Universities must stop presuming that all students are tech-savvy

People who teach digital skills in a computer lab know that students aren’t always as adept as they might pretend to be, says Elizabeth Losh

February 4, 2021
Woman leaning over computer
Source: Getty

Students are (mostly) young, right? So they’re good with technology, right? Wrong. With millions of students around the world taking classes online, campuses have relied on faulty assumptions about the who, how, what and why of digital literacy.

Although considerable resources have been invested in helping teachers retool, not much has been done to assist their pupils. Instead, it has been taken for granted that 21st-century youth naturally become fluent in any technology, even without explicit directions. While supposedly clueless instructors are given a plethora of tips and tricks – like the OK, Zoomer workshop at my university – students are being overlooked.

Whenever I hear colleagues assert that young people will “pick it up right away”, I wonder how much time they have spent teaching actual digital skills to actual students. People who cover hands-on techniques in a computer lab – as I do – know that students aren’t always as adept as they might pretend to be. Just showing a class how to navigate software menus can be a surprisingly slow process.

The most obvious problem is what media studies professor Siva Vaidhyanathan has called the “generational myth”, which assumes that “digital natives” are a homogeneous group that can be treated with a one-size-fits-all approach. In fact, class, race and gender are often important factors in a student’s prior digital experiences and level of comfort.

THE Campus: Improving students' digital literacy for remote learning

Furthermore, many campuses serve non-traditional students who are older than the teens and twentysomethings shown in college brochures. For example, my 63-year-old husband just finished his third semester Arabic course on Zoom.

It’s true that some undergraduates seem to have mastered all the bells and whistles of a program like Zoom. They can be seen confidently adjusting filters or using green screens to make themselves or their environment more aesthetically appealing. Yet others really don’t know how to perform the most basic tasks in Zoom, such as raising a virtual “hand” to ask a question. To make things worse, the whole system is set up to make those who are struggling feel ashamed about needing help.

Henry Jenkins has written about the “participation gap” that might be less obvious than the “digital divide” that literacy researchers used to talk about in the 20th century. Even if young people know the basics of how to use a given technology, they might not use it often or enthusiastically. When these students are turning off their cameras or muting themselves, that participation gap only widens.

In crowded households with multiple members all tele-learning or tele-working at once, there’s no help centre for students left behind. Before the pandemic, British digital literacy expert Sonia Livingstone did important multi-year ethnographic studies that showed the importance of living arrangements, domestic space and family power dynamics in the acquisition of digital literacy. With many students learning at home now, these are important considerations.

In the United States, assumptions about the devices that students use for digital access have been particularly deleterious, since many young people don’t have access to a computer – with schools and libraries closed – and they must rely on smartphones with smaller screens and less functionality. Their connectivity might also be impeded by budget decisions that prohibit upgrading broadband services or cellphone data plans.

Life in isolation also makes the prospects for digital literacy worse. About a decade ago, cultural anthropologist Mimi Ito led a team studying how teens and tweens acquired their digital media production abilities. She identified a pattern of “hanging out, messing around and geeking out”, sometimes shortened to HOMAGO, which described how young people might pick up important skills when they were socialising with their peers. Now much of that informal socialising in learning environments is curtailed.

THE Campus: How to communicate your online teaching structure to students – and why it matters

We also need to ask questions about the corporate vendors that are profiting from these platforms and the freedoms that our students must surrender to use them. My concerns here extend beyond digital literacy to digital rights.

In particular, new services are popping up to address fears about academic honesty that have intensified with the loss of in-person instruction. For example, educational technologist Julia Kott pointed out that a test monitoring program can generate false positives for cheating, based on what its machine vision algorithms think is suspicious body language. Students with disabilities, or those who are merely tall, might be flagged, an event that certainly undermines student-teacher trust.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need to think more capaciously about what counts as an “educational technology” to meet learning goals. These technologies don’t even need to be digital. In my classes focused on digital composition, I have found that sending people outside to make a sketch in a notebook or assemble a cardboard prototype can be much more productive than hours of monotonous online skill-and-drill.

In short, digital literacy has many components, including technological aptitude, social confidence, privacy awareness and financial literacy. It might be a while before we are back in the classroom. In the meantime, let’s hope that real conversations about digital literacy can continue after we return.

Elizabeth Losh is the Gale and Steve Kohlhagen distinguished professor of American studies and English at William & Mary college in Virginia with a focus on new media ecologies. She is the author of five books about digital culture, including The War on Learning: Gaining Ground in the Digital University.


Print headline: We must not presume students are tech-savvy

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Reader's comments (4)

Many people make an assumption that everyone has a computer or laptop and the internet at home. I'm sorry to disappoint those with that belief but there are 100s of homes without this technology for various reasons e.g. internet isn't available in that area, seen as a luxury that some families cannot afford. Several years back in London students would frequent internet cafes in Blackburn and Bradford things were much the same. I know of a few universities have loaned students laptops if they didn't have IT resources at home, but what use is the laptop without being able to access the university student portal and its online library or even the www. I've observed a student being turned away from the university library because he hadn't booked a space online, even after he explained the no IT access the member of staff said it was the rules and turned him away despite their being empty seats. So not only are public libraries and internet cafes closed, it seems that some university libraries are closed maybe not by the policy of the university but by some 'jobs worth' who aims to make life difficult for students no matter what the circumstances.
"In fact, class, race and gender are often important factors" Surpised we had to wait until paragaraph 4 for this entirely unexpected revelation
What if the household does have one computer or laptop, yay! but there are 2-3 children/university students in the household who all need to use it for home schooling and university lectures? Perhaps the parents need it too if they are now working from home... Ultimately, in some households one would need to have one computer/laptop/tablet per person.
With the rise of distance and virtual learning in the past year, do you think this assumption has hurt student learning outcomes at various levels? Students of all ages were tossed into virtual learning with a ‘sink or swim’ feeling, which makes me wonder if some students are falling behind because of access to required technology or their understanding of how to use the programs.