10 Dec The Myth of the Tech-Savvy Student

When I began teaching a course called “Writing for the Web” three years ago, I pictured myself scrambling to keep up with my plugged-in, tech-savvy students. I was sure I was in over my head. So I was stunned to discover that most 20-year-olds I meet know very little about the internet, and even less about what they need to do to become effective communicators online.

The media present young people as the audacious pilots of a technological juggernaut. Think Napster. Twitter. Facebook. Given that (according to the Kaiser Family Foundation) the average 18-year-old spends almost eight hours daily immersed in media, we oldsters tend to assume that every other teenager is the next Mark Zuckerberg. Aren’t kids crazy about downloading music, swapping files, sharing links, texting, and playing video games?

But video games do not create savvy users of the internet. Video games predate the internet and have little to do with online culture. When games are played online, the computer is no longer an open portal to the world. It is an insular system related only to other gaming machines, like Nintendo and X-box. The only communication that games afford is within the closed world of the game itself–who is on my team? At their worst, games divert children from other, more enriching experiences. The internet’s chief similarity to video games is that both are siphoning off audiences from television, which will soon reside exclusively on the internet. As a delivery system for TV, film, and games, the internet has proven itself a premier source of entertainment. And that’s all that most young people know about the internet.

Why wouldn’t we educate students in more sophisticated uses of the internet, which is commanding an increasing amount of the world’s time and attention? I’m not talking about a course on “How to Understand the Internet” or an introduction to searching for legitimate research-paper sources online (though this is useful, obviously). I’m talking of the need for students to understand and produce texts online–essential skills for life beyond college.

Look at the strategic plan of any American college and you will find an emphasis on helping students “meet the demands of the information age.” But walk into many college classrooms and you will see only a single computer at the front of the room. In most cases, that computer functions as an overhead projector. Where are the computers for students?Apparently, many professors believe that students’ ownership of computer notebooks and pads somehow guarantees that students will learn all they need to know about computers. But who is teaching students how to write, say, a marketing report or an historical overview for an online readership? I am surprised at the number of my colleagues who prohibit the use of computers in their classrooms because they fear that students will “surf the web” during a lecture.

The absence of computers in the classroom sends the message that computers are ancillary to learning. This misconception of the computer is due, in part, to the fact that the majority of faculty are Baby Boomers who didn’t need computer technology to succeed as professionals. That’s why most university professors have not integrated computer use into their courses.To most of them, it seems, the computer is a fancy typewriter, a means of sending memos, and, generally, a distraction. Students write papers on their computers, but those papers are handed in as hard copy. Never mind that the world outside of college does very little business with hard copy. In short, there exists a huge divide between the college classroom and the world outside, where work and life thrive on the internet.

Presumably, we want our students to have an impact on the world. But how can that happen if we don’t teach them how to use the primary tool that would make that impact possible? To be fair, there are some important developments taking place in the Digital Humanities movement, which aims to expand the notion of “legitimate” research by including nonlinear sources, such as videos, digital images, and hyperlinks: why not augment texts with digital tools? There are also a number of professors of Composition and Rhetoric who are teaching digital literacy. But such efforts remain marginal. One of my students recently wrote, “The world is moving closer and closer to being a completely technological place, and those who don’t understand it are going to be left behind.”

It seems clear to everyone that our increasingly technological world demands technologically adept citizens. Start with the simplest act of online communication: e-mail. Recent studies have shown a significant decline (59%) in e-mail usage among teenagers (Pew internet & American Life Project, Comscore Media Metrix report, Neilson report).Why? E-mail is for business, not entertainment and socializing. Young people have abandoned e-mail for text messaging. I often hear faculty members complain about the ineptness of student e-mails—whether as queries or as a means of presenting proposals—but very few professors seek to rectify the situation by teaching effective online communication in their classes. They don’t seem to understand that emails are as important as more formal correspondence, even though, ironically, the professors’ own daily use of emails underscores this fact.

How can discipline-specific computer teaching begin? Let’s start with the fact that every academic discipline makes use of databases. Do your students know how to access these databases? Do they know how to write articles of their own that might appear in these databases? Are they aware of the ethical dimensions of placing information online? Those studying social work, for example, should know that all client records and reports can be subpoenaed. Social-work students, therefore, need to be aware of confidentiality laws. These students also need to know that any report submitted online will remain online forever. There is no such thing as expunging a record from the internet. This is just one of countless examples of internet protocol and online constraintsthat impinge upon a student’s understanding of a particular field of study.

Nearly every discipline now has an online journal and may also have blogs and special-interest web sites. Until quite recently, online literary journals were considered inferior to their print counterparts. That’s no longer the case. My students should be reading online journals, but they should also understand how an online journal differs from a traditional print journal. Online journals make use of multimedia—video, audio, photos, chat rooms—that are not available to print journals. The rhetorical package online is very different than in print. My students hope to write for online journals—in addition to or in lieu of print journals. They may also have an opportunity one day to manage or edit an online journal of their own. If they have not studied the medium, if they have not written in the style of online journals, if they have not analyzed how online journals are keyed to rhetorical aims that are specific to the internet, then they will be unprepared for the field they hope to enter after graduation.

American colleges and universities send 1.7 million graduates with bachelor degrees into the world each year (National Center for Education Statistics).Why would we not give them every advantage? As we help students strengthen their knowledge and ability to write, read, and communicate effectively, we must prepare them for the online cultures that will be central to their private and professional lives. Undergraduate writing majors at my university end up in a variety of fields, but they share at least one thing: much of their work finds and defines itself on the internet – that’s where the readers go; that’s where the markets reside. If using the computer to write, read, and produce texts is not yet central to their identity as professionals, it will be soon. It should be central to their education, too.

This essay first appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 7, 2011