Understanding the Limits of Student Technology Knowledge

Faculty often assume that their digital millennial students will take to any classroom technology like a fish to water. But these faculty are often surprised by the limits to student understanding of technology, which, Abamu (2017) points out, tend to be narrowly focused on the domains of social media and gaming. These students tend to have trouble with business productivity technologies such as Microsoft Word and Excel. As one student put it, “I did not know how to use headers, footers, or page numbers in Microsoft Word, so I got five points off every essay for an entire semester.”

To continue reading, you must be a Teaching Professor Subscriber. Please log in or sign up for full access.

Related Articles

Love ’em or hate ’em, student evaluations of teaching (SETs) are here to stay. Parts <a href="https://www.teachingprofessor.com/free-article/its-time-to-discuss-student-evaluations-bias-with-our-students-seriously/" target="_blank"...

Since January, I have led multiple faculty development sessions on generative AI for faculty at my university. Attitudes...
Does your class end with a bang or a whimper? Many of us spend a lot of time crafting...

Faculty have recently been bombarded with a dizzying array of apps, platforms, and other widgets that...

The rapid rise of livestream content development and consumption has been nothing short of remarkable. According to Ceci...

Feedback on performance has proven to be one of the most important influences on learning, but students consistently...

Faculty often assume that their digital millennial students will take to any classroom technology like a fish to water. But these faculty are often surprised by the limits to student understanding of technology, which, Abamu (2017) points out, tend to be narrowly focused on the domains of social media and gaming. These students tend to have trouble with business productivity technologies such as Microsoft Word and Excel. As one student put it, “I did not know how to use headers, footers, or page numbers in Microsoft Word, so I got five points off every essay for an entire semester.”

But that student's quote raises the question of why didn't the student learn it? As one commentator noted, the student could have just Googled it, as we would do. Perhaps this is an example of young people's disinterest in learning by reading the directions. No teenager worth their game controller would learn a new game by reading the directions, as we might. Instead, they learn by doing. Are students taking that attitude towards other realms of technology as well?

This also demonstrates that there are some fundamental gaps in student understanding of the types of technology that they will need to use after they leave school, such as office applications. But this problem is not specific to millennials. The rapid expansion in technology has left most people behind with regard to how to properly use it to make themselves more productive. Most office workers spend the largest percentage of their day on email, but they do not understand the fundamentals of email management, leading them to waste hours looking for or rebuilding lost messages. The same is true of computer files. Without understand the basics of file management, many people spend a considerable amount of time searching for files and then recreating those that are lost.   

Thus, while “teaching with technology” brings to mind social media-based systems, video, audio, and other more exotic technologies, it should also include basic office productivity technologies that students use will use out in the real world. Faculty will do students a world of good by helping them understand these more basic technologies.

For instance, instead of just allowing the student quoted above to lose five points per assignment, which does not teach anything, the instructor could have required the student to fix the problem before accepting the work. While some may ask whether the faculty member should be taking off points for the missing headers in the first place, the real question is why he or she did not turn it into a learning moment. The instructor can remind the student that questions about common office technologies are easily answered with a Google search, which provides the procedure right at the top of the search results. Forcing the student to do the search will teach the student this basic fact and that they need to learn how to find information to do their jobs. This will teach them that just puttering around as they would do with a video game does not always work in other domains.

Beyond getting students up to speed on the current state of productivity technologies, faculty will also do students a world of good by helping them understand new productivity technologies that they can bring into the workplace or other pursuits. For instance, more and more people today work from home. In fact, everyone on my immediate team at work lives in a different state, and at one time we had people in all four US time zones. Like most organizations, our IT systems were not designed to serve a distributed workforce; they were designed for an organization where everyone is in the same building.

This led us to start looking outside of traditional office applications to do our work. For one, we use Google Drive for all of our shared document editing needs. Sending documents around by email attachment only leads to multiple incompatible versions floating around, yet this is how it is still done in most offices. Students who understand this principle of shared document editing will have a leg up on others when they enter the workforce, which will make them the go-to people at their organizations on this technology.

Faculty can require students to use these shared editing systems to build group work, which also allows the faculty member to monitor the work as it is being developed. Plus, the exercises teach students about common errors to avoid when working with these systems. Many people do not understand the concept of shared document editing and instead download the document to their own computer to edit, recreating the multiple-copies problem. Many people are also nervous editing other people's work on a shared document. Over time students become more comfortable with the system and its principles and thus learn how to use the systems that will eventually be common in organizations.

My team also uses Skype instead of phone calls for all of our one-to-one meetings, which makes them much closer to face-to-face meetings, whereas others are still wedded to GoToMeeting. An online instructor can teach students about coordinating group work at a distance by requiring students to hold synchronous group meetings using applications such as Google Hangouts, Zoom, or Skype. Again, students will not initially be familiar with these applications, but there are tutorials on how to use them, and the exercise will force them to learn how to use these systems as well as where to go when they don't know how to use a system.

I have developed a number of tutorials for faculty, staff, and students on how to use technology to be more productive. Feel free to share these with your own students as a companion to assignments that will force them to learn the types of technologies that will serve them best in their future endeavors. These might be some of the most valuable lessons that students take away from your courses.

Getting Things Done with Evernote: Evernote is an excellent application for managing information, and Getting Things Done is a well-known task management method. In this tutorial I demonstrate how to combine the two in a highly effective task management system that will help them meet deadlines and become more efficient in their work: http://bit.ly/2uwpZCv.

File management: Following basic file management practices saves hundreds of hours of time that would be spent searching for lost files. Here I cover some of the most essential ones: http://bit.ly/2uwBXvI. I also recommend that people use a free desktop search app such as Everything to find their files: https://www.voidtools.com.

Bookmarking with Diigo: Most people save their bookmarks on their browser, which leads to a cluttered directory that is unmanageable after only 50 bookmarks. As a result, people do not bookmark sites with good information. I bookmark every site I encounter with any good information so that I can find it later for a project, learning to over 3400 bookmarks. But because I use Diigo, I can easily find everything saved in any topic with a quick keyword search, such as “virtual reality.” Learn how to use it at http://bit.ly/2uwBXvI.

Abamu, J. (2017, June 20). Students say they are not as tech savvy as educators assume. EdSurge.