You are not my audience, but you could be: Content creation, Gen Z and Universities.
At a relatively young age they knew they‘d left the curriculum behind them. It’s not that they were being schooled more, or that they were inordinately bright. It’s just that their curiosity took them into the next horizon in music, creativity and collaborations.
The era of Gen Zs* out-digitalizing their educators? No! The late 1800s in Austria’s vibrant Vienna when musician Johannes Brahms, Swiss poet Gottfried Keller and Norwegian playwright Henrik Johan Ibsen were the order of the day.
However, for a new generation, and for what talent then like Brahms might be referred to as modernists, generation 3IR’s ( 3rd industrial revolution) interests were waning, and looking for the new.
We suddenly learnt to see with new eyes, and at the same time we learnt new rhythms and tonal colours in music through the works of Mussorgsky, Debussy, Strauss… In literature, realism dawned with Zola, Strindberg and Hauptmann.
This account from Austrian writer Stefan Zweig’s classic, “The World of Yesterday: Memoires of a European” plants him and Gen 3IR in the slip stream of the unfolding new, whilst challenging the status quo. If anything it demonstrates a universal if not general trend amongst young people and the generation behind them. As with the 1800 in the 1960s the James Dean era youngsters thought themselves way cooler than their stuffy post war parents.
From Zweig’s era, the 1900s would see major entropy leaps in human endeavour in transportation (automobile, the airplane) and communications (radio), as impactful today as social media, driverless cars, and soon-to-be electrified aircraft propulsion.
Each of the aforementioned would significantly alter the way of life for those who came into contact. Debusy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, now considered a symphonic poetic masterpiece was then considered by critics and academics at the Academy De Baux as soulless. It was to music what Manet was to impressionism. The establishment, academics, turned on both of them.
But all systems, even institutions, atrophy or are replaced by the new. That at least is how we view generational behaviour or rationalise Darwinism. Democracy, as a system, in these past few years, we’ve learned is a work in progress, unable to brace itself against the assault of the autocrat.
And what about Gen Zs are they significantly different in ways to their predecessors, millennials and Gen X? And, might they have an influence on what they’re being taught and how they’re being assessed in academia? It’s likely they’ll influence the future of education, given they constitute a large student mass today.
For many institutions, standardised fixed module delivery and the dissertation/ thesis act as a benchmark to test empiricism. These structures are as discernible as they are unbending. But like Debusy vs Strauss, does the aforementioned signify that newer, more apt systems are required for Gen Zs which will come into their own in time?
Trust me I know I’m a science grad.
When it comes to testing critical thinking around empirical evidence the fixed standardised modules (popularised in the 60s), and the dissertation and its lay out, appear omnipotent.
You’ll be hard pressed to avoid these journeying through university. Like many I know and trust the framework well recording my progress as a Maths-Chemistry graduate. I’d spend hours in the lab recording data trying to justify yields and chemical purity.
The dissertation’s muscularity lies in the user’s continual refinement of that one big idea. Undergirding it, is a combination of quasi-systems and design thinking. Fixed standardised module subscribe to the one size fits all — an idea of batch education from Victorian England eloquently explained in Sugata Mitra’s TED 2013 talk.
Ways of Learning.
The title may be familiar. It’s a riff of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, now celebrating 50 years since its broadcast. Ways of Seeing critiqued the way art was made and viewed, providing an underlying political and social narrative previously unseen. Its radicalness was that these pieces of art had been around for years, and whilst they’d courted intellectual debate, Berger gave the viewer super hero x-rays to see farther.
In Ways of Learning could Gen-Z be in possession of these spectacles and what could be observed in learning? Is there an alternative for modern day Zweigs who as digital natives are considered:
- more technological savvy than previous gens
- more racially diverse
- more pragmatic and realistic about their goals. (Read, Grown Up Digital by Don Tapscott)
Economic uncertainty and the gig economy frame their approach to work blurring social networks and real world friends.
Their interest in the media largely circumvents traditional media for personalised media. That’s not entirely new of generations, but how do you account for their continued interests in cinema. What is cinema doing that traditional media isn’t?
In workplace data from PCW and Linkedin expressing what employers are looking for post 2020, the following rank high:
- problem solving
- collaborations and critical thinking
How does this fare for Gen Zs? In 2008 a widely received video entitled: “Did you know?” forecasts the world ahead. Grads will be looking for jobs that aren’t yet invented, let alone being delivered in tertiary education. They included: Social Media Manager, Mobile App Developer, SEO Analyst and any uber video producer steering wide of the TV industry’s news package.
Post 2022 new grads will be looking to careers which are yet to be created such as NFT producers, machine learning engineers, and metaverse (help us) journalists. Grads will be looking to fulfil their appetite for expression working across different jobs. Adobe’s chief product officer Alexandra Mak writes about the end of the monogamous job hunter.
The desire to generate income and feel fulfilled from multiple projects will increase retention (you don’t leave a job if your “other interests” are being fulfilled elsewhere).
Gen Z will drive the following, already being asked by industry:
- What skillsets are sought after in industry?
- The end of the monogamous career concretising as polygamous career.
- How millenniums don’t see you as their target audience.
You are not my audience
In 2014 whilst supervising a student I was told something that made me think deeply about a disconnect between academia and my student reflecting generational thoughts.
“Why do I need to cite someone whose ideas are old and he’s not even close to my network or audience?”
I could easily pick through this point, believe me with claims of “exemplars”, “standing on the shoulders of giants”, “how ideas are moulded” and provide my own cogent answer; I did. But at the heart of her point was a tangible point of tension.
Journalist indeed write about other’s experiences, and also attribute meaningful sources for their audiences. But when the thing you’re seeking to resolve is blithely ignored by a generation, what then? Yes, power resides in others who require being held to account, but what of new ideas close to Gen Z’s heart?
If you carry on doing what you’re doing, you’ll continue to get what you got, goes the saying. If reportage for climate change hasn’t yielded significant change, then Gen Zs are inclined to choose a different course of action.
In Zweig’s era the onset of radio as a communications break through was transformative, but not in a way that provided agency to anyone able to transmit their thoughts like today.
With their own Social Media gathering and influencer tendencies Gen Z knows its audience. It’s them, their autographical self. Experiences shape who we are and very often what we write about with some relative ease.
So unless Gen Z are being funnelled into traditional market place jobs, their primary target appears as other millennials in the world of NFTS, blockchain, AI, interdisciplinary social communications.
Similarly, the metrics of targeting or engagement of audiences provides another interesting layer of complexity. In the imperial system (pre-social media), audiences were categorised by age, location, sex etc. In this new era, psycho geography places a burden on collecting emotional responses, beliefs, values and desires as explained in Hooked by Silicon Valleyist Nir Eyal
This knowledge, popularised more recently and extraordinarily by Cambridge Analytica is still yet to generally crystallise in the entreaties of academia.
How does this thinking invite different ways of educating and assessing the next gen and beyond. How, in an academic environment, do you provide, and even measure Gen Z’s desires and values against the industry’s prized needs in creative thinking, problem solving etc.?
Unlike universal or general standards witnessed across young people, there appears to be unique generational characteristics for Gen Zs, that are unlike previous gens.
Professor Bobby Duffy’s highly praised book Generations provides answer and bust some myths. No! Gen Z is not lazy or selfish. And there’s no empirical evidence Gen Z has a short attention span.
What does that mean for tertiary education? An answer could be setting out solution-driven curriculum which engages technology multiple stake-holders and real world problems. A set up where failing a project provides reflexive space for getting it right the next time, as you would do at work. Or juggling multiple ideas visibly mapped out, and teams receive internal and external coaching. A place where the educational journey is viewed as a compound finishing school, and systems thinking for the job unseen that lay ahead.
Institutions are already doing this such as Stanford’s Bill Burnett and Dave Evans. However, generally they’re limited to design, computer science and data journalism courses. I’m suggesting the use of these new system move into wider learning.
The summer of 2001, represented a teutonic shift in industry. Enter dotcoms — online businesses challenging bricks and mortar. Travel, Finance, media e.g. blogs — the change was profound. I held several posts at that time from launch editor of Justgiving.com to working with Adland’s bonhomie producer Jon Staton (former head of TV at Saachi and Saachi).
By British standards, some of my jobs could be described as unsuccessful, others quite the opposite. But each revealed an invaluable lesson. Anyone can create something applying an ideation-prototype cycle, and that failure or success shouldn’t be taken personally. Each is a brick in the wall to building forward.
Like many people I was a fan of Apple and Steve Jobs, but I got to know London’s Apple fraternity really well; so well they invited me to share my views of future journalism on their website. This is what I said in 2005.
In 2003 we launched one of the first courses in online communications and web design using html and css coding at a London University. A former students Shaimaa Khalil, now the BBC’s correspondent in Australia and New Zealand, reminded me of one of her first lectures in 2006.
A decade later, colleagues and I launched a successful digital lab for Masters introducing students to mentors and coaches. Its methodology was not unlike working in Soho’s dotcom world and following the Clue Train Manifesto.
Students could ideate and build whatever they wanted. Practical knowledge was acquired during their build in a just-in-time approach. One of my favourites is this from Nasma whom having recently arrived from Syria prototyped a game, The Journey recounting her and several other’s experience. Five years on Nasma is in touching distance of turning it into reality, with various funding.
Combining knowledge from industry, the popular The Lean Start up , Costar, and the Toyota Production System (TPS), we devised a system called Stacked that probed current traditional methods of delivery.
TPS, which informed lean, embraces several social attributes such as respecting team work, and just-in-time. In the latter inventory/knowledge is provided with just enough to get through the task.
The phase is designed for students to take risks and experiment and hence failure is incorporated into the process. Failing is good. Fail swiftly, recover quickly, we say. The emphasis is always, creative thinking (and you can teach this), problem solving and collaboration.
This year will mark 20 years since entering academia and when I first started working in start ups. The disruption that has shaped many industries has yet to take hold in tertiary education, but there are signs that the job’s market and Gen Zs’ values could alter that.
Gen Z* are born between 1995 and 2012.