Generation Z and the Online Education Era
Are Schools and Universities in Western Balkans ready? Experiences from the pandemic.
From a social and cultural perspective, the Generation Z – also called Zoomers – stands out from the previous generations – generation Y and X – for many reasons, which greatly influences the way they are learning. So, what characteristics describe Zoomers, and how those relate to learning in times of the Coronavirus pandemic?
The Coronavirus outbreak is impacting the lives of Zoomers in their most critical stages in life. Generation Z or Zoomers refers to young people who were born between 1996 and 2012, meaning that the generation turns ages from 8 to 24 in 2020. Most of them are now in adolescence, a transition period from childhood to adulthood, during which young people experience broad physical, psychosocial, intellectual, and emotional changes. For instance, Zoomers may be falling in love for the first time, finishing secondary school, attending universities, or applying for their first jobs at this moment. But let us focus on the key characteristics that define Zoomers and how those relate to learning.
Zoomers may be the first generation that has never seen the world without the internet. Therefore, they are more technologically advanced and use smartphones, tablets, and computers daily from an early age. Hence, they are also using technologies to support their learning in the sense of researching the internet for data, watching tutorials, reading blogs, and doing homework. Furthermore, they tend to use social networks and instant messaging apps rather than email and calls to stay connected with the teaching staff and their fellow students. They organize themselves in closed groups and chats on Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, and Viber, where they share various information. Some may say that they are screen-addicts, but I love to say that they are investing time in self-branding and self-promotion, which became very important in the age of social media.
This generation is keen to protect nature and the environment. They practice environment-friendly and healthy lifestyles more than the young people from generations Y and X. A small fraction of them are also not afraid to practice activism and do volunteering work in achieving social change. Subsequently, we may witness an unusual development in the field of youth subcultures. Many argue that youth subcultures are developing back to youth scenes because of the influence of mainstream and fast-changing trends put some subcultures to near extinct in the Western Balkans.
In a digital-interconnected globalized world, the flow of information is enormous and access to self-learning opportunities is limitless. However, a young person’s time and energy are. Naturally, the Zoomers learned how to absorb and filter huge amounts of information by developing an 8-seconds filter. This filter helps them manage information, and so stay focused on the things they find interesting by making fast 8-seconds decisions. They also tend to perceive information visually, which describes the popularity of TikTok and
Zoomers are autonomous, confident, and focused on being independent, but many in the Western Balkans are still relying on their parent’s support in achieving their goals connected to education, because of the poor employment opportunities. However, they are for sure independent in learning. For instance, they can acquire new knowledge and skills by watching tutorials and reading blogs. Later, they tend to try, reflect, and re-try until they succeed. This leads us to the conclusion that many of them may favorize Kolb’s experiential learning model. Moreover, we may witness a bigger interest in non-formal and informal education, as it allows young people to self-direct their learning.
Last but not least, Zoomers are natural multi-taskers. They tend to listen to music, watch videos and television, and chat with friends while finishing assignments. Later, this transfers to the working environment, where they gradually benefit from this ability, as they can perform more tasks simultaneously, while still being efficient.
You may ask yourselves now, how all this is connected to learning and education in times of the Coronavirus pandemic? Education may be changed forever for the Zoomers. Schools and universities faced great challenges during the outbreak of the virus – almost all of them were forced to find ways how to transform into online education in a short time. Some had great success in it, and some failed miserably. Important is what they have learned in this process. Let us take an overview and open some questions.
The pandemic showed a socioeconomic divide in education. The transformation to online education required students, as well as schools and universities, to have adequate equipment. The Zoomers may be skilled in technology and know-how to use it in supporting their learning, however many of them did not have computers at home, neither the financial means to get one. The states failed to react once again. Some civil society organizations did organize campaigns whit the goal of donating equipment. Not having a computer at home put many at risk of falling behind schedule as they were unable to follow classes. Consequently, many of the students experienced a fall in their academic scores. Is equality enough? Should schools and universities think about equity, and lend equipment to students, who need it? Online education means more peer-to-peer mentoring and independent learning. The students would consume the content first, and later ask questions and have discussions in online forums. However, not all of the teaching staff would have enough time for consultations, and therefore many students tend to seek mentoring from peers. Online education required students to further adapt to independent learning. Zoomers surely benefit from their natural multi-tasking skills, independence in learning, and the ability to use social networks and instant messaging apps to stay connected. However, the fast changes did not allow enough time for adaptation, nor did the education systems prepare them to use digital tools in education. Should schools and universities invest more time in developing the digital skills of their staff and students? Could youth workers help in this process?
Transforming education is a process that requires well-considered strategies. The pandemic revealed that the Western Balkan countries are lacking the ability to predict developments in the future of education. The strategies of the states involved ad-hoc solutions, which consisted of moving the content from offline to online classrooms and television, without any adaptations. It was also evident that the teaching staff was deficient in professional training in the field of online education and digital teaching tools. Many countries in the Western Balkans do not have national youth strategies. Hence, the countries are also not having long-term plans on how to further develop their education systems. Could the youth strategies resolve this?
Corruption endangers the quality, accessibility, and equity in education. The most serious regional problem in the Western Balkans is corruption in all spheres of life – among them in schools and universities. New corruption scandals were confirmed after the restricting measures were relaxed, and the public started asking questions. The Western Balkans states invested millions of euros into the digitalization of schools and universities, but those never got the equipment. The criminal justice systems are failing in tackling serious crimes. Is the rule of law a fantasy for the Western Balkans?
To conclude, I would say that the Western Balkan countries failed to make use of the young people’s knowledge and skills to co-create the education transformation, which could better accommodate the young people’s learning and development needs. Moreover, civil society organizations once more proved to be more proactive in resolving social problems, than the states themselves. Corruption is the alpha and omega of all bad public policies in the Western Balkans region. The countries must urgently find ways to combat corruption and ensure that competent public officials will be selected for the core positions. Will the Western Balkan countries learn from this experience?
Amar Toplić is a professional youth worker, with a decade of experience in working with young people in the Western Balkans region. He is in his last semester of Bachelor Studies in Social Work at the University of Ljubljana. Amar is a former Bosana Foundation Scholar.
If you want to learn more about the young people in Southeast Europe, the author recommends you reading the Youth Studies published by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. The publications may be found at