On digital literacy and viewing students as “digital natives”

One reason frequently invoked for promoting the development of online courses and various types of digital contents is the necessity to appeal to our students’ supposedly innate taste for technology. Along with that, faculty members sometimes express the fear that we might be “falling behind” with our capacity to use technology, the assumption being that our students know more than we do and are better at using electronic devices and online resources. In other words, we need to keep up with their skills, and to some extend with their online habits, in order to stay relevant. The ongoing discussion during this first week of working on Topic 1 has led me to question this point of view.

The “Visitors and Residents” model proposed by David S.White and Alison Le Cornu (2011) offers a different perspective on the matter and shows that a person can be totally at home at the “Residents” end of the spectrum when it comes to their personal life and yet remain a passive consumer of content, a “Visitor”, when they engage in learning activities. Perhaps they cannot transpose their skills into a different context, perhaps they are not willing to, or maybe they don’t even have the skills in the first place.

Abdullah Al-Bahrani, Darshak Patel and Brandon Sheridan (2015) examined the use of social media in higher education from the students’ perspective and shed some light on the students’ behaviours and concerns. There are two points that I find particularly interesting in their conclusions. The first one is that “the majority of students would welcome faculty connections on social media platforms, especially if it were a one-way connection” (emphasis mine), which shows that the students are not necessarily willing to share a common space with faculty members. In fact, they do show concern about privacy and only half of them would include a professor into their social network.

The second point is that “[f]aculty members interested in using social media for academic purposes should consider using the platforms already preferred by students to reduce the learning curve and increase the likelihood of participation.” This sentence was a aha! moment for me. So there IS a learning curve after all. Of course there is one, and we shouldn’t assume our students will automatically adapt to a new tool and know how to use it to its full potential. As a language teacher who has had to explain more than once how to set up the spellcheck and how to create shortcuts in word processors, I’ve always found foolish this idea that students are some kind of magical creatures who just “get” technology.

In fact, when Kravik (2015) conducted a survey of undergrad students in the US, the results showed that “moving beyond basic activities is problematic. It appears they do not recognize the enhanced functionality of the applications they own and use.” What about the teachers, then? Valtonen et al. (2011) examined the technological knowledge of student teachers born between 1984 and 1989, since they were the first generation of “digital native” teachers and therefore there were expected to be naturally inclined to use technology-driven solutions in their teaching. However, they found that their skill level “is not what would be expected for representatives of the Net Generation” and that their “abilities to adopt and adapt ICT in their teaching are highly questionable”.

Of course this doesn’t mean that we should abandon any idea of digitalisation or ban all social media from education. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that just as any type of skill, the capacity to use those tools needs to be properly trained and evaluated, including among students.