On Campus

Digital natives? Not my students.

Prof. Pettigrew on how some students can't use computers

Digital native? (flickingerbrad/Flickr)

There’s a lot of talk about how today’s student is a “digital native” and how educators have to adjust to their mad high tech skills. Born and raised with electronic technology, the high tech world is as natural to today’s students as a first language.

Of course, what exactly that implies, is anyone’s guess, and some commentators have begun to point out that maybe this whole digital native thing isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe being raised with technology doesn’t mean students have the skills we think they do. Mary Beth Hertz, for example, has noted that just because students know how to use computers doesn’t mean that they know how to use them well.

My experiences this year have begun to make me think Beth Hertz is right. Maybe more right than even she imagined.

Strange as it sounds, I’m worried that this generation of students increasingly doesn’t know how to use computers. Before you scoff and say “Ridiculous: today’s students are all about technology. They grew up with it. The eat, breathe and sleep technology” consider the following, admittedly anecdotal, evidence.

Exhibit A: A student who is required to submit her paper in Word format comes to me and says she doesn’t have Word on her computer. I tell her that she can create Word files for free in Google Docs, or she can download Open Office for free and save her files in Word format that way. She can’t manage to do either. Later, she drops the class.

Exhibit B: Another student with the same problem manages to solve it by printing the essay out at home, taking it to the lab at school and retyping the whole thing over again.

Exhibit C: A student receives his assignment back in PDF format but is helpless to open it because double clicking doesn’t work and he has no idea how to download a free PDF reader, even though advice on this matter was included in the course outline.

These are all true stories, and they are all recent examples. And maybe they are not typical but I have never in the past decade had so many students who seemingly lacked even basic computer skills. These students don’t seem like digital natives. They’re not even “digital citizens” as Hertz has it. They’re digital tourists.

But didn’t they grow up with technology?

Technology yes, but not entirely, or even mainly, computers. The main piece of tech these students interact with, as far as I can see, is their phones. They text and tweet and check Facebook, but none of these things require them to do very much, to create documents, or find solutions to problems they haven’t encountered before.

When they do use computers, my sense is that it’s mainly for playing games and web surfing, and there again, they are just opening the program and clicking (or blasting) away. Aspects of computing that I and my friends  took pains to learn like learning to find software, and learning to use a word processing program are not skills that students have — or at least that we can’t take for granted that they have them.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.