The Technology Divide: Meeting Students Where They Are

Fostering digital curiosity in students

A teacher addressing the technology gap in the classroom

The false digital native

Colleges and universities assume that the incoming classes of undergraduates, most of whom were born in the 2000s, are going to be technologically adept. The term “digital native” (coined in 2001 by Marc Prensky in his article “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants”) gets used often in academia as synonymous with these students. The assumption is that they have an implicit understanding of technology, rather than that they simply grew up in a time when technology was mainstream.

This is not meant to criticize undergraduates but to offer an opportunity to reevaluate the expectations and assumptions we may have in place as educators. While I disagree with the term “digital native,” Prensky’s article does correctly state that educators should think about how we interact with our students and find effective ways to engage them in the classroom.

Because students in today’s university setting have grown up around technology, whether they had a cell phone when they were ten or only had access to a computer when they were at school, they are certainly familiar with the idea of technology. This does not translate into an inherent ability to use and understand technology.

When I started college in 2006, I was lucky in that my parents had backgrounds in computer science, and I grew up with computers in our house. My sister and I were taught about computer basics, and I was well equipped with a laptop that I knew how to use by the time I started my first year. I also went to a small liberal arts college, where it was more likely that the student body at that time had access to computers and other digital technology. But generally, the use of technology was not a given: students still took notes with a paper and pencil, and one of my professors spent a class period talking about how to make an effective PowerPoint presentation. If faculty wanted students to use computers or technology, they addressed it in class and did not assume that we all knew what we were doing.

This mindset is helpful with the current generation of students as well. We sometimes generalize that younger generations are more adroit with technology, but in reality, the digital divide has more to do with opportunity and access—and less to do with age.

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Digital basics

There are a few things that I’ve noticed when working with undergraduates—some are small things that are indicative of a larger trend. They often replace keyboard shortcuts with right clicks and scrolling through menu options. They don’t understand basic functions of Word, Excel, and PowerPoint (or their Google/Apple counterparts). They aren’t troubleshooting computer and technology solutions.

The first two small things have, perhaps, simpler solutions. Being unaware of keyboard shortcuts often signals more familiarity with a tablet over a computer. Tablet users highlight text and the option to copy, cut, paste, etc., just appear. My inclination is to teach keyboard shortcuts—sometimes demonstrating Ctrl+F (or Cmd+F) is life-changing for students! But it also means that as we work with students, we have to think about what other tablet habits make using computers more difficult or less intuitive.

This feeds into helping users understand the Microsoft, Google, or Apple suites of products. Students may be unfamiliar with the depth of the tools available to them, using them in only surface-level manners. Tools like Canva can provide them with wonderful slide templates, but students don’t have an understanding of how to move, change, or fit text. Basics of Word are lost, such as making a table of contents, inserting page numbers, etc. Students often think of Excel as overwhelming, and many don’t factor it in as a resource unless they’re going into a STEM field. (I don’t believe I used Excel at all in my undergraduate career.)

These tools also have drawbacks, especially if students must vacillate between different products, depending on faculty or their own computers. Google is an entirely online product, making collaboration, which is built into the product, easy. Microsoft has moved to online collaboration, but it isn’t as intuitive, especially for users familiar with the standard, offline-only version of Microsoft. And most learning management systems cannot interact with the Apple versions of files. These products aren’t made with students in mind. How can we help students succeed in spite of that?

Teaching the basics is an important part of level-setting. But even further, demonstrating the usefulness of knowing these basics is just as important. Making sure students know who they can come to when they have questions that they may be embarrassed to ask in a classroom or of a professor is valuable. If students aren’t aware of how to find the answers to the questions they have, then does it become the library’s role to be a place where they can find the resources they need?

This all leads into the last, and perhaps most important, question: how do we instill a digital curiosity alongside digital literacy?

Problem-solving and digital curiosity

When I think back to my childhood with computers and the internet, I think about websites like Myspace, Xanga, LiveJournal, and Neopets. These websites allowed their users to play around with HTML; my friends and I were learning the basics of web design on our own—for fun. The only current social media website I can think of that allows for that kind of play and experimentation is Tumblr. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the internet was a place for experimenting, searching, and learning.

Where we are now, answers are more accessible, and finding the solution to a problem is straightforward. This means the landscape has changed, and the need to explore, innovate, and make mistakes to learn has lessened. As such, digital curiosity has waned.

This problem is also mirrored with faculty and staff who are unused to using technology. Often they have a fear of “breaking” something or making a mistake that is irreversible. This makes them cautious of using new tools. This leads to students, faculty, and staff to come to librarians for help with these problems, more often than not, as librarians are, generally, seen as competent, knowledgeable, and ready to help.

So, what is the role of the library in assisting with technology—with bridging this digital divide? This question is asked a lot in library spaces, and defining our role as librarians is ever-changing.

When we teach information literacy, the goal is to teach students to ask questions of the resources they’re using, to ask research questions that dig deep into the heart of an issue, and to understand that searching is part of the process, not just a means to an end. For digital literacy, the same skills are needed. Students should learn to ask questions of the tools they use, to understand how to use the tool to the depth of its capabilities, and to understand that searching for answers on how to use a tool will only help them gain more insight into the tool itself.

Simply because current undergraduates have potentially grown up around technology does not mean they have digital literacy. It must be taught, just as information literacy is taught.

At the core of the profession is helping. Helping people access information, in whatever form that takes. Bridging the digital divide and bringing everyone across the gap together is a fundamental part of librarianship today.

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