An Oracle blog about Education and Research

Higher Education Gets Schooled by Generation Z

Today’s college students are the first true digital natives, and this generational cohort promises to turn student-institution interaction on its head. Generation Z students differ significantly from their predecessors, especially when it comes to expectations around student experience. Because of their oversized impact on consumer experiences, Gen Z is constantly influencing the experience expectations for all generations.

For those born before the mid-1990s, you probably still remember land lines in your house and having to go to a store to buy most goods. Not so with Gen Z. This generation now moving through college and entering the workforce has only known smartphones, social media, and ubiquitous Wi-Fi. According to an article by Deep Patel in Forbes, 92% of Gen Zers have a digital footprint.

Patel also observes, “Gen Zers expect the workplace to conform to their needs”—and this concept applies equally to their college or university experience.

What are the expectations of Gen Z students, and what steps does higher education need to take to meet these higher expectations?

“I Expect You to Know Me and What I Need.”

It’s really no surprise that a generation that grew up with phone apps is looking for the same consumer experience when it goes to college. That’s the benchmark against which institutions are being judged. These students expect chatbots, virtual assistants (VAs), and other artificial intelligence-driven help in registering for classes, getting financial assistance, or determining which program to pursue—including designing their own, customized programs.

A white paper from consulting firm Ovum, “Intelligence Will Transform Student Information Systems,” highlights key insights to help higher education institutions understand these Gen Z student expectations—and take steps to implement technology to create the student information systems (SIS) that meet their expectations.

Ovum warns, “Adopting a new solution or migrating to the cloud, on its own, does not constitute institutional transformation, particularly if the solution supports the same processes, transactions, and interactions in the same way.”

SIS need to reflect the consumer experience, and that means they need to be micro-personalized. The white paper puts it in the students’ words this way: “…My institution knows me and my goals, makes it easy for me to conduct routine transactions, and alerts me when I might benefit from different services or options.”

The message is clear: to satisfy today’s students, institutions of higher education need to rethink their processes, transactions, and interactions completely. And they need to begin exploring the technology—and the partners—to help them accomplish this.

What, specifically, are some of the expectations of Gen Z students?

  • They want to be self-paced and self-learning.
  • They want to use technology to accomplish their goals, not have to conform to standard procedures.
  • They want to navigate through their degree choices, career choices, payment options, class scheduling, course delivery options (online, on campus, or hybrid) on their own.

AI Holds the Key to Micro-Personalization

When we look at the theoretical model for today’s students, we imagine some artificial intelligence that shows up as a virtual assistant, maybe with an avatar to make it more engaging. We even imagine it as a constant guide, like how people use Alexa in their homes or Siri on their phones. It might be there to answer questions or even pop up when they get off track and aren’t even aware they need help. Gen Z expects this kind of help today from technology, more than they expect it from a live person.

These technologies are being implemented but seldom in ways that truly transform to the process to meet the new expectations of today’s students.  Too often institution simply digitize their current processes (meaning same process, with a different interface) rather than undertaking a digitalization redesign that capitalizes the new capabilities to transform flow and experience. True digitalization entails re-inventing the whole process to get to the desired outcome via a completely new path. A path that is intuitive and frictionless to the current and future students.

This can be accomplished by combining a couple of different technologies.

First, there is the deep analytical capability to mine through high volumes of data to understand the unique needs of an individual student. For example, a school can project that if a student is going to take Calculus 202, then Math 109 is a prerequisite. But let’s say that student not only needs to take Math 109, but that he must also take Math 99 and maybe even Math 97 before Math 109. The prerequisites are unique to the student based on his performance and what he’s done in the past.

Analytics and machine learning (ML) can sculpt that particular path into the system. The Virtual Assistant would make that recommendation as he started planning his course schedule. This capability can and should happen in conjunction with the support of human advising thus providing and personalized experience to illuminate the student’s path and exponentially increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the academic advising team. So there are two capabilities at play here: One is the underlying analytics that actually goes into this micro-personalization, and the second is the technology that surfaces this in a user-friendly interface through a virtual assistant.

The possibilities are endless. Let’s say our student wants to customize his degree program. He doesn’t want to be just a business major; he wants to combine a business major with aerospace engineering so that he can start his own company that funds businesses pursuing supersonic airplane development. And he starts dreaming about this at two o’clock in the morning. In this kind of situation, when he is ready for help, the VA can pop up and provide that counseling. The student experience becomes, essentially, self-guided—which is what Gen Zers are communicating that they want.

Creating the Easy-to-Use Interface Isn’t an Easy Task

Delivering this micro-personalization with a user-friendly interface isn’t easy to do. Institutions should look into partnering with experts who have already developed solutions. That expertise needs to go beyond the technology stack and include deep understanding of higher education’s unique characteristics. While many vendors say they have this capability, most are testing it but haven’t deployed it in a real-world enterprise environment. Oracle is the only vendor I know of today with enterprise-proven solutions that can embed emerging technologies like AI and ML into the student information system.

Oracle is building this capability inside our applications through our adaptive intelligence apps. While many startups offer solutions focused on one area, such as academic advising or degree planning, no one has a solution that permeates the entire SIS. We’re building these components inside what we call Student Cloud, which we will deliver as a service. If enterprises want to build this on their own, they can get Oracle Mobile Cloud Service that has AI and chatbots capability built in.

Our digital native students want to be able to navigate through college on their own terms. Institutions need to implement innovative technology solutions that allow them to deliver that kind of personalized, self-guided student experience. Ovum advises, “The effective delivery of AI solutions rests on a robust stack of technologies, developed and maintained by highly skilled subject-matter experts. While the end user may have a seamless experience, delivering that experience is an exceptionally resource-intensive endeavor.”

Join us in the Chicago April 10-12 at Oracle Modern Experience, and see how Oracle Student Cloud, a flexible, extensible student-centric solution is meeting the needs of 21st center higher education.

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