A professor I work with recently decided to use Ning to create an online social network for a course. Like Facebook, Ning provides a space where users can communicate and share links, images, and videos. However, Ning allows instructors to create a space that is used exclusively for course-related collaboration and is only accessible by their students. This increased level of privacy and focused purpose helps everyone involved maintain boundaries between their academic and personal lives.
Shortly after the course began, the professor noticed many of her students were having trouble with basic tasks such as uploading images, embedding YouTube video clips, and writing blog posts. The professor told me, “I have a blog and I’m almost fifty. I was shocked that my students have no experience with blogging.” I wish I could say I was as shocked as she was. Unfortunately, I know this problem all too well and I’ve been writing about it periodically for the past year. Back in February of 2008, I wrote a post about the importance of defining computer literacy. My major complaint at that time was the lack of agreement on a minimum technology literacy level for college students. The lack of computer-literacy requirements and classes to support students who don’t meet such requirements places an unfair burden on faculty. Professors who wish to use new technology in their courses wind up serving as tech support for students who lack a fundamental understanding of interactive media.
Back in November, I also wrote about the misleading stereotype of the tech-savvy millennial learner that I hear about so often at conferences. As much as people love to refer to today’s twenty-something college students as “digital natives,” many of these students are more like “digital resident aliens.” They’ve learned just enough to get by, but ask them something that’s not in their phrasebook and you’ll quickly see how superficial their knowledge really is.
Sadly, the lack of a well-rounded technology education isn’t just failing students in the arts and humanities. Students pursuing technology-focused degrees are also suffering. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education recently noted that many Web-design instructors are not preparing students for the demands of employers in the field. In “Colleges Get Poor Grades on Teaching Web Fundamentals,” the author cites a survey developed by Leslie Jensen-Inman, an assistant professor of art at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. Jensen-Inman interviewed thirty-two professional Web designers and discovered that universities are either encouraging students to overspecialize in a particular piece of software or programming language or teaching outdated tools and techniques that are no longer relevant in the working world.
As a part-time Web-design professor, I found this article vindicating, because it supports my belief that students need a broad range of up-to-date knowledge to become successful designers themselves. In addition, I think the basic skills and knowledge that aspiring Web designers need are becoming increasingly essential for all college students. Knowing how to manage digital files, maintain a blog, participate in an online discussion, embed media in a Web page—these are all skills that will prove valuable no matter what a student’s career aspirations might be. Now we simply need to recognize that this knowledge won’t reach critical mass by osmosis. Hundreds of hours of Wii Tennis or text messaging or Twittering might do a lot to reduce technophobia in a new generation of students, but it doesn’t necessarily increase their understanding of how interactive media works and enable them to transfer knowledge from one tool to another.
Many instructional designers might disapprove of the idea that we should relegate new-media education to a single “Technology 101” course. Instead, they often support an integrative approach in which technology is used across the curriculum as a means to an end for a variety of disciplines. I agree that it’s wonderful to see faculty using technology to improve learning in a variety of subject areas, from philosophy to chemistry to mathematics to the fine arts. However, I think attacking the problem from both sides could help ensure the push for technology integration doesn’t always come from the top down.
A Technology 101 course could help ensure today’s students can live up to the tech-savvy stereotype we’ve already forced upon them. With a little support from the bottom, we might finally see more students pushing faculty to use new tools and helping instructors improve their technology literacy. Until then, I’m afraid we might be stuck in an inefficient, reactive model that attempts to support students once assignment deadlines are looming and panic has set in. This approach is a bit like asking students to drive cross-country after giving them the keys to an eighteen wheeler and an 800 number to call if they have questions as they’re barreling down the highway. Will some of them make it? Sure. But a little driver’s ed up front could prevent a lot of disasters down the road.