Not So Native?

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.

Author: Maura Smale

Maura Smale is Chief Librarian at The Graduate Center, City University of New York.

3 thoughts on “Not So Native?”

  1. I suspect there was an abundance of basic computer training when schools and workplaces first transitioned to ubiquitous computing, and that this has subsequently disappeared or leveled off. Now, students and entry-level workers are often expected to already know what they need to, or be able to figure it out themselves. I help lots of students in the library as they struggle with this.

  2. There is a recent article* that suggests many students, even if they do use digital technology like social bookmarking or video sharing sites, tend to view these as toys rather than tools, so the seriousness with which we often present these tools (in instruction classes or at the reference desk) can often be lost on them.

    Personally, I enjoy any chance I get to teach students how to do analog research.

    *Luo, Lili. (2010). Web 2.0 integration in information literacy instruction: an overview. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 36(1), 32-40.

  3. I interviewed a number of humanities graduate students for my master’s paper and found the results to be very heterogeneous. With my subjects, the biggest difference was the age in which the participants got a computer rather than their current age which predicted how comfortable they tended to be with technology. Also it’s important to remember that comfort with technology is class-based. Poorer kids are not going to have the same experience with gadgets that richer kids do, even if they are the same age. So I am not surprised that there are holes being poked in the Millennials stereotype.

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