Saturday, July 25, 2009

Digital Naiveté

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a study from North Carolina Central University, which finds that college student's perception of their own skills with Microsoft Office falls short of their actual performance with the tool. 75% of students indicated they had a high proficiency with MS Word and most were able to complete the basic tasks, but they could complete only half the moderate task and none of the advanced tasks. Excel was worse. 69% of students indicate an average proficiency but the average student could only do two of the basic tasks and none of the moderate or advanced tasks. PowerPoint is the one tool where they seem to correctly assess their own capability.

So let me summarize for my business and IT brethren:
  • don't get rid of your help desk yet
  • don't get rid of your Intro to Word and Excel online training classes yet
  • don't be surprised if you continue to see documents where the space bar is the primary tool for indentation
  • get ready for more inane PowerPoint presentations (when all you got is a hammer ....)
I'll leave the rigorous peer review to someone with a little more time on their hand, but the numbers sure sound consistent with what I hear from technology teachers on the school advisory boards where I serve. They say that a large percentage of students in high school simply don't have the basic computer and software skills (computer literacy) they need in the work place. Oh, don't worry, they can text and download music no problem. It's things like adding a network printer or changing page orientation to landscape that confuse them.

This is not, however, a rant against those students. I don't expect them to know what they need to know with any great accuracy at this point in their lives. I certainly did not when I was 17, 18, and 19. This is really a rant against parents, administrators and teachers who give these students a free pass simply because they're digital natives - a term I despise. The teachers I talk to say that students are not interested in taking those classes and that their parents fully support that because they use the computer all the time. Add to that the test-crazy education system we have established and if it ain't on test, why bother studying it.

So this is the point in the rant where I suggest how we interject computer literacy into the basic school curriculum, right? Not going to happen this time. I went to school at a time when paper and pencil were the only things available and to college when the electric typewriter was cutting edge. Somehow I figured out how to do justification, hanging indents and table inserts without the help of the Edmonds School District. I'm sure that today's students can do the same.

I would, however, suggest that businesses start adding a basic computer literacy test as a requirement for all positions that require computer work (which is most these days). We spend way too much money on basic computer and software skills and there is no reason that should be required with the coming generation (they are digital natives, after all). Colleges and Universities might want to add it to their admissions requirements for the same reason. If students and their parents are really concerned they can look at programs like the SAM Challenge or ICDL.

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