able to access a course on a mobile doesn’t make it mobile learning. Do graphics and interactions scale properly? Is the course accessible to mobile screen readers? Also, consider what device your learners will be using: do they have a work smartphone they can use? If not, how can you ensure every learner has access to a device of similar quality and connectivity?

Gamification
If mobile learning isn’t appropriate for your learners or won’t work for all your content, don’t worry! Gen Z are comfortable consuming information by switching between different screens and platforms.(15) So, rather than assuming that mobile learning is the only way forward, think about leveraging the techniques and tactics that mobile apps use to engage their users.

One aspect common to many learning apps is gamification. Gamification has become a bit of a buzzword in eLearning circles, but it simply means applying gaming formats and tactics to online training. Keep in mind that your Gen Z learners are unlikely to be impressed by the technical aspects of gamification alone. In fact, there are a few key elements you need for your gamified training to be effective:

  1. A challenge or goal – How does the learner win?
  2. Obstacles – What must the learner overcome to achieve the goal?
  3. Incentives or rewards – What does the learner get when they win?
  4. Rules – How does the game work?

You may also want to think about levels. Does the learner “level up” as they move through the learning journey? And finally, don’t forget robust feedback: let the learners know how they are doing and what they can improve on.

One example of gamified learning is the app Sololearn. On this app, users can learn to write code. Learners earn experience points (XP) by completing lessons and challenges, unlocking badges and competing with other users. When enough XP are gained, the learner moves up a level. Once a course is complete, the learner gets a certificate that validates their new skills. All this serves to motivate and then reward learners as they gain knowledge and experience.

Gen Z are… Diverse, tolerant and inclusive

In many parts of the world, Gen Z is growing up in the most diverse, tolerant and inclusive society yet, with the widest access to education of all time. They represent the most racially and ethnically diverse generation in U.S. history and many are growing up with first-generation gay parents and interracial marriages. This background contributes to the expectation among members of Gen Z that their workplaces should reflect their values and the diversity they see around them. To succeed with their Gen Z employees, companies will need to understand these values as Gen Z have a social conscience and are prepared to speak up to protect their values.(4)

However, according to a recent study, 67% of Gen Z workers reported having witnessed discrimination or bias based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity in a workplace setting, and 44% report having personally experienced discrimination.(10) The flip side is that, out of the Gen Z workers surveyed, 69% stated that they would “absolutely” be more likely to apply for a job at a company that emphasised a racially and ethnically diverse workplace in recruitment materials.(10) And, once they join that organisation, these employees will expect to see the commitment to diversity and inclusion present in all communications and training materials, as well as in the organisational structure.

Consider…

Diversity and inclusivity

When sourcing photography and illustrations, consider diversity of ethnicity, age, body type, gender and sexual identities and representation of disabilities. However, don’t fall into the trap of adding photos of people with different skin tones to your training and thinking you can tick diversity off your list. Consider the cultures you’re representing and try to tell diverse stories, as well as showing diverse types of people, e.g., are all the senior staff in your scenarios white and male? Are manual labourers or junior staff often represented as minorities?

As well as using inclusive visuals, use inclusive language. Here are some tips:

  • Avoid words or phrases which suggest all members of a group are the same
  • Identify people by identity characteristics only when relevant
  • Be aware of language that has questionable racial or ethnic connotations
  • Avoid patronising language
  • Review all media to ensure all groups are fairly represented

If your online training has narration, think about whether the voices you select reflect the diversity of your organisation. For longer pieces of training, consider using multiple voices that resonate with your employees. Check out this post from eLearning Industry for more guidance.

Accessibility  

Your training also needs to be accessible to a wide variety of learners. New technological developments like eLearning and mLearning can make access to content easier, but they can also raise new barriers. The good news is that an experienced instructional designer can work to remove them and make online training more accessible.

Accessibility is often discussed in relation to disability. It’s estimated that approximately one billion people in the world have some form of a disability. A disability could be visual, hearing, motor (affecting fine movement) or cognitive (affecting memory and thinking). And we often mistakenly assume that the people who benefit from improved accessibility are only those with visible, permanent disabilities. Though these learners should be served by your accessibility improvements, all users have different needs at different times. For example, some people may have temporary disabilities – they may be tired, recovering from a stroke, or have a broken arm. Or they may have a situational disability – this could be a noisy café or a slow internet connection.

The ethical argument for accessible learning often translates to a legal obligation. In many countries, it is unlawful to discriminate against people with disabilities as employees, students and consumers. Some legislation requires the needs of disabled people to be anticipated rather than accommodated. This means that a provider of a service cannot justify not making an adjustment by saying that they do not have any disabled customers; they need to anticipate that they may have disabled customers in the future.

It’s important to consider accessibility as early as possible, and at every stage of development. It is much more difficult and expensive to retrofit accessibility after design has been completed. Work with instructional design experts to ensure your online training is as accessible as possible. Here are a few things you may want to consider:

  • screen reader accessibility
  • closed captioning
  • colour contrast
  • font readability
  • accessibility of interactions

We run masterclasses on accessible design in Articulate Storyline. Check out our upcoming events to see if there’s a session happening soon or get in touch for an expert’s opinion.

Gen Z are… Keen communicators

Though Gen Z have a reputation for spending most of their time online, they really value frequent workplace communication. Two-thirds of Gen Z say they need feedback from their supervisor at least every few weeks in order to stay at their job. By comparison, less than half of millennials need the same amount of communication to stay with an employer.(9)

Consider…

Blended learning

Gen Z’s desire for regular communication and feedback means you may want to consider a blended learning approach to training.

There are lots of ways of deliver training. Face-to-face classroom sessions, virtual instructors delivering lessons over webcam, and independent eLearning experiences are all popular options, and any one of these could be the most suitable depending on your content, learners and business needs. Blended learning allows you to use a mix of methods to create a single, cohesive learning experience. Blended learning is more than just a method for delivering content to learners; it’s an approach to designing effective learning experiences.

For example, let’s say a company called Bright Company are changing the way they do appraisals and need to teach their managers about the new system. They need learners to:

  1. Understand what the new system is and why it’s changing
  2. Have effective conversations with the people they manage
  3. Successfully complete the new processes that are being rolled out

The first goal is about sharing information and raising awareness. Traditional eLearning is a good method for delivering information and imparting knowledge. This would be a good way to teach managers what the new system is and why it’s changing.

The second goal is about improving staff’s skills. Exercises and practice are effective ways to improve skills. Managers are going to be having conversations with their teams face to face, so an in-person training day would be a great way of delivering this practice in a realistic and appropriate environment.

The final goal is a longer-term one, where managers have to apply what they’ve learned about the new system. They might need support and information as they start to use the new system. A downloadable PDF guide could support trainees by giving them access to information when and where they need it.

With this blended approach, you can combine online training with in-person training to develop a super engaging and effective learning experience for learners who enjoy working online and in person to reach their goals.

Collaborative learning

Introducing a collaborative element to the learning experience can allow learners to connect meaningfully. This could take the form of message boards, forums, a Teams group or joint activities where learners can solve problems collaboratively.

Check out this range of platforms for collaborative working. Could you incorporate any of these into your next training project?

Gen Z are… Practical and financially driven

Gen Z are more practical and financially driven than other generations.(5) When we think about online training, this means that they’re not going to enjoy training for the sake of training (and who does!?). Gen Z learners need a valid motive that ties into a real-world goal or benefit.

Consider…

A DO not TELL approach

Rather than focusing your eLearning on what you want your learners to know, focus on what you want them to be able to do. This means not overloading your eLearning course with heaps of information, then shoving a multiple-choice question at the end and calling it a day (no judgement – you’re not the only one!). It means presenting the learner with a series of relevant activities with optional information they can draw on as and when they need.

In this study on productive failure, students with some knowledge of a discipline were given a problem without being told how to solve it. They struggled, their solutions were examined, and then they were taught the correct process. Though these groups were slightly weaker at applying the new process than the groups who had been told what to do from the beginning, they were better at applying what they learned to other situations and – crucially – at developing additional approaches that they hadn’t been taught. The ‘do’ approach to training better equipped those learners to apply and then move beyond their new knowledge.

A quick example of a ‘tell’ approach is having learners watch a video about what items should be included in a first aid kit and then complete a multiple-choice quiz on that content. This is simply testing whether the learner remembers the information in the video, but it may not be the most effective way of ensuring that they can pack a kit correctly.

An alternative approach would be to start with the activity. Have the learners pack a first aid kit. Depending on the training format, this could be an interactive activity or simply writing a list. The learner could then receive personalised feedback about the consequences of what they included or missed out.

There are a few benefits to this approach:

  • It might be difficult, and when people struggle a bit, they can learn more deeply.
  • Well-designed activities help learners prove that they know something while making them practise doing it.
  • You can use feedback to deliver more information.

Check out Cathy Moore’s wonderful blog for more on this approach to training!

Custom learning journeys

No learners enjoy being forced to work through content that’s not relevant to their role or goals. By creating custom learning journeys, you can provide different content for different learners, personalising the learning experience. You could also make non-critical content optional. This allows motivated learners to dive deeper into the content and allows others to focus on the core training.

Online training for Gen Z: Conclusion

Gen Z are not unique unicorns that sparkle in the light and need completely different online training to the rest of their colleagues! The truth is that training that works for them is likely to be engaging and effective training that works for all your employees, whether they are fresh from college or eying up a golf course membership. This is because, as technology evolves, we all have higher expectations from the technology we encounter everyday – and that certainly includes workplace training.

 

References

1. TikTok by the Numbers: Stats, Demographics & Fun Facts

2. Gen Z and Gen Alpha Infographic Update

3. THE STATE OF GEN Z® 2020: Gen Z as Employees and Emerging Leaders

4. Meet Generation Z: the digital natives

5. Getting to Know GEN Z Exploring Middle And High Schoolers’ Expectations For Higher Education

6. Understanding Gen Z—the New E-Learning Generation

7. What do Generation Z and millennials expect from technology in education?

8. What Is On Demand Training And Why You Should Use It In Your Organization

9. STATE OF GEN Z 2018: Surprising New Research on Gen Z as Employees and Consumers

10. How Gen-Z Is Bringing A Fresh Perspective To The World Of Work

 

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Olivia Kippax Jones

Senior consultant

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