Today’s college students aren’t digital ‘natives’ – they are digital servants

Higher education must acknowledge the extra workload that comes with higher education in the digital era, says Christopher Schaberg

January 18, 2022
Digital people tethered by data strings
Source: Getty

The term “digital natives” started popping up on campuses more than a decade ago, to refer to students who had grown up with ubiquitous computing. It made a certain amount of sense, at first. Personal computing technologies were changing and spreading so quickly, and many students seemed to have comfort levels with devices that evaded older generations.

By now, however, the moniker seems distinctly pernicious. If anything, students these days are digital servants. They are expected to constantly monitor any number of digital platforms to track their “academic journeys” (another unfortunate metaphor, but for another essay). It can sometimes feel as if the work of a student is increasingly about maintaining an elaborate system built around education, rather than the system being about actually educating students.

This problem takes shape most obviously around learning management software. Intended to provide platform consistency and accessibility across coursework – and promoted during the pandemic as a panacea against all contingencies – interfaces such as Canvas and Blackboard can quickly become unwieldy, time-consuming third spaces. Modern students must not only attend class and do assignments but must also download material, upload work and participate in any number of discussion boards or forums in this virtual landscape.

Another source of digital servitude is email. In a recent class, I couldn't help but notice a student’s unread mail count in the ten thousands. I doubt this is uncommon. Students are barraged with informational emails, alerts relating to coursework, announcements directing them redundantly back to announcements on learning management platforms, and so on. It is a veritable cacophony, and I don’t blame students for tuning out.

Again, email represents another layer of invisible work assumed to come naturally to digital natives. But the truth is that students are rarely provided with any real training on email etiquette and literacy or time management. Why should they be assumed to be naturally better at it than older generations?

From the perspective of any single course, the extra digital work may seem perfectly manageable. But the compounding of this additional work across multiple courses can be incredibly anxiety-inducing. There are real psychological consequences of an endlessly growing email inbox, or cascading LMS announcements, or even a long list of PDF articles to download and read on a screen itself brimming with competing windows and tabs. The depression that many students express is exacerbated by the sheer weight of this always unfinished (and, in fact, unfinishable) work.

How colleges talk about all this adjunct digital work (or don’t talk about it) matters. It is often dealt with through “student success centres” and by offering advice, guidance and other resources parallel to academic contexts, but such efforts risk furthering the assumption that the goal is simply to become a tireless digital servant – a truly terrifying idea of life.

There are concrete ways to push back against digital servitude from the classroom. Precise methods will vary from discipline to discipline, but the broad tactics I have employed should work across the disciplines.

For a final project, I offer the chance to do something creative. For instance, two of my students in a recent environmental humanities course were inspired by a certain painting discussed in Timothy Morton’s book The Ecological Thought. They superimposed a collage on to a reproduction of the painting by pasting various keywords and concepts from across the texts we had read for class. This tactile, collaborative project was a refreshing break for them – and, when presented, it offered their classmates another way to engage with the course material.

We also take time to read aloud in class. This may sound like the most basic teaching practice, but in a time of near constant connectivity and multitasking, it is grounding and decelerating to undertake such an analogue activity, which requires mere presence and listening. It also gives students a confidence boost, as well as a sense of ownership of what they are studying. I am often delighted to see the quieter students volunteer to read, midway through the semester; after seeing their more vociferous classmates do it a few times, they want to try it themselves. One recent student approached me at the end of the term and said she had enjoyed reading aloud so much that she wanted to pursue other opportunities to do it; I put her in touch with a local radio station dedicated to reading for the blind.

In my most recent environmental humanities seminar, we had read Jenny Odell’s book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. This provided the impetus to do something fun: we spent part of one of our classes doing nothing. We left our computers and phones and wandered away from class for 20 minutes.

I had worried that this might seem like a gimmick or a cop-out. Instead, my students were excited to have been forced to leave their devices behind and reflect unhindered. Everyone was eager to share what they’d observed, what they’d thought about. It was an awakening to see how much they craved being unplugged – even for just 20 minutes.

Media forms that are intended to help students navigate and manage their educational paths end up sucking all their attention and energy. Non-digital classwork can show that other forms of life – less frantic, more present – are still possible.

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown distinguished professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. His new book is Pedagogy of the Depressed.

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Reader's comments (3)

It isn't digital servitude when all of the things you mention are optional. Notifications in Canvas can be turned off, emails left unread or automatically sent to junk, text messages ignored. VLE's have developed this way in response to students' demand to move away from primitive teaching methods. The old days of unintelligible lecturers scrawling notes on a blackboard are thankfully long gone. There is a place for the none digital teaching methods you advocate of course and finding the balance between both methods is the mark of a good teacher.
I read this with delight as I thought that we were once and for all going to be told that 'Digital Natives' is an inaccurate term and that the idea that people born into an era with ubiquitous computing doesn't necessarily mean that they are instantly digital scholars. However, it was not to be and the idea of Digital Servants is introduced instead. Whatever happened to critical thinking? (or critical digital pedagogy?) Courses using an LMS, too many emails and downloading PDFs doesn't sound like the students are servants but more like there's a whole piece of work to be done with the design of the course and how you communicate with your students. LMS should be supporting not having a life of its own. There are some unintended consequences too from requiring students to be away from their phones for twenty minutes. Some students do not have the privilege of being able to not use their phone when they are relying on it for work or if they have caring responsibilities. There are also many unseen issues that despite the best will in the world you would never find out about such as domestic abuse. It is common for abusers to use mobiles to maintain control over their victims and so it causes more anxiety and stress or worse physical harm. I feel very sad to see that you are not being encouraged to embrace change and use the tech for improving your sessions and that students are not being shown (by example) how to make the most of the resources that they have been given access to at your university. Students who have a learning difference and may not even know it yet may rely on reading via their phones, or if they are lucky enough to have a reading device (kindle, tablet etc) they can annotate online and can share their comments with you or together. There is a lot that can help improve a session but that doesn't mean that you have to have either analogue or digital. Being able to manage the emails made me smile. Students don't have to read all their emails, they get notifications and usually can see the first part of the email on their phone. If it doesn't look important they can not read it and it remains. I see it as making better use of the systems that are in place and recognising that it's not what you use but the way that you use that can make all the difference.
When we validate a 30 credit module we say students will study for 300 hours - this is the work that you have noticed that students are doing. Like reading - and reading out loud was something I remember from school as both intimidating and timewasting. Reading really is better done outside class.