You may have seen a few news items recently about the millennial generation and technology. Last month’s issue of Sociological Inquiry published an article by Eszter Hargittai describing differences in internet skills among college students. And an article in The Economist last week quotes several scholars who emphasize that digital natives are not necessarily as familiar with new media technologies as we often assume. The post about both of these articles over at Prof Hacker makes many additional good points on the topic, as do the commenters.
I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of many of the generalizations about millennials and their technology skills. I’m fairly tech savvy despite being nowhere near college age, and many of my colleagues are, too. I also know many folks my age and younger who are reluctant (and less savvy) technology users. In my experience interest is a far more accurate predictor of technology adoption than age. Our students are familiar with the tech tools they use every day–cellphones, text messaging, social networking, etc.–in the same way anyone can grow comfortable with repeated use of common technologies.
However, I’m not surprised to see the reports that current college students are much less tech savvy than the digital natives moniker so often used to describe them would lead us to believe. I’m sure this is familiar to many of us from our interactions with students, whether at the reference desk, in instruction sessions or elsewhere in the library. Somewhat more disturbing (though not entirely surprising) are the results of Hargittai’s research which reveal that skillful use of the internet tracks closely to socioeconomic status.
Academic libraries have widely adopted new technologies across the spectrum of our services, and I see these reports as encouragement for us to continue along that path. For students who are tech experts, using current digital tools is a way to connect with them where they are and to make them aware of our resources and services. And for those students who are less comfortable or experienced with technology, the library can help expose them to these new technologies and the many options for their use. But I’d also caution that we can’t let the new sweep away the old quite yet. They may be old-fashioned, but there’s still a place in our libraries for posters and handouts alongside those newcomers Twitter and blogs.