Digital natives? Not my students.

Prof. Pettigrew on how some students can’t use computers

Digital native? (flickingerbrad/Flickr)

There’s a lot of talk about how today’s student is a “digital native” and how educators have to adjust to their mad high tech skills. Born and raised with electronic technology, the high tech world is as natural to today’s students as a first language.

Of course, what exactly that implies, is anyone’s guess, and some commentators have begun to point out that maybe this whole digital native thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe being raised with technology doesn’t mean students have the skills we think they do. Mary Beth Hertz, for example, has noted that just because students know how to use computers doesn’t mean that they know how to use them well.

My experiences this year have begun to make me think Beth Hertz is right. Maybe more right than even she imagined.

Strange as it sounds, I’m worried that this generation of students increasingly doesn’t know how to use computers. Before you scoff and say “Ridiculous: today’s students are all about technology. They grew up with it. The eat, breathe and sleep technology” consider the following, admittedly anecdotal, evidence.

Exhibit A: A student who is required to submit her paper in Word format comes to me and says she doesn’t have Word on her computer. I tell her that she can create Word files for free in Google Docs, or she can download Open Office for free and save her files in Word format that way. She can’t manage to do either. Later, she drops the class.

Exhibit B: Another student with the same problem manages to solve it by printing the essay out at home, taking it to the lab at school and retyping the whole thing over again.

Exhibit C: A student receives his assignment back in PDF format but is helpless to open it because double clicking doesn’t work and he has no idea how to download a free PDF reader, even though advice on this matter was included in the course outline.

These are all true stories, and they are all recent examples. And maybe they are not typical but I have never in the past decade had so many students who seemingly lacked even basic computer skills. These students don’t seem like digital natives. They’re not even “digital citizens” as Hertz has it. They’re digital tourists.

But didn’t they grow up with technology?

Technology yes, but not entirely, or even mainly, computers. The main piece of tech these students interact with, as far as I can see, is their phones. They text and tweet and check Facebook, but none of these things require them to do very much, to create documents, or find solutions to problems they haven’t encountered before.

When they do use computers, my sense is that it’s mainly for playing games and web surfing, and there again, they are just opening the program and clicking (or blasting) away. Aspects of computing that I and my friends  took pains to learn like learning to find software, and learning to use a word processing program are not skills that students have — or at least that we can’t take for granted that they have them.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.




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Digital natives? Not my students.

  1. Don’t use examples from three clearly uneducated, ignorant people, and slap this title on all students. I know how to do all of these things, as do many of my friends/peers. I am a fourth year student and could absolutely do these things when needed. These three are apparently just too lazy to car or try.

  2. I am a high school science teacher and I am bowled over by anecdotal evidence that supports exactly what you are saying. My students use their phones approximately every 20 seconds throughout my class, but they can’t use their school issued MacBooks for anything but watching YouTube videos or playing games unless I hold their hands every step of the way.

  3. This comes out as a biased write-up. Three anecdotes to label several generation of school-going kids as ‘digital outcasts’? Let’s go back to the basics: when did we – the adults – learn how to use Word Doc or PDF? When did we learn how to make cool presentations on PowerPoint? When did Google release its Google Doc and Spreadsheets feature? Only recently and by recent, I mean less than half a decade. All of us weren’t ‘born’ with Office 2000 skills, we had to learn it when the need arose. Not in school definitely and somewhat in college, but most definitely in our first jobs. Secondly, instructional manuals and guides have always been unread, even by adults. Did we learn to operate the music system or the Walkman by reading the manual or just by pressing several buttons and going with it? The same applies to the “digital natives” generation. Read research and books on digital natives here:
    http://www.cis-india.org

  4. I am a business consultant and grandmother who returned full-time to university for the past four years. I have advised many professors that there should be “boot camps” for Word and Excel before the semester starts and they expect students to be able to use them for statistics, graphing, and report preparation. Not only is it unrealistic to expect success from people who have never operated a spreadsheet, but it is setting them up for failure when they try to enter the job market. Education and training should not be mutually exclusive.

    • Universities and colleges typically have a Computer Science 101 type course that teaches those things (plus basic hardware maintenance, databases, and other things), and when I was in college it was mandatory for all students in the Faculty of Commerce.

  5. Well as an engineering student, not knowing how to deal with files would basically preclude passing first year.

  6. I teach university-prep English at high school and had to show my students how to double space their essays, insert page numbers into a header, and eliminate extra spacing after paragraphs — things I thought they would have learned in grade 9 Information Technology class.

  7. I am a university sessional instructor and I agree with Nilo. When university students get upset because I do not post my lecture notes online for a particular lecture because I do not want to put my unpublished new research online, and then they indicate that they were not able to download the course syllabus or assignment rubric the day before the due date of an assignment, they’re making excuses. From personal experience, many undergraduates today leave things to the last minute. This is evident when I see them at my office door two days before the due date of an assignment asking me what they should write about, or that they can’t find any journal articles. Excuses about problems with technology should be carefully scrutinized. Some are legitimate, but a lot of them seem to me to be excuses for poor time management skills.

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