Engaging with students in the age bracket known as Generation Z (Gen Z) – those currently aged between around 15 and 22 – is not a new challenge for the higher education sector.

Educators have always had to update their methods to stay in tune with the modern world they’re preparing their students for, with technology playing a crucial role in this process. These days it’s arguably become more important than ever, with tech so central to the lives of young people who fall into this demographic. Gen Z are true digital natives, and won’t remember a time before the internet and digital technology, mainly because they weren’t even born back in those primitive times.

As well as continually seeking out that next piece of tech that will take their entertainment to the next level, Gen Z are now looking for more advanced digital experiences to augment their learning. And because they’ve now reached the age where they’re either at college or university or will be heading there in the next few years, these institutions are under pressure to ramp up their tech efforts or risk having some very uninspired students on their hands. When the next stage is for them to enter the world of work, it’s crucial that educators start acting to give them the right learning tools to suit their tech-hungry mind-sets.

Meeting expectations

Research is showing that VR is becoming an increasingly desirable learning aid. According to a new study from the Center for Generational Kinetics, commissioned by Cognizant Consulting, “the majority of Gen Z (60%) is now open to incorporating virtual reality into their experiences with movies, shows and games, and this will extend into the learning environment as students expect an immersive educational approach that provides practical experience in their chosen field.”

Although these digital experiences will differ depending on the course they’ve chosen, many young people are indicating that they’d like their learning to be more immersive, with VR now recognised as a useful educational tool. Simulation is proven to be a highly effective way of learning, and virtual reality enables this to be done in a way that Gen Z can immediately engage with.

Learning by doing

With VR, you’re learning through experience, and there are multiple theories out there suggesting this is the best way to retain what you’ve learnt. One of the best known examples is Edgar Dale’s Cone of Experience, which claims that we retain just 10% of what we read (shown at the tip of the cone diagram) but a whopping 90% of what we do (shown at the base). Even though it happens virtually, in VR you are effectively tricking your brain into thinking you’re really ‘doing’ the activity you’re learning, so therefore, if Dale is correct, it’s far more likely to stick than if you were to simply read about doing the same task in a boring old textbook.

Virtual reality therefore presents a whole new way to learn skills that were previously difficult to teach. Before, the ‘doing’ had to be done for real, maybe in the form of a practical experiment or a costly school trip, but with this new technology all it takes is a headset and some convincing content so it’s as close to reality as possible.

VR enables pretty much limitless learning possibilities due to the activities taking place in a virtual, created world. Learners could be immediately transported to a place in history that they need to know about, or perhaps a faraway geographical location that they’re studying. The older generations got by OK with traditional non-tech methods, but Gen Z don’t tend to respond well to passive-only learning.

Playing it safe

Another benefit of VR is that it allows the user to experience the activity that is being simulated with as much accuracy and realism as possible, but in a safe way. The wearer can afford to make mistakes that could get them into trouble in the real world, but in the virtual space they won’t be harmed, for example experimenting with hazardous chemicals in a ‘VR lab’.

Of course, we’re only at the very dawn of VR being utilised for learning, and it will take a bit of time to really take hold. Yet what is really starting to excite experts is the potential for it to be combined with other emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, even robotics.

But let’s allow VR to properly find its place in the classroom before looking too far ahead, or before we know it we’ll have Generation Alpha to cater for too, and that’ll be a whole other challenge entirely.