Essential Tech Skills for Today’s Students

National Information Literacy Month 2011 BadgeDigital, technological and information literacy are increasingly major focuses of mine in my teaching. But I am also involved in a committee at my university that focuses on emerging technologies and their relation to our work as educators.

One question that we found ourselves pondering at a recent meeting is this one:

What are the essential technological skills and abilities that all students in our day and age ought to have, whether as prerequisites before starting university, or as things we ensure they acquire prior to graduation?

In asking colleagues for their input, I have found that there are some that frequently come up across a range of departments and disciplines.

Even when we think of such basics as Word or other word processing software, I think many faculty assume that students are tech savvy enough to manage with such programs. But their familiarity may be only with running the program and typing, and they may be completely unaware of what many of the tabs and buttons across the top are actually for.

How would you answer this question? What are the essential program competencies and technological skills and experiences that everyone graduating from university ought to be guaranteed to have?

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  • Just Sayin’

    “What are the essential technological skills and abilities that all students in our day and age ought to have, whether as prerequisites before starting university, or as things we ensure they acquire prior to graduation?”

    How to use a computer.

  • Anonymous

    Information Use – using search engines properly (beyond basic queries) to get  required data, using bibliographic databases, using non-textual data sources (such as freebase).

    Information Processing – manipulation of data — this could be done in something like Excel, although actually learning some basic programming is actually easier and more powerful than learning a spreadsheet. When you learn a spreadsheet properly you learn lots of the hard stuff of programming with none of the context or ability to find where problems lie.

    Information Presentation – representation of data in charts, diagrams and text – this might be a word processor and presentation program, but better would be tools that are actually practical for this: document preparation tools, or the construction of infographics.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure quite how these things will get taught, since most professors are woefully underskilled in the same areas (or rather mis-skilled, because the powerful and practical tools are hidden behind the big commercial packages, that are broadcast at us constantly). And most of the workplace is too ignorant to value any real skill.

    So we’ll probably have to be resigned to expecting graduates to be able to find the ‘insert image’ button in Word, to create powerpoint presentations with an animated background and fifteen bullet points, and to be able to find the right Wikipedia entry to copy data from. 

    Computer literacy is very poor, but unfortunately, it is *much, much* poorer than most people realise. So most people’s aspirations for their students is that they should have, say, 80% of the same kind of computer literacy that they have (its nice if they can beat that, of course). Which is rather like desiring that one’s students graduate with a good grasp of creationist biology because that’s all the biology the professors know, and most employers want graduates with a good grasp of creationism.

    Meanwhile we’ll increasingly get eaten alive by educational systems that can see beyond Microsoft Office.

  • Just Sayin’

    I didn’t know there was anything beyond Microsoft Office.

  • Anonymous

    I don’t think it’s wise to teach people to use a program. Rather, teach them how to learn to use a program. If you don’t have the skills (or the time) to teach the skills, don’t underestimate the ability of a motivated student to work it out for themselves.

    Both my daughters use computers extensively in school. Yet their general ability to use computers is abysmal, because they have been taught to use either Word or PowerPoint for pretty well everything. You want to send someone a photo? Import the jpeg into Word and email it! You want to make a cover for the next assignment? Mock it up in PowerPoint and print!

    They have access to other software, and they’re certainly capable of figuring it out. But they only do what they see their teachers doing. I try to suggest more efficient (and fun) methods, but they know better than to do it differently to their teachers.

    I did my first degree in the early nineties. The very first paper I wrote was handwritten. The second I did on a computer—a predecessor to MS-Paint was installed on the student computers, and I discovered the text input button. So my first computerised essay was essentially one big bitmap!

    Yet I eventually found a word processor and slowly figured it all out. There were manuals lying around the lab. I never had one lesson, but I found that any time I ‘wasted’ on fiddling with the various menu items would be repaid in my next paper.

    Eventually word processors became too cumbersome. I just completed my second degree, and I don’t think I used a word processor at all. Rather, I used a text editor and wrote my work in LaTeX, which allowed me to concentrate on what I was writing and not what it looked like (that was a separate step). Yet the time spent learning to use such software wasn’t wasted, and I think my work was of a much higher quality as a result.

  • James F. McGrath

    I was trying to think of a way to rework the famous proverb in relation to what you emphasized. But what I came up with was this:

    “Give a person the Virtual Koi Pond app and they will be entertained for hours. Teach a person to find their own apps, and they will be entertained for life.” :)

    But on a more serious note, teaching students how to learn to use computer programs is indeed more basic and useful. I know lots of people who have trouble coping each time software is upgraded and the format changes slightly, because they have learned the old version, and not how to learn to use a new one.

    Specifically for the university, another that comes to mind is how to track down a reference online if you left your book at home – and in general, how to find actual academically useful books online.

    • Anonymous

      “Give a person the Virtual Koi Pond app and they will be entertained for hours. Teach a person to find their own apps, and they will be entertained for life.”
      Teach a person how to program and they’ll entertain the rest of the world and pay your pension and those of the rest of your / my generation.

  • Amber Baker

    At the schools that have it, a good opportunity would be for senior computer science majors to have free monthly sessions to help people learn how to use their computer.

    But let’s be honest, the best students are the ones that know how to innovate. I don’t know how to use the fancy reference stuff in Word 2010, I only know how to use the old “add a footnote” way of things. However, I have my own little ways to get it done, and it’s how the prof wants it, so it’s all good.

    But seriously, how the eff do I get my title page to NOT have a page number? 8 years later, and I still can’t figure it out. 

  • James F. McGrath

    Amber, you choose the option of having a different header/footer for the first page, and then it won’t have the page number.
    Hope this helps!