Zoom University: How Gen Z has Adapted to Online Learning

Neal Sivadas
11 min readSep 14, 2020

Originally published at https://www.nealsivadas.com on September 14, 2020.

Six months ago, the lives of millions of Gen Zers, including myself, changed forever.

We started taking classes online. Every single one of us. Something no other generation has experienced ubiquitously… ever.

Online education, whether through certificate training, module-based courses, or virtual Zoom classrooms, has become increasingly popular over the past decade. In fact, according to Statista, the global e-learning market surpassed $100 billion in 2019. With the rise of COVID-19, the industry has grown exponentially, expected to reach $305 billion by 2025.

Problems with Virtual Classrooms

It’s no secret that online classes cannot replicate in-person education, at least for now. Consumer need simply outgrew the rate of any possible rate of innovation. Universal online learning was only supposed to happen in 2040.

Virtual classrooms, or live lectures on a video hosting platform such as Zoom, have become the main method of teaching during COVID-19. Most people have an idea of how Zoom classes might work, but I want to shine light on the challenges specifically faced by students.

As a student, the learning experience is challenging enough. Every second of class time requires you to listen and retain information from lectures, engage with other classmates, and stay organized to complete assignments on time. You have to use your head and your voice constantly.

With online classes, several other factors come into play such as technical capabilities, virtual anxiety, and screen fatigue that complicate your ability to succeed.

Technical difficulties are more than just a temporary inconvenience

For remote learning and working, we all deal with technical issues such as poor connection and video or audio lag.

When it happens in remote work calls, it’s annoying. Fortunately, in shorter, small group meetings with fewer people, you can usually clarify or ask for a follow-up email.

When it happens for a few seconds or minutes in the middle of two hour zoom class with 80 other students, it’s a little more challenging to catch up. You either disrupt everyone in class or you surf through a two hour Zoom recording to see what you missed. Sometimes, you might even miss in-class participation points, warranting a three paragraph email to your professor who dutifully replies with “k thanks.”

Virtual anxiety provides more stress

For some introverts, Zoom classes are more ideal. You have less social anxiety and fewer conversations… or so think. In reality, Zoom classes are filled with anxiety. What if my Wifi crashes? What if I miss a participation point? What if the instructor randomly calls on me? What if my dog or family walks in? What if the mute button isn’t really muted? Why do I look the way I look in my Zoom video?

Anxiety can contribute to a lack of focus in class, whether we like it or not. Even just yawning or sneezing on camera can be self-conscious, when we would not think twice in a classroom. Especially for the reportedly most anxious generation ever.

Forcing students to have their cameras on during class is becoming an increasingly widespread practice. Some instructors argue it allows students to stay engaged. Many students claim it just causes more anxiety and call it a distraction from learning.

Screen fatigue destroys our energy

While work meetings might be half an hour to an hour, some university courses can be 2–3 hours in one sitting. While breaks are increasingly part of the experience, there is still significant fatigue from staring at your screen for so long. This can be extremely draining on the mind, especially when having your camera on. With in-person classes, you don’t feel like you’re being watched and even a quick walk across campus can provide an energy boost. With online classes, four to six hours of class in a day now requires twice the amount of energy and focus.

The Impact on Gen Zoomers

Of course, the generation serving as guinea pigs of widespread virtual classrooms is none other than a generation that has already experienced a multitude of challenges in their youth, whether school shootings, multiple financial crises, or constant political dissonance.

Online classes are just another bump in the road. As the most technology adept generation in history, we have a unique set of capabilities that makes us more prepared for the concept of online classes. We don’t remember a time without social media or search engines, understand how to onboard to new technologies quickly, and have relied on Internet resources such as Google, YouTube, and Khan Academy to guide and assist our learning well before COVID-19 hit. This is why we have no issue with technical changes such as navigating Zoom interfaces or making the sudden shift to virtual classes in mid-March. Instead, our issues lie in the more experiential aspects such as staying engaged in class and unparalleled social anxiety in virtual classrooms.

In order to cope with issues, we make memes. “Zoom Memes for Self-Quarantined Teens”, a Facebook group with 750K members, was created almost immediately after the shift of online classes in March. Every day, people share relatable memes about the Zoom classroom experience. They help cope with our situation and share our struggles with others who are going through the same thing. If you want to understand the pain points of online classes, look no further than this meme group.

How Zoom Classes Could Be Improved

When I started Fall Semester online at USC a couple weeks ago, I immediately noticed a difference in teaching from the Spring. Professors were more prepared, more versatile in their training, and even introduced some new methods of online teaching that I did not know existed. Here’s a quick rundown of what teaching on Zoom is like currently in the Fall.

1. Screen Share — you can share your screen with others in Zoom so participants can see your browser, PowerPoint, or video. This replicates a projector in a classroom. However, if you’re taking notes or following another document on your computer, this can be disruptive as a student.

2. Breakout Rooms — you can divide up and send students to smaller virtual rooms, often for smaller discussions or group work. This replicates in-class group experiences.

3. Polling — You can ask participants questions on screen or have participants vote Y/N to questions. This is a feature where the online experience exceeds the in-person experience.

4. Record — You can record classes and upload them to the Cloud for student viewing within 24 hours.

5. Whiteboarding — you can enable participants to write on the screen by adding text, drawings, stickers, etc.

6. Chat — You can message the entire class or individuals privately.

I’ve noticed that professors will vary in their teaching styles. Some just screen share and lecture, while others will force engagement through the many tools every few minutes. While every student learns differently, I surveyed 250 college students on a variety of topics related to Zoom classes and these were the main takeaways about the most effective Zoom classroom experience:

a. Have an even balance of lectures and engagement– about 50% of the students said they preferred lecture-heavy classes, while the other half asked for participation heavy classes. It’s no surprise that people have a range of preferred learning styles. One solution might be lecture for the first class and utilize participation and breakout rooms for the second half.

b. Let students keep their cameras off — 67% of students said they preferred to keep their cameras off. I think this relates to the points about anxiety I touched on earlier. It gives students more peace of mind so they can just focus on the lecture.

c. Track participation points through homework rather than in-class participation — When asked if they would prefer participation points tracked through in-class participation versus homework on their own time, a resounding 69% responded that they’d rather have participation points through homework. I think I know why. With in-class participation, too many variables come into play. You worry about technical difficulties and distractions and stress about getting those little points rather than on actual learning. If you are in a different time zone and can’t attend the live sessions, you often have to take additional quizzes, send additional emails, and spend a significant amount of time for a small number of points. It’s tedious and leads to thoughts like this.

In my opinion, the most effective option to track participation is through recurring larger assignments (i.e. weekly homework due on Friday). Some might argue that this demotivates students from attending class. Maybe it does. But it also accommodates those with different learning styles and eases the minds of students by putting them on a recurring schedule.

d. Students are indifferent about breakout rooms — Among the respondents, 55% were a fan of breakout rooms, while 45% were not. I think breakout rooms are helpful in theory, but I think the inherent idea of hopping into a room for a few minutes without supervision with random strangers to discuss or solve problems isn’t the most effective way to drive engagement or discussion. Often, students will use breakout rooms as a break opportunity. If an instructor does utilize breakout rooms, it might be more effective to have breakout rooms with the same recurring group and with a clear objective. For example, have every breakout room solve the same practice problem and return with a unified answer.

e. Zoom recordings are extremely valuable — 85% of respondents said they found Zoom recordings of class sessions helpful. This makes sense, given that it allows student to refer back to class and go at their own pace. It might be the one unbeatable aspect of online classes.

The Future of Online Learning

There’s no denying the fact that we will never go back to the way things were before 2020, even with something like in-person classroom instruction, which has been structured the same for thousands of years.

You suddenly have billions of new customers and users who are now proficient in online learning.

Which means innovation is on the way.

Innovating access to learning

For those with reliable access to Wifi, the Internet has democratized access to education. As Matt Damon’s character in Good Will Hunting once stated to an elitist Harvard student, “you wasted $150,000 on an education that you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” Only now, you have free access to more information than you could ever imagine.

Over the past decade, many for-profit and non-profit organizations have helped democratize learning. You’ve probably seen University of Phoenix commercials, a trailblazer in online educational degree programs. Khan Academy is an immensely popular platform that creates video lessons on a variety of academic subjects, with a particular emphasis on Math. And even traditional social media platforms such as YouTube and TikTok are becoming learning platforms. YouTube channels such as Crash Course and VSauce have built platforms around educational content and TikTok will soon follow.

Most think of dancing and comedy when it comes to Gen Z’s favorite platform, but #LearnOnTikTok is one of the fastest growing aspects of the platform. You can learn about anything from Excel to algebra to cooking in <1 minute videos on TikTok.

In the next few years, we may see the rise of several online universities and free educational content on the Internet, especially as a competitor to traditionally expensive higher education options. Now that everyone has experienced online learning, the stigma is no longer an issue.

Innovating the classroom experience

Others have used the shift to online learning as an opportunity to innovate the classroom experience. At USC, Emily Nix, an Assistant Professor of Finance and Business Economics, spent $60 and managed to assemble a lightboard to help with teaching. When Professor Nix draws on the board, her words and diagrams glow in front of her and reflect onto the screen. This allows her to seamlessly move between lecture slides and her “white boards”, delivering an experience that better mirrors the classroom experience.

At UNC — Chapel Hill, some classes have even experimented with virtual reality (VR) classrooms. Professor Steven King from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media built a virtual 3D version of his classroom back in April. Students in his class have enjoyed the experience, sharing that it actually provides a more social environment than Zoom classes while still providing a quality of education.

Imagine putting on a VR headset and being immersed into a real classroom. Your virtual professor is able to put slides onto a projector and write on the white board in the virtual classroom. Audio is synced so you can hear everyone in the class talking.

This could be the future. You get the entire visual and audio classroom experience without having to leave your room. One challenge of this future is the fatigue and health impact of putting on a VR headset for an extended period of time.

Regardless, it’s a glimpse into a potential future.

Innovating career paths

A world where online education is no longer stigmatized is also a world where traditional career paths could be challenged

According to a Morning Consult study, over 50% of Gen Z would become a social media influencer as a career if they had the opportunity. Another 61% of Gen Z high schoolers would rather be entrepreneurs than employees. This was back in 2019.

I believe a pandemic will only further this desire for untraditional career paths. We will ask ourselves why we can’t learn from online platforms. Why traditional college is necessary when so many people are in debt. Why we follow the traditional career path when so many people are unhappy with their job.

After all, that’s what Gen Z does best. We challenge the status quo in everything we do.

With artists like Bille Eilish, BTS, and Lil Nas X, we subverted genre in music. With a push for representation, we’ve proven to Hollywood that movies with minority leads can be successful. With a desire for real people with real skin in ads, we’ve revolutionized advertising to create commercials around Jane Doe instead of Marilyn Monroe.

And with the rise of online education, I think disrupting the traditional career path is next.

This is part 10/12 of the “Find Gen Z Series”, a monthly blog where I detail one social or digital media platform and how to best reach Gen Z on the platform. I am no expert. All my knowledge and perspective is based on my own experience as a member of Gen Z and extensive research. My only goal is to help brands who really care about my generation and anyone else willing to listen by giving them the inside scoop on my generation. To learn about other platforms in the series, go to https://www.nealsivadas.com/find-gen-z and please reach out with any questions or feedback.

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Neal Sivadas

LinkedIn Top Voice | PMM @ TikTok | Gen Z Marketer + Blogger