Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Once more, just because the kids can get online it does not mean proficient

This is not totally new. It has been reported before that just because the "millenials" (or whatever the label of the day is) can use Facebook and surf the web, it does not follow that they are computer proficient. As reported by the Wired Campus blog, North Carolina State University released a study (link to PDF document) that finds "that most students overestimated their skill levels when they were asked how they perceived their ability to complete certain tasks and then tested on those tasks." In brief, the students in the sample were tested on their proficiency in productivity software (i.e. Word, Powerpoint, and Excel) after surveying them to see how they perceived their own proficiency with productivity software. The study basically found that the students were not as proficient as they thought they were.

This finding probably validates what a few educators have been saying for a while: just because students of the millennial generation can get online and use the Internet, it does not follow they are actually proficient in computer applications, at least in productivity applications. Now, why is this significant? If you want to look at it in economic terms, many workplaces depend on computers to carry out their business. They depend on programs like Word (word processing), Excel (spreadsheets), and PowerPoint (presentations) to run their business, and they expect their workers to be proficient in that type of program. The common assumption of these students being "digital natives" simply does not pan out when faced with something practical. I will go ahead and say it: the students may be proficient in "leisure" applications, but not so much when they need to make a spreadsheet or type a paper for a class. How do I know this? Here are some common reference desk questions I get:

  • How do I double space my paper? (Word)
  • How do I put in footnotes and/or headers? (Word)
  • A broad range of questions about Excel. A very common one is how do I use it.
  • How do I insert objects/pictures/videos onto my PowerPoint.
I find this interesting because learning how to use a word processing program is pretty much taken for granted. Most students in a school have to type papers for classes in high school, so one would think there is exposure there. What happens often is that colleges assume the kids learned it in the schools, so they fail to teach basic computer proficiency skills at their level. Or, if the college does teach it, it is some basic course that students can often "test out." The problem is once they test out, they may not get too much formal exposure to the programs until some professor asks them to use it, and they end up in places like their library hoping we know how to use them and can teach them how.

The study illustrates that there is a difference between perception and reality. This is not a new finding. In fact, I have read a bit about competency and perceptions once or twice, and this was some years ago. So these recent findings should not be surprising. The study does make a distinction between being computer literate (“an understanding of computer characteristics, capabilities, and applications, as well as an ability to implement this knowledge in the skillful, productive use of computer applications suitable to individual roles in society") and computer proficient ("the knowledge and ability to use specific computer applications (spreadsheet, word processors, etc") (142). I think this is an important distinction to make. I can be computer literate, but it does not automatically follow that I am computer proficient. For the record, I am fairly computer proficient in the computer applications studied, but I probably fall on the average range.

But moving along, the distinction is often missed by those who cheer millennials because they can use the latest shiny 2.0 toy. There is more to computer proficiency than being able to update your Facebook status or post a link to your MySpace, just to pick examples from applications I regularly observe students using in our computer lab. Now, in the interest of fairness, we should note that Microsoft productivity programs can be notorious for not being very intuitive, which I would guess could affect the study somehow. I am guessing this on the basis that when we upgraded to Office 2003, student questions about productivity programs increased, such as "where did Word put the button to change the spacing now?" For some, questions like that were followed by some colorful language. In addition, students continue to display difficulty with concepts like saving your work to a recognizable place, which is also a basic computer proficiency skill, and yet it is often missed.

Overall, the release of this study does a couple of things. One, it teaches us not to be complacent. Don't assume the kids know it all just because they can get on the computer. Two, it shows that there is a glaring need for education when it comes to teaching students how to use productivity software, and I would venture to say not just Microsoft products. I would go a step further and say they probably should get exposure and some training in things like Open Office. Sure, some people may say the students can just push the help button, but anyone who has tried the Help option (I have) can attest that it is not always very helpful. And in the end, the Help button does not take the place of some good training. So, don't assume and do educate your students.

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