Turn it off and on again: digital literacy in college students

What happened to digital literacy and competency? 

I’ll start this post with some examples of declining digital and computer literacy that me and my colleagues have noticed just in the past academic year with students.  

  • Tried to turn on a lab computer via the monitor, not the tower 
  • Manually added spaces for double-spaced paper 
  • Hitting spacebar to create indents 
  • Not being able to find their downloaded PDF 
  • Saving everything to desktop/not using file directories 
  • Unable to use browser (only uses phone applications) 
  • Not understanding how to navigate Microsoft OneDrive vs computer file directories (or: why doesn’t my paper show up on the computer?) 

I’m sure a lot of these, along with many other examples, sound very familiar to academic librarians. Although the IT Help Desk is just a few feet down from the Library Service Desk at my library, we become tech support in so many ways. The technical understanding of computers, programs, and how they work just isn’t there in many young adults, which might be surprising to some. Surely, the kids who have grown up with technology are good at it, right? They’re “digital natives”? Many a librarian, academic or otherwise, could tell you that that’s not the case.  

The 2018 International Computer and Information Literacy study showed that only 2 percent of students scored at the highest level of computer and information literacy (Fraillon et al, 2020). Yet, Global Web Index’s report on Generation Z says that “[they] are clocking up nearly 7 hours a day online” (2019). Those of us who work in universities, whether as faculty, staff, or otherwise, need to remember that students using technology for interaction and leisure doesn’t necessarily translate to familiarity with tools for academic or professional work. As an example: If I’m on TikTok all day, why would I then know how to use Microsoft Word for APA format in my paper? If I am posting stories to Instagram and direct messaging people, why would I know the difference between cloud storage like Google Drive and the hardware storage of a laptop? 

It’s easier for me to think about this in terms of my own experiences. I had a computer basics class in high school where I learned about the different mechanical parts of a computer, what the abbreviations KB, MB, and GB mean, among other things that I ultimately use every day in my professional and personal life. Someone who came even 2 or 3 years after me at my same high school didn’t have the same thing. Chromebooks were just gaining traction during my senior year, and they were fully implemented a few years after I left. I firmly believe that the rise of these sort of limiting products has limited the digital literacy and competency of today’s students, but perhaps exploring that relationship can be saved for an entirely different blog post.  

I think the ultimate problem with digital literacy is not necessarily the lack of technical knowledge, but the lack of curiosity. Oftentimes when students come to the desk for help with formatting a paper, they haven’t attempted to figure it out themselves. One way to address the lack of curiosity and digital literacy is something many librarians are already doing: modeling inquiry. We perform reference interviews to get more information about the question or issue at hand, and often times, we are figuring out technology issues along with the patron. I am always telling students exactly what I do – no, I don’t remember this off the top of my head, I Google things about programs constantly. Even in our instruction sessions, we model curiosity and exploration; I purposely try not to have canned database searches, because I know how messy research is. Students might not yet. If they see that a librarian can get a “no results found” search or something that isn’t as relevant, they might feel better about continuing to try in their own research process. They can also learn how to search the web for their problems – how many times have you Googled something, gotten completely irrelevant results, and had to change or add keywords? This first attempt is where I find that students might stop, if they do try to figure it out. It’s okay if they can’t find the answer and come ask us anyway – I just want to empower them to try.  

Although they’re of a generation who is quite familiar with technology, everyone’s experience varies. This is why I don’t really like the term digital native (Prensky, 2001). I prefer the term digital learner – none of us are born knowing natively how to use these tools, but they and we are born learning them (Gallardo-Echenique et al, 2015). Since every student comes to us with different backgrounds, experiences, and access, we should focus our efforts on modeling and teaching with inquiry and curiosity. As fast as technology changes, having a solid foundation of curiosity will benefit students for the rest of their lives.  

References 

Fraillon, J., Ainley, J., Schulz, W., Friedman, T., & Duckworth, D. (2020). Preparing for Life in a Digital World: IEA International Computer and Information Literacy Study 2018 International Report. Springer International Publishing. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-38781-5 

Gallardo-Echenique, E. E., Marqués-Molías, L., Bullen, M., & Strijbos, J.-W. (2015). Let’s talk about digital learners in the digital era. The International Review of Research in Open and Distributed Learning, 16(3). https://doi.org/10.19173/irrodl.v16i3.2196 

Prensky, M. (2001). Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants Part 1. On the Horizon, 9(5), 1–6. https://doi.org/10.1108/10748120110424816