students and technology

13Nov11

This is not about my laptop ban.

So I’ve now been teaching for almost three months. For the most part, I really like my students. I think they’re smart and funny and, generally, willing to do the work. Whether their smarts actually make it onto the written page is one thing, but I still find myself mulling over what one student said in a review session I held last week. I’d asked them to think about big themes and to make connections, and one of them said something that I think is incredibly perceptive. So what follows is not a rant about how dumb my students are, because they’re not.

That said, what’s going on with them and technology? We hear so much about how these students are of the digital age. They grew up with computers, etc etc. They can tweet. They use facebook, blah blah blah. Well I’ve gotta say: I’m finding no evidence of special technological savvy amongst them.

Now granted, I’m in a different position vis-a-vis my students that most of those doing this kind of commentary. I’m young, only six years older than my oldest students. This means that, when it comes to tech, there isn’t that much of a gap between me and them. I was in college when Facebook came out, and my university was one of the first handful to which it was rolled out. I didn’t have my own computer at home, but my dad bought me a laptop for freshman year. All of this to say that while I did not grow up with computers in the same way that my current students did, they were around enough that there isn’t a significant gap between me and them when it comes to access.

But here’s what I’m finding interesting.

When I send students to the Chicago Manual of Style website, they report back that it was confusing.
They don’t have the foggiest how to find information with a basic internet search.

So problem one: Whatever they’re doing with tech, they don’t know how to use the internet. They don’t know how to find information.

But the real reason I’m writing this post? It’s now becoming increasingly clear that students don’t know how to use word processing programs.

I’m reading papers in which font size shifts within a sentence. Multiple times.
I’m reading papers in which the footnotes are in a different font to the body of the text.
I have students who didn’t know how to insert footnotes into their text.

In other words, somehow students are entering (and leaving) one of the “best,” most elite schools in the country, and they don’t know the basics of making a word-processing program work for them. They are controlled by the whims of Microsoft Word’s default settings.

Now clearly, this is a failing of high school to insist that students learn these skills. It’s probably happening because overambitious parents don’t think their children have time to take a semester-long elective in middle school on basic computing. (It helps to have a mother who was a secretary in a former life.) But I think it’s also happening because we assume that increased contact with and early access to technology equals competence and familiarity with it. And I, for one, am finding that to not be the case.

(And, to be clear, I’m no tech guru. It’s now becoming a running joke in one of my classes that the projector setup will never work when I’m using it. I even got the projector to work and was discussing an image on the screen when it cut out on me mid-sentence.)

So what to do about this? I’m now thinking about it for my classes next semester. I’m certainly not getting paid enough to really care, but at the same time, I do feel like I can’t wonder what’s going on in other people’s classrooms if students in my classroom aren’t being exposed to these things either.

So how do you work on teaching these skills–and if we use the language of transferable skills, these would certainly count–within the context of a history course?

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4 Responses to “students and technology”

  1. 1 tanya.roth

    The “born digital” thing is a myth (I’m not sure that’s the right term for the generation you’re talking about as your students, but it’s the similar concept). I spent 3 years in grad school teaching grad students effective use of technology as instructors, and this was one of the key things I learned from our Teaching Center asst. director (who was NOT a huge fan of tech as I have long been).

    I excel in finding info online and leveraging google and search engines to my benefit. My high school students may know how to find some things – like torrents, for example – that I never use, but I can run circles around them in information procurement. And I had to teach my sophomores how to do MLA citations (multiple times) and how to format their papers (multiple times), etc., etc. There’s a huge difference between social networking/texting and using other software programs or online resources, and those are skills that need to be taught. I suspect this is why I’ve always been adamant about allowing computers in the classroom because then you CAN have those conversations and exercises (or at least have class a couple of times a term in a computer lab, for example).

    Yes, there’s the flip side about acceptable use, and I admit that I’m learning how to handle the fact that my students aren’t always following acceptable use and paying attention when they’re in my class. But I far prefer the fact that our 1:1 environment means that I can turn them loose to look at online resources and that I *can* have a 10-minute mini-lesson on formatting and citations, etc.

    I think this is key: we can’t assume those skills are being taught. My students will come out of high school as incredibly tech-savvy students. Yet the prep school down the road self-consciously does NOT embrace technology and I suspect their students are much like the ones you’re encountering. And that doesn’t even touch on the range of accessibility in public school settings, if we think about socioeconomic indicators and the class divide in digital literacy.

    I’m rambling, but all this is to say: I hear you. And I think that engaging with the question of how to teach them these skills is important.

    When we’re talking in the confines of YOUR classroom, I say start with what you’re going to want from them. Teach them how to format with MS Word. Teach them how to follow the expectations you want. Moving beyond that, you can integrate exercises that are designed to get them engaging with different types of technology. For example: learning how to search a search engine effectively won’t just help them navigate Google or Bing or Yahoo, but will also help them with learning library skills since many library search engines use similar search protocols.

    Does your library offer in-library “orientations” for classes? Maybe yours is too large (I can’t remember the size) – or maybe a librarian can come to you. I’ve participated in – and had my students participate in- sessions where librarians highlighted resources and how to use many of their technologically-based items.

    I think starting small is the key, and with that…I have to run. 🙂

  2. 2 thefrogprincess

    tanya, you’re hitting on several things I’ve been thinking about. First of all, I think my surprise is rooted in the fact that I had assumed that these skills (especially learning how to use Word) had been taught in high school. It’s now clear that they aren’t. And here is where I would either have students bring their laptops in for one specific class or have a computer lab session. Because now I’m seeing that they’re not even coming in with the absolute fundamentals. For most of what I’m doing in class, the laptop ban has worked well. Students are engaged, and when they aren’t, I have a greater sense that one of a few things might be going on: it’s a rough point in the semester, the material didn’t grab them, they didn’t understand it and I need to do more to introduce it, etc. All information I need to know.

    And yes, it was the “born digital” concept that I was thinking about and that I’m finding to be utter bullshit.

    I’m still wondering, though, how this happened. And how it happened in so short a space of time. Like I said, I’m only six years older than the oldest of these students, and I learned how to use MS Word, how to search for information, and how to make my work look polished and professional.

    • 3 tanya.roth

      I tend to think there might be a family connection, and/or a generational problem. For example: I’m the oldest kid in my family and when I was 16 my parents got online (in the mid-1990s). Looking back, I was on the advance guard technologically speaking in a lot of ways, although I never thought of it that way (because the really tech-savvy folks I knew were programming, something I didn’t really do – I was just a good user).

      My sister is two years younger than me, though, and she has terrible skills. She doesn’t know how to use PowerPoint (she’s 30) and is not very comfortable with computers unless she’s using social media or email. I don’t even think she owns MS Word, according to something she told me this summer. I don’t know how to explain the differences between her and me, except that I was always one to take initiative and try things on my own.

      Beyond that, however, I think there may be the basic problem that although this supposedly “born digital” generation may seem very tech-savvy because of all their devices, when it comes to formal education they were taught by people older than me – and that means you probably hit SOME tech-savvy teachers, but by and large I’m guessing that their teachers were not that comfortable teaching tech.

      I’ve heard of schools that were requiring kids to learn PowerPoint while in high school in the past decade, but I also suspect that the skills-learning was sporadic at best and not done thoughtfully and constructively in many schools. IE, I’m not sure that even those teachers who DID teach tech skills always did so meaningfully. I think we’re moving towards that, but it’s still uneven.

      And it still surprises me. 🙂

  3. This has been something that’s surprised me as well. Many of my students see their computers as Facebook and torrent machines, not as a device that can procure helpful course-related information for them. In one discussion, several students mentioned that they didn’t know the meaning of a somewhat jargon-y word. I suggested that in the future they use Google to find the meaning of an unfamiliar word so they wouldn’t be so frustrated with the reading. It seemed like such an obvious step to me but from their faces you would have thought I’d suggested some form of information voodoo.

    I’ve had similar problems with word-processor use among both undergrads and grad students. In one case, a student genuinely believed that hitting “tab” in the middle of a line was all s/he needed to do in order to start a new paragraph.

    The problem I’ve encountered at my current university is that if I try to teach these skills, my top students become sort of offended. I’ve been approached after class by students who were genuinely hurt that I thought they didn’t know these things. They generally understand when I explain that many of their classmates really don’t know this stuff, but our university tends to cater to the students on the bottom rather than the ones on the top, and I hate feeling like I’m wasting my best students’ time with a lesson on how to use the Word Count function. I can’t just say “if you know this you’re excused early” because then they will ALL leave.


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