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Generation Z Students in the Online Environment

Strategies for Nurse Educators

Chunta, Kristy PhD, RN, ACNS, BC; Shellenbarger, Teresa PhD, RN, CNE, CNEcl, ANEF; Chicca, Jennifer MS, RN, CNE, CNEcl

Author Information
doi: 10.1097/NNE.0000000000000872
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Student enrollment in online learning environments, including within nursing education, has been steadily increasing for over a decade.1,2 Favorably, online learning is flexible and reduces time and space barriers, allowing students to learn anytime and anywhere at their own pace. Despite these advantages, students need computer and technology literacy skills, and they need to be motivated and disciplined for online learning to be successful. Students' limited face-to-face time with peers and educators can potentially hinder learning in the online setting. With more nurse educators teaching in the online environment, skill in teaching is essential to faculty and student success.

Facilitating learning online is not the same as guiding student learning in the traditional face-to-face classroom. Faculty face many challenges as they adapt to the changing educational environment, which requires them to be alert, flexible, and responsive to current student needs, including generational needs that influence learning. A distinct generation, Generation Z, has entered higher education and the workforce.3-5 Generation Z possesses some similarities and yet also have distinct differences compared to previous generations.3 Their attributes may, in some ways, help educators facilitate learning in the online environment; however, in other ways, their characteristics may challenge nurse educators. Thus, the purpose of this article is to provide nurse educators with strategies to help facilitate successful learning in online settings while considering Generation Z's traits.


Generation Z includes those born from around 1995 to 2012 and comprises approximately 24% of the US population.3,5 This sizable and diverse generation has been influenced by many technology- and society-related events, such as the public availability of the World Wide Web; the explosion of handheld technologies, for example, smartphones and tablets; cyberattacks and cyberbullying; local and international violence occurrences; the economy crash; and the world at war.3-5 These influences, as well as being raised by their skeptical Generation X parents, have created a cautious and concerned generation.3-5 Although evidence about this generation is still emerging, numerous authors describe common characteristics of Generation Z to help guide educators as they work with these students.3-5

Generation Z has grown up immersed in technology and has never known life without the internet; thus, they are the true digital natives.3-5 Favorable to online learning, these digital natives are often adept and skilled technology users. Because of their comfort, skill, and continual technology consumption, Generation Z students frequently interact, sometimes exclusively, in the digital world.3-5 Limited experience with face-to-face communications may result in social, relationship, and communication skill inadequacies in this generation.3-5 Technology saturation also puts Generation Z at risk of isolation, insecurity, and mental health issues, such as anxiety and depression.3-5 Online learning can intensify these issues because of its asynchronous, isolating, and self-driven nature. However, flexibility and the ability for online students to learn at their own pace1,2 are likely attractive to the Generation Z student who desires convenience, immediacy, and pragmatic learning.3-5 Despite this apparent fit with online learning, Generation Z's limited attention spans3-5 may challenge them as they need to be motivated and disciplined for online learning success.

Also, their practical nature means Generation Z will be cautious and concerned with their physical, emotional, and financial security.3-5 This safety orientation is important as students are vulnerable to incivility and bullying due to the seemingly faceless nature of the online environment. Favorably, Generation Z's diversity helps them be open-minded and comfortable with differences.3-5 These Generation Z characteristics may additionally influence online learning.

Generation Z characteristics reveal qualities that can potentially help, as well as hinder learning in the online setting. For example, although members of Generation Z often possess the technology skills necessary to participate in online learning, their limited attention spans may challenge them as they strive to stay motivated and disciplined when learning online. Using Brinthaupt and colleagues'6 “What the Best Online Teachers Should Do” framework, best practice strategies for nurse educators to address online learning needs and engage Generation Z students in the online environment are offered. Brinthaupt et al6 suggested 3 broad categories related to best online teaching practices. These categories include fostering student engagement, stimulating intellectual development, and building rapport with students. The Table provides sample activities.

Table - Sample Online Teaching-Learning Activities for Generation Z Students
Online Teaching-Learning Activity for Generation Z Students Rationale and Alignment With Generation Z Needs and Interests
Video case presentation of a patient with a health problem, containing images illustrative of the signs and symptoms with this health problem Storytelling with video engages visual preferences
Introduces a real-life client with digital content and provides background information
Raises care questions through case approach
YouTube video mini lesson about a course topic Shares content related to pathophysiology, pharmacology, and anatomy, eg, through an engaging and preferred format
Video-recorded household or community windshield assessment that documents a course topic Uses video to document knowledge and offers experiential learning
Engages visual and multimodal preferences
Development of an infographic using a technology-based app about a course topic Uses visual media to illustrate key concepts
Engages visual and multimodal preferences
Participation in a team competition to offer solutions for reducing health problems in a hackathon; winners earn digital badges Promotes group problem-solving, team competition
Encourages entrepreneurial spirit and reward for efforts

Strategies to Engage Generation Z in Online Learning

Foster Student Engagement

Fostering student engagement describes activities related to developing student interest, relationships, and a personal connection to the course. More specifically, engaging students allows them to connect with the course, course content, and instructor. This is accomplished through course design, discussions, and assignments that provide meaningful examples that motivate students to learn.6 In an online environment, this engagement helps establish a community of learners. This community concept, known as social presence, has been linked to predictors of course success and satisfaction.6,7 Additionally, fostering student engagement includes promoting student-to-student and student-to-faculty interactions and involving students through creative discussions.6 Nurse educators should create opportunities to promote this online engagement using approaches that differ from the traditional face-to-face environment and that address characteristics unique to Generation Z students.

Several strategies can foster engagement with Generation Z students. First, nurse educators can use blogs and discussion forums to promote online interaction. Instead of using traditional text-only discussions, Generation Z students can use technology to augment their discussion responses. This option presents a more attractive multimedia approach that is appealing to Generation Z learners.8 Students responding to an online discussion question could post their responses via social media outlets, such as Twitter or Snapchat. For example, in an undergraduate course addressing cardiovascular disease, students could post a picture and a text response of cardiovascular risk factors that were identified in the community. Responding with technology provides a comfortable and familiar learning method for these tech-savvy students. If using social media in the online course, educators should remind students to exercise caution because some electronic postings could be inappropriate or violate patient confidentiality.9 Additionally, course guidelines should address the need for correct spelling and grammar and avoidance of abbreviations and slang when communicating electronically. Because of convenience, Generation Z students may choose to respond to online postings using their smart phone instead of a computer, which may contribute to informal writing.

Another strategy for engaging Generation Z students includes the use of group work or projects instead of individual assignments. Generation Z students have been labeled as having underdeveloped social, relationship, and communication skills and being at risk of social isolation. Yet, they are social learners who prefer working with others and are comfortable with diversity.8,9 Group projects promote opportunities to develop needed social skills, help avoid isolation commonly experienced in the online environment, and encourage student-to-student interactions and opportunities to connect with classmates. To avoid common challenges related to group work and to help Generation Z students who may lack social and communication skills, faculty should assign group roles and responsibilities such as leader/facilitator, recorder/editor, prioritizer, reporter, and timekeeper. Students would also benefit from a handout addressing additional group rules for communicating within the group, providing peer feedback, establishing virtual meetings, and the process for completing group work. These additional guidelines help Generation Z students to understand course expectations and ensure that group projects meet identified learning outcomes.

Because Generation Z students are committed to socially conscious issues such as climate change, environmental concerns, global issues, social policy, and personal rights, faculty should consider including these topics to frame group assignments and discussion questions. Using the earlier example of teaching cardiovascular content, students could consider environmental risk factors that contribute to heart disease, a policy-related discussion addressing waitlists for open-heart surgery patients, or other issues that exist in the global community. Including these socially conscious topics will promote Generation Z's interest in course content and foster student engagement in the online environment.

Stimulate Intellectual Development

Another category suggested by Brinthaupt et al6 for best online teaching practices involves stimulating intellectual development. This strategy requires educators teaching online to create critical learning environments using questioning and problem-solving activities. This approach to learning helps students think about assumptions they have about course content, examines their thinking about topics, and involves them in problem-solving and idea generation. Online students must have a learning environment that helps them answer questions raised by the educator. Generation Z nursing students enrolled in online learning need an educator that will engage them using approaches that appeal to them and their preferred learning methods.

Because Generation Z students expect active engagement in their digital learning, they envision online learning to be more than a passive experience. Thus, they will want more than simple narrated PowerPoint presentations and reading materials posted in their courses. One way for educators to stimulate the intellectual development of Generation Z learners is through short video lessons. The use of these multimedia microlessons will help capture online learners' limited attention spans and capitalize on their need for digital engagement while also providing relevant course content. Because almost half of Generation Z students watch YouTube videos at least 3 hours every day and report that YouTube is their number one preferred learning method,10 this method will be familiar and ideally suited to their learning needs. Nurse educators can use existing videos available on video-sharing platforms, or they can create and share their own that are course-specific. Following the example of teaching cardiovascular content, faculty could share videos depicting examples of heart disease. Short videos followed by guided questions can stimulate student learning and discussion, or videos can help students solve case-based problems.

Generation Z students could also benefit from storytelling and story-living activities. Educators telling stories and allowing students to experience the story, known in marketing as story-living, will resonate with Generation Z students.11 For example, online faculty can use audio- and/or video-recorded interviews with people experiencing course topics for emotion-capturing storytelling. These stories help link theory to practice and facilitate thinking, reflection, and understanding as the listener becomes immersed in the narrative. These stories or mini lessons can also be delivered via podcasts, audio recordings, or website links. Tools that allow for collaboration and building of online presentations enable educators to record digital narration of these stories and upload content for listening and asynchronous discussion.12

Using personal stories can be a powerful method for educators to share course content with learners, disclose realistic health concerns, and offer insight into clinical problems.13 However, Generation Z students desire more than hearing the story; they want to engage with the content. Taking stories a step further and allowing students to dialogue with their learning community move storytelling beyond to story-living. Nurse educators can capitalize on these stories and develop student thinking by creating follow-up learning activities that allow students to become immersed in the topic. Generation Z nursing students can consider the problem posed and then engage in an action to support the topic or get involved in a behavioral change. For example, when teaching about cardiovascular topics, students could listen to podcasts of patients explaining their experience with cardiac rehabilitation and then participate in a community-based outreach activity for a local cardiac rehab facility.

Another approach to storytelling and story-living involves the use of infographics. Nurse educators can create these simple yet engaging visual stories to illustrate course content and share them with students. To further stimulate student involvement, students can identify key course concepts and design infographics to share with others. Nurse educators can encourage students to use technology-based applications (apps) to design infographics that require them to identify patterns, examine relationships, and draw conclusions about course content.14

Generation Z students tend to be creative and entrepreneurial, and those skills can help stimulate intellectual development. Presenting students with clinical problems and allowing them to devise solutions helps support their learning. Adding the element of team competition and the ability to earn digital certificates and badges can be appealing for learning. Educators can use a “hackathon” approach to stimulate student thinking. Hackathons, often used in software development, involve teams rapidly working to devise innovative solutions to problems. Nursing students could participate in competitive team hackathons to solve clinical issues. Students can present their ideas and solutions to their online class members through engaging means such as podcasts, infographics, short videos, or virtual poster presentations. These hackathon activities also help build team collaboration, creativity, and problem-solving and critical-thinking abilities.

There are other teaching and learning approaches educators can use to help stimulate Generation Z's intellectual development while enrolled in online courses. In a descriptive, cross-sectional study of Generation Z nursing students, audience response systems were reported as the most preferred/engaging and effective method of learning.15 Nurse educators teaching in online environments can use this learning preference as part of their online course delivery. Online polling activities, such as pretesting or self-assessments of course content, can be used by educators to gather baseline information about students and their knowledge and/or experiences and encourage students to reflect on upcoming course topics. These polling activities could also be used after content is presented to assess student understanding. Students can harness their own social media networking platforms and use online polling, such as Twitter polls, to gather information from others, thereby developing responses about course topics. For example, students could create a Twitter poll about a cardiovascular health topic and gather response feedback from followers. Obtained responses can be shared with classmates, compared with other Twitter poll responses, analyzed for trends, and used to stimulate student thinking about issues.

Build Rapport With Students

The third category for best online teaching practices relates to building rapport with students. Brinthaupt and colleagues6 noted the importance of developing effective relationships and recognized that good rapport is equally important in the online environment as the traditional classroom. Faculty typically develop rapport through effective communication strategies including course introductions, course information, and feedback. Generation Z students favor digital communication options that provide quick and short forms of communication.8 Instead of using traditional text introductions at the beginning of the course, faculty could introduce themselves by developing a short audio or video message. Additionally, educators can communicate with Generation Z students throughout the semester via short text messages or using apps such as the Remind app. This offers students a more favorable approach than traditional typed responses or emails. Student introductions also help build rapport in the online environment.

As an alternative to a typed text response, students can use technology to create a short video or post a photo collage. Generation Z students are comfortable with video platforms,8 and using this format or pictures provides a more engaging approach. For example, students could introduce themselves to the class by sharing something fun about themselves or including pictures of their favorite foods, pets, or vacation sites. These introductions provide opportunities for this generation of learners to further develop social and communication skills and help build relationships in the online environment. This activity can also be completed again later in the semester as a means to continue to build relationships.

Developing rapport in the online setting can also be accomplished through feedback communications. Generation Z students prefer convenience and immediate results.9 Faculty should communicate when students can expect graded course assignments and provide prompt and thorough feedback through a variety of venues. Generation Z students prefer specific examples and visual feedback instead of reading text.3,8 Using an animated whiteboard, for instance, faculty could provide feedback by identifying problem areas on an assignment and then providing illustrations of a revised example. Short audio or video recordings could also be used to give individual feedback and share examples that elaborate beyond written comments. Additionally, faculty could address the entire class by creating an infographic of common problems on an assignment while highlighting areas that were done well. General feedback on assignments could also be shared by creating animated video feedback. There are many types of programs available for educators to develop and share animated videos that can be appealing to this generation of learners.

Generation Z students prefer teachers who are knowledgeable and excited about the content that they teach. These students desire a nurse educator who can assist them with both personal and academic development, and they place value on this relationship.8 Faculty can build rapport by considering ways to impart caring behaviors in the online environment, specific to the needs of this student generation. Brinthaupt and colleagues6 recommended understanding the student population in an online course and determining the amount of help needed. This is another opportunity for faculty to consider characteristics specific to Generation Z students and methods to best meet their learning needs. Educators can share tips for being successful in an online course, providing a useful guide for students and showing them educators are committed to their success.

Faculty offering online office hours, using interactive video technology, allows students to see them and provides a personable and convenient approach that conveys caring behaviors. Generation Z students communicate regularly using video and chat platforms and would feel comfortable contacting faculty in this manner. Generation Z students also want nurse educators to provide emotional and other support.8 Similar to a traditional face-to-face class, students in an online course should be provided a list of campus resources, including support for stress management and mental health issues. Offering these resources is especially important as Generation Z students are at increased risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental health and emotional concerns.8,9 Providing support and developing rapport with students help to prevent feelings of isolation that are associated with Generation Z learners and the online environment.15


Online learning is continuing to develop as a means for educating nursing students. Teaching in an online environment can be challenging for nurse educators. The addition of Generation Z students brings new considerations for online teaching environments. Nursing faculty need to foster engagement through the use of strategies that capture student interest and encourage active participation. They should also create learning environments that focus on stimulating student thinking and problem-solving. Lastly, educator approaches that build rapport with students will enable them to reach Generation Z students in the online environment. Using these strategies for best online teaching practices while considering Generation Z characteristics can help faculty and students be successful.


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distance learning; Generation Z; nursing students; online courses; teaching methods

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