Young woman working on laptop
HealthAugust 31, 2020

Generation Z: Computer experts or not?

By: Shena Williams, MSN, RN
To many faculty members, the move from face-to-face to online learning may seem like a dream to most Generation Z students. Gen Z comprises people born after 1997 and are about ages 23 and younger.

Thoughts of the flexibility, not having to wake up early to drive to the campus, examinations in the comfort of home, are just a few of the “perks” one may believe these students may be thrilled about. It’s often said that the students run circles around faculty when it comes to computers in this day. The realities of the shortcomings regarding the students’ inability to function in an online learning environment manifested when they were forced into the format following the Covid-19 mandates. It was at that point that many faculty members often displayed shock in the students’ inability to correctly use various computer programs.

The shock of misuse

Needless to say, when the transition began, it was assumed that faculty would struggle, and students would excel in computer usage. Many faculty members braced themselves to have to supply more support to those students who were born prior to 1995. It came as a shock that in fact, the students needing the bulk of the support when it came to formatting, submitting assignments correctly and navigating certain programs were those classified as Generation Z. Many programs were heavily used via the online platform including Microsoft Word, MS Teams and Outlook email. These three were often the topic of discussion in staff meetings, course meetings, and student-teacher conferences, as they often were misused and/or inappropriately used by students. This post will give some quick pointers to help guide students in the usage of Microsoft Word, MS Teams, and Outlook email.

Microsoft Word

As with most programs, the majority of the students’ assignments are to be typed using Microsoft Word. Over the last semester, once submissions began coming in, it was apparent there was a serious problem. From simple formatting to submission issues, the problems quickly rolled in. The problem seemed overwhelming initially, due to the fact that the majority of the students waited until the day of to submit assignments. However, after reviewing submission after submission, a few things became a common theme. One would initially believe the students were merely sharing assignments causing them to experience the same issues, however, the submissions that stuck out required each student to have a different topic, which would have rendered that idea useless. Instructors commonly noticed issues with the formatting being jumbled, due to the students using the “share” feature while using the online version of Microsoft Word, excessive spacing in tables and documents with pre-inserted lines, and varying fonts sizes. Many of these issues could have been avoided with a few simple tips.

Microsoft Word tips for students

  • Check with the University IT department. Often students have access to and could download a free version of Microsoft office to their computers.
  • Remind students that when submitting assignments to instructors via email, do not to hit the “share” button, instead, save the file to their drive and upload as an attachment.
  • If a student is typing and notices the line is moving, or the boxes are expanding, simply hit the “delete” button to remove the extra space.
  • Always do a Font check. Make sure your words are the same font type, size, and color.

MS Teams

Many students adapted well to MS Teams during the previous semester. It not only allowed for space for faculty to hold class in a live format, but it allowed the students to see when faculty was “available” or “online”. It holds the capability to act like an instant messenger, allowing students to send messages to instructors, which would come through on their computer or via their phone if the app is downloaded. So, one would wonder, “how would this be an issue for the student?”

Generation Z students often have their phones or tablets in hand all day and night. It was a common trend for faculty to receive a “Chat” anywhere from 11:00 pm to 1:00 am. A reminder that if a faculty member has the app downloaded to their phone, this “chat” is not delayed until the next day, this “chat” comes through similarly as a text message. MS Teams also allows students to “audio call” and “video call” other users. Once again, an especially useful tool when needing to counsel, demonstrate, or simply directly speak to a student. So, “how would this be an issue for the student?”. Many students felt that they could “audio” or “video” call faculty at any moment. Often, while in a department meeting, driving in the car after 6:00 pm, or preparing content prior to class beginning 6:00 am, students would “call”. Most of the calls were true “video” calls. It was after this stream of incidents that the need for rules of MS Teams was realized.

MS Teams tips for students

  • Ensure students know your times which you are available for Chats and/or Calls
  • Ensure students understand that it is inappropriate to “calls” without notice to the instructor. Also, instruct them on how to set up an appointment
  • If using only for Live Stream courses, make sure the students are aware of the purpose

Outlook email

As a college student, there is an expectation that any form of communication to an instructor should be professional. There are even many high schools that offer computer courses, as well as some nursing programs that require computer courses as a pre-requisite to admission. While these courses teach students the basics of using programs such as Microsoft PowerPoint, Excel, and Word, they often lack teaching common courtesy when submitting documents or communicating with others.

As an instructor of first-semester nursing students, I understand that the students will need some guidance in becoming true professionals. What is shocking, is the increasing amount of teaching needed regarding basic communication. Some issues that have been noted among faculty when it comes to emails are the lack of respect, timing, and unprofessional email names.

Lack of respect in emails has been one of the main issues among students. Often as instructors, it is important to take a step back and “re-read” the email to ensure that it is not simply being read aggressively or disrespectfully, as the tone of emails can sometimes be misconstrued. It has been noticed by faculty members that students often send slanderous emails, demanding emails, and occasionally refuse to respond to emails. As a faculty member, each of these situations should be handled delicately. Many times, the student does not understand what should and should not be sent in an email, and engaging in slanderous, malicious emails will create a negative result for both parties. A prime example of this would be a student disrespecting a clinical instructor while giving compliments to the one whom they are emailing. While the instructor receiving the email may feel validated and gracious, they must also remember that engaging in this email will send reassurance to the student that they are also in agreement with the statements directed at the clinical instructor. Instead requesting a meeting with the student and following the school’s guidelines would be a more appropriate response. While in this meeting a suggestion can be made for the student to visit the “writing lab,” or information regarding professional communication can be presented.

All nurses can remember late-night studying at one point during their education. Many nurses can also remember completing at least one assignment extremely close to the deadline. While this is a practice that, unfortunately, will possibly continue for years to come, one important rule of thumb is to explain expectations for communication regarding projects when assigning them. It has been a common experience lately that many students feel that if they submit an emailed question immediately, often an hour, prior to an assignment being due, that they will be excused because they did not receive a reply to their email prior to the deadline. There are also those emails requesting meetings, references, test reviews, and an abundance of other things, that are sent late at night with student expectations that faculty will accommodate, or complete the task by the deadline, often early the next morning. Needless to say, students do not see the “behind the scenes” work that is required of faculty, therefore they believe that faculty has plenty of free time and should be able to accommodate these requests on short notice. One way to prevent this issue is to be sure to establish the timelines for replies to emails early in the course. Make sure it is visible to students, by including it in your course welcome, as well as the course syllabus. Also, be diligent in responding to the student within the timeframe that you do allow, therefore it will be no breakdown in the student-teacher relationship.

While many nursing schools require students to use their assigned school email address when communicating with instructors, staff, and administrators, it is important to ensure that students establish a professional personal email address. Many students may not be aware of the effects of email addresses that label them in negative ways. This is important for future jobs, State Board of Nursing applications, and several other reasons they may be prompted to use a personal email address.

Outlook email tips for students

  • Ensure students understand the policy and procedure for emails regarding questions about assignments when providing the assignment to the students.
  • Provide email etiquette tip sheets to students early. This can often help curve the number of unprofessional emails.
  • If using personal email addresses, explain the importance of or even help the student create a professional email address.

With the change of many programs to online and hybrid formats, the computer is becoming the main method of communication between students and faculty. While these are only three of the many tools used by students, these are three that are commonly misused, especially amongst the Generation Z students. It should also be known that while this article focused on Generation Z students, these tips and tools would be especially helpful to all students, as many of these have simply not been brought to the attention of some students.

Here’s to new adventures and great communication for upcoming semester!

Shena Williams, MSN, RN
Expert Insights Contributor for Wolters Kluwer, Nursing Education
Lippincott® Nursing Education
Preparing today’s students to become tomorrow’s nurses
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