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Technologically Illiterate Students

July 16, 2010

ORLANDO -- Say you are an employer evaluating college students for a job. Perusing one candidate’s Facebook profile, you notice the student belongs to a group called “I Pee My Pants When I’m Drunk.” What is your first thought?

It should not be that this student is unemployable for being an intemperate drinker, said Susan Zvacek, director of instructional development at the University of Kansas -- though that it might mean that, too. Mainly, though, it should suggest something else -- something that might be more relevant to the student’s qualifications.

“What it tells me,” Zvacek said, “is that the student is technologically illiterate.”

In a session Thursday at Blackboard World, the e-learning company’s annual user conference, Zvacek proposed that the definition of technological literacy needs updating. In the 1990s, she explained, the U.S. Education Department defined it to mean the ability to operate a computer. These days, computers are so user-friendly that being capable of operating one does not say much about a person’s competence.

The new technological landscape -- particularly the trappings of Web 2.0 -- demands that a new line of distinction be drawn, Zvacek told the audience; a line between computer users who can handle only basic programs such as word processors and search engines, and those who understand the structures and concepts that underlie modern technology, and how to think critically within them.

And under such a definition, most of today’s students -- both college and K-12 -- do not pass muster, she said.

“The digital divide used to be about the hardware haves and have-nots,” she said. “What we’re seeing now is that it’s less about who has hardware, but who has access to information; who has those problem-solving skills. And that’s going to be the digital divide that we’re going to see in the future … the ability to deal with information.”

The assumption that today’s student are computer-literate because they are “digital natives” is a pernicious one, Zvacek said. “Our students are task-specific tech savvy: they know how to do many things,” she said. “What we need is for them to be tech-skeptical.”

Zvacek was careful to make clear that by tech-skeptical, she did not mean tech-negative. The skepticism she advocates is not a knee-jerk aversion to new technology tools, but rather the critical capacity to glean the implications, and limitations, of technologies as they emerge and become woven into the students’ lives. In a campus environment, that means knowing why not to trust Google to turn up the best sources for a research paper in its top returns, or appreciating the implications of surrendering personal data -- including the propensities of one’s bladder -- to third parties on the Web.

Arguing that there should be new standards for tech literacy and that most students don’t meet them implies a third piece -- one that is likely to make course designers hem and haw: You need to teach them. “Nobody, in their class -- their biology class, their chemistry class, their literature class, sociology -- wants to add a unit of technological literacy,” Zvacek says. “The plate’s full.”

Instead, Zvacek suggested that instructors might try to do their best to integrate discussions that might improve students’ tech literacy into existing units in the syllabus. She offered a few recommendations, such as assigning more collaborative work; having students use source-checking websites when researching; instructing them to draw on real-world examples to support their ideas; and leading, as frequently as possible, meta-discussions about the limitations of technological tools to advance the discipline, the ethical use of technology, and how to scrutinize information in an age when filtering the pertinent from the misleading is so crucial.

While Zvacek did not go into detail on how and to what extent faculty might carry out these last recommendations without swelling their syllabuses, those in attendance spent much of the question-and-answer period swapping stories about blithe students blundering on the Web, and seemed energized by Zvacek's thesis — which she summed up in a succinct, and partially borrowed, quotation on her concluding slide:

"It is our job to equip students with the critical thinking skills that enable them to use various technologies wisely ... because people who know 'what' and 'how' will always work for people who know 'why.' "

"I want my students to be the ones people are working for," added Zvacek.

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