Monday, January 21, 2008

How tech savvy are today's college students?

When I go to pedagogically oriented conferences or workshops, or participate in some of my community college system's work groups I frequently hear claims that today's young people are technologically savvy, and that it is necessary for us (teachers) to engage them through technology or lose their attention. I read (in on-line sources) how today's college students spend all their time developing their "Face Book" or "My Space" pages and instant message with friends, and play computer games.

Yet when I get in the classroom, I find that many of my students (even the young ones) sit blankly in front of the computer, unable to negotiate key government websites (Census Bureau, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Bureau of Labor Statistics) to find the answers to relatively simple factual questions. When I deal with my on-line students, I find that many of them have no clue (even with detailed instructions) how to navigate through the course, and move from one activity to another. [My classes have been repeatedly vetted for clarity of instructions and navigation, even netting me a statewide award for excellence in on-line instruction].

Most of my students have heard of "Face Book" but have never used it, and prefer their cell phones to instant messaging, being far more comfortable with verbal over written communication. All the cute abbreviations of instant messaging and texting seem to bewilder many of them; when some of them post to discussion boards their writing degenerates into broken English, not computer speak. When using the computer for class work, they prefer to learn the bare minimum necessary to use the computer as a tool, and have no interest in exploring short cuts and new techniques. When they run into new situations or problems they give up rather than problem solve. Teach them to use one version of a piece of software, and then give them a slightly newer version, and many of them freeze up.

So today's Chronicle of Higher Education had a blog entry The Myth of the Techno-Wizard Freshman really caught my eye. I thought perhaps some one had finally documented my experience. The article, while interesting, dealt with something different than technological savvy -- it dealt with information processing skills. The research is very interesting [follow the links in the article above] demonstrating that a high percentage of today's college freshman do not know how to evaluate the quality of information, determine the relevance of information, or how to define or narrow a search for information. These are indeed important skills that they should have, but they are not really "tech" skills, but rather old fashioned intellectual skills. Yes the computer is the tool being used, but the same skills were necessary when I was in college looking for information in magazines, newspapers, books, and journals, using printed indexes and reference sources.

I'd really like to see some one do a real survey of technical skills, to find out if our college freshman really are as technically savvy as pundits believe, and to see if such skills exhibit the social class divide that I strongly suspect given my experiences at a community college.