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How tech-smart are your students?

September 3, 2010
I am a geek

Photo by Julia Roy

A lot of my acquaintances who are “over a certain age” believe that any young person knows way more about technology than they do.We’ve all heard someone quip words to this effect: “If you can’t figure out how to do something on a computer, just ask a 12-year-old.” In the same vein, a large number of college faculty members assume that students come to school with a broad, highly developed set of computer skills.
Some professors expect that an incoming freshman can do all of the following:

  1. Locate primary source material on the Internet, cite it appropriately, and create a correctly formatted bibliography in Word
  2. Capture high-definition video on a cell phone, edit clips together, add titles, and post the result to YouTube
  3. Scan 30-year old images and use PhotoShop to touch them up
  4. Download data from a government website and use it to create a multi-page spreadsheet with charts
  5. Incorporate graphs, video, images, and animation into a tasteful PowerPoint
  6. Develop a website that is readable, well-organized, and aesthetically pleasing

It’s more likely that students could carry out one or two activities with the sophistication described above – and a few more tasks at a lower level. The video game skills that lots of young people have do not automatically translate into abilities in other technical areas. Think about yourself; you are probably very good at one or more computer programs. Does that mean you are good at all of them? Do your colleagues of the same age have the same kinds of computer expertise as you?

Very few people – young or old – are “good at computers,”in the sense that they can do almost anything they wish with a computer. Usually a person is very good at some things, okay at a few more, and clueless about others.

So what’s the point? Do some research before you plan on students being able to carry out a task using technology. I suggest assigning a short, low-stakes practice task that requires the skills in question – and see what they produce. Students may be able to perform as expected – or they may not have the kind of sophistication you require. If they don’t have the necessary skills, let me propose a number of options:

  1. Cut your losses. Abandon the idea and move on to something else
  2. Require students to learn the skills. Be sure to have some ideas of HOW they will accomplish this – books, websites, classes, etc.
    • On their own time. This is fair if one could reasonably expect that students at this level of your discipline would already have such skills.
    • Give them time. Reduce the work load in other areas to account for this added responsibility.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. eduhowto permalink
    September 5, 2010 12:09 pm

    Great ideas! I really believe that even though students know how to use technology they need to be taught how to use it correctly. Any technology used in the classroom must be taught to them even if they state that they know hoe to use it. Often time teachers assume too much and then run into problems with their lessons and projects. Great post!


  1. Myths about the Information Age « NspireD2: Learning Technology in Higher Ed.

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