Students and Computer Skills

Yesterday the Chronicle of Higher Education published a short piece on adult students returning to college during the recession and their lack of computer skills. The author noted a claim from a speaker at the Sloan Consortium International Conference on Online Learning that “This lack of basic computer knowledge is an increasingly common predicament as community colleges accommodate workers displaced by the economic downturn,” and goes on to give the example of a woman who had been in the same for 27 years before being laid off and who had not needed computer skills for that job.

What I found most interesting about the piece was the implicit contrast to traditional-aged students. While the article doesn’t come out and say so, there seems to be an assumption on the author’s part that traditional college students don’t suffer from the same problem — in other words, that they are coming to college with the computer skills that older students lack. In my experience, however, this simply isn’t true. Despite having grown up with technology and all the hype about “digital natives,” I find that my students also struggle with how to complete basic computer functions. I am not alone in this. Physics professor Chad Orzel also points out that:

But the students I see are not comfortable with computers in any fundamental way. A few of them know how to do useful things with Excel and Word, but if you try to go beyond what they already know, they freeze up completely, and demonstrate no ability to figure out how to make these programs work (which, to be fair, is often inordinately difficult). Many of them regard the idea that they should learn how to use the tools at their disposal to, for example, create properly formatted equations in lab reports as a grossly unfair imposition.

The comments on a recent Inside Higher Ed article make similar points and I know I’ve found that I have to give the students I’m teaching this semester much more tech instruction than I had intended (having also bought into the “digital natives” myth). What about others? What are you seeing? Are your students truly tech-savvy? Or just good at texting and Facebook? How do you incorporate the teaching of tech tools into your curricula?

[Creative Commons licensed photo by Flickr user Whiteafrican.]

2 thoughts on “Students and Computer Skills

  1. I agree that even today’s digital natives still have problems using technology. I have had high school students in orientations for online classes that I had to show how to open a pdf document. Sometimes things we take for granted that people should know, they definitely do not know. 🙂

    • It strikes me that part of the problem is that we expect digital natives to know how to use technology for work, but what they tend to know best is how to use it for entertainment. I am constantly surprised at how students do not know what I consider to be super basic — like the mere existence of Google docs. To that end, I suppose the problem is also that of imposing expectations 😉

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