Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Technologically savvy students (?)

One of the roles I often find myself in when talking to colleagues outside of my department is that of The Voice of Reason for Technology. One of the reasons for this is that many of my colleagues have some pretty significant fears about technology. Even if they use technology extensively in their research or teaching, they like to claim that they really don't know what they're doing. Almost all of them say some variation of "I'm so afraid that my students are light-years ahead of me when it comes to technology. The students are much more savvy about this stuff than I am."

When it comes to using technology, this is often true. Many of our students are comfortable and savvy in this arena. They're on Facebook. They blog. They text message. They hand in assignments electronically. They are comfortable finding things online (whether or not they find good quality sources is another matter). Some of them even create their own content--music, movies, images--digitally, and do some neat things in that area.

But what I see is that, for all this immersion in technology, students are not savvy about evaluating technology in a critical way. They don't have a good sense as to why or how certain technologies work. They take technology at face value--as a means to an end--without questioning how that same technology might have been used to manipulate the ends. Technology is inherently neutral, but its uses are not--and all too often, students don't make the distinction between the two. They stop at "technology is neutral" and leave it at that.

Part of my job as a techie and an educator is to help students begin to question technology's role and its uses. The way I do that is I help students understand the how's and the why's. I get them to the point where they understand enough to start asking the harder questions, the ethical questions.

This same lack of understanding the how's and why's of technology on the part of my colleagues leads them to embue the students with more power than they possess. All they see is that the students can use this stuff more naturally than they can, and they make the leap to "and therefore, they must be able to critically evaluate it better than I can." They are amazed, and somewhat relieved, when I point out that this is not true with probably most of our students. It brings some of the power back to them, to realize that the students don't have all the answers in this area either.

I take technical literacy--the ability to use and understand technology and its applications--for granted. After all, I am extensively trained in this area. But even though technology has completely permeated our work life and our culture, we as a society are woefully technically illiterate. If we are to truly progress, we all--students and old fogies :) alike--have to make a commitment to understanding this stuff better. The students are still looking to us to lead them, to help them learn to think critically, and increasingly thinking critically about technology is becoming a vital skill.


Ianqui said...

I can see that older colleagues might fear this. But those of us who are technologically aware should take pride in the fact that we know about ratemyprofessors, facebook, blogs, etc. My students can't pull one over on me :). It's also like profgrrrl's recent post about checking the blackboard logs--we *should* be able to bust our students that way.

I think everyone should think about it that way, and perhaps it'll teach people to overcome their fears.

(Still, I realize this wasn't the force of your post.)

ScienceWoman said...

I like your point about being able to effectively, critically evaluate technology. I want to think about that some more.

On just the staying-up-with-tech theme, I've recently decided to self-justify my time spent blogging and playing with my ipod as a way of keeping in touch with the culture of my once-and-future students. That way, listening to MP3s is a professional experience!

clanger said...

Technology develops at such a pace that it might be said to develop thoughtlessly. Take for example some of the most basic tenets of early GUI design. When Apple reworked the XeroxPARC GUI, they tested it on children. They concluded that children could learn it easily, so it must be inherently (that magic word:) intuitive. Apple in the early days was a hotbed of tech design, but not a hotbed of anthropological and neurological analysis. They made a basic error. What they had in fact discovered was that the WIMP system could be learned more easily by children than the command line interface (well, gee!). The leap to suggesting that a WIMP system is inherently intuitive for everyone is not established by this, and many people have fundamental problems coping with everyday computing, difficulties with rapid screen-analysis for example (feeling they need to read everything on the screen, rather than ignoring the adverts and zeroing in on what they want).

By suggesting that our GUIs and our software design is somehow 'intuitive', we are telling these people that they must, consequently, be idiots. They aren't.

Simply because a bunch of clever geeks designs a piece of tech, it doesn't mean we should take their PR releases as a well-considered analysis of it, or accept the limitations their commercial route map offers us. We do need to think more deeply about tech. And we need to demand more. An OS doesn't have to be bug-ridden, requiring incessant service packs, and if we don't need to upgrade to a faster processor/newer OS, we shouldn't. Our expectations should be higher, and we shouldn't be so addicted to the next tech thing. We should not, in short, leave our brains at the door when we enter the tech playroom.

Astroprof said...

There's a difference between being comfortable using technology and understanding the technology. A lot of my students use things that they don't understand, and don't even care to understand.

Jane said...

Ianqui, the scary thing is that I hear a lot of younger profs saying that too! But no doubt some of this is generational--although there certainly are senior people here in other fields who do a lot of interesting thinking about technology...

Astroprof, I think you just summed up my post in 50 words or less. :)

ScienceWoman, I will also sometimes convince myself that the playing around on the computer is actually "research". (and I guess some of it is, in a way...) I like the way you think!

Clanger, you make some very good points--and these are the same points that are made in favor of making the tech fields more welcoming to people other than "clever geeks". Thanks for the comment!