Why Gen Z students prefer YouTube over textbooks

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Why Gen Z students prefer YouTube over textbooks

As educators welcome another class of students to campus, many wonder how they can best teach the most plugged-in generation. After all, nearly half of all Gen Zers (47%) spend at least three hours every day on YouTube, according to a survey by Pearson and The Harris Poll.  


of Gen Zers spend at least three hours every day on YouTube
of Gen Zers spend at least three hours every day on YouTube

To conduct the online survey, Pearson and The Harris Poll questioned a nationally representative sample of 2,587 respondents between 14 and 40 years old about their learning preferences and online habits.

They found that nearly half of all Gen Zers (47%) spend at least three hours every day on YouTube and prefer the platform over textbooks for learning.

Writing for Education Week, Lauraine Genota interviews members of Gen Z and education professionals to understand why.

1: Videos break down complex topics into digestible information. YouTube is a familiar platform to Gen Zers and offers these digital natives a way to learn material quickly. The platform is “full of explainers and tutorials” as well as content that is “short and easily digestible,” says Peter Broad, the director of global research and insights at Pearson. “It’s a free app,” adds Eva Clark-Dupuy, a high school junior from California. “It’s easy to look at. You get millions of results when you search something.”

Jaimie Moreano, a student at Locust Valley High School in New York, says that video tutorials are particularly helpful when preparing for tests. The videos act like a “crash course” on a subject, and online instructors simplify the material and help her “grasp the concept.”

Sometimes learning from a textbook doesn’t help me. Sometimes it’s much easier to watch a video on a topic. If I have a visual, it’s easier to grasp.

Eva Clark-Dupuy, high school student from California

2: Videos are easy to follow. Unlike textbooks, instructional videos satisfy Gen Zers’ preference for visual learning. “Sometimes learning from a textbook doesn’t help me,” explains Clark-Dupuy. “Sometimes it’s much easier to watch a video on a topic. If I have a visual, it’s easier to grasp.”

And videos are especially convenient for students who may need longer to grasp a concept, adds Andrew Biggs, a social studies teacher at New Technology High School. Students can re-watch a video “as many times as [they] want, without having to feel like [they’re] inconveniencing someone,” he explains. “When I’m doing my homework, I’ll look up how to solve a problem on YouTube,” Moreano says. “I like it because it’s really easy to follow. I can pause it, or I can rewind it if I have a question.”

3: Videos are engaging and relatable. Videos allow students to create real-life connections with the content they learn in class, explains Michael Nagler, superintendent of the Mineola school district in New York. “Videos can give them that bigger connection, engaging them in the content and lesson itself,” he says.

Videos are also more relatable, writes Genota. YouTube is “almost more personal than reading a book, because you see [instructors] and what they’re actually doing, and not just what they’re writing,” says Moreano. “Books feel old to me.”

Gen Zers still prefer in-person instruction

But while Gen Zers indicate that they believe YouTube has “contributed to their education,” they still prefer learning in-person from teachers, the Pearson and Harris Poll survey reveals.

According to the survey, roughly 78% of Gen Zers indicated that they prefer learning from teachers and believe instructors are “very important to learning and development.” After teachers, Gen Z students designated YouTube as their next most preferred mode of learning (59%), followed by in-person group activities (57%), learning apps or games (47%), and printed books (47%).  


of Gen Zers say they still prefer learning from teachers
of Gen Zers say they still prefer learning from teachers

Millennials indicated a similar preference for teachers above all other modes of learning (chosen by 80% of respondents). But unlike Gen Zers, millennials were more likely to indicate a preference for online classes: 45% of millennials said they prefer taking as many online classes as possible, compared with just 26% of Gen Zers.

In fact, according to EAB research, there’s been a 16% increase in online enrollment at four-year institutions since 2012, when IPEDS began tracking online education. That’s compared to a 2% increase in overall enrollment, notes Jahanara Saeed, a senior analyst at EAB. Even more, there’s been a 39% increase in the number of students who are taking online courses in addition to face-to-face-courses.

But even though both millennials and Gen Zers prefer learning from teachers, only three in 10 respondents from both groups reported that they would ask a teacher for help before trying to figure out a problem on their own or with the help of the internet.

The survey’s findings echo previous research, which has found that Gen Z and millennials value both physical and digital learning. Richard DeMillo, executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technologysuggests that for today’s students, it feels natural to blur the line between online and on campus: “Students don’t have a problem blending the two experiences, either for efficiency or because they are digital natives.”

And many higher ed institutions are already working to strike a balance between online and face-to-face learning. For example, at the University of Central Florida, students can choose to take certain large, lecture classes online or face-to-face—and they can even switch from one to the other partway through the term.

Sources: Saeed, EAB, 1/15/19; Genota, Education Week, 9/11/18; Pearson survey, accessed 8/27/18; Schaffhauser, Campus Technology, 8/21/18

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