We Can Move Them from Tech Dependent to Tech Proficient


Several years ago, when my last school was preparing for 1:1 technology and made the decision to go with iPads instead of laptop computers, our technology administrator tried to convince skeptical me that our students would be able to do most of the same things on an iPad that they could do on a laptop. “Besides,” he reasoned, “they have technology in their hands all of the time. Soon we won’t need to teach them the same computer skills that we have in the past. They’ll just pick up those skills through constant use.”

He was right that students today have technology in their hands all the time. He was wrong that they would just pick up those skills on their own.

My personal experience has convinced me that we are raising a generation of tech dependent students who seriously lack the tech proficiency they need to be successful in nearly every business sector across the spectrum.

It is predicted that by 2020, nearly three-quarters of jobs in the United States will require computer proficiency, with Microsoft Office skills being the most in-demand. Despite the need, some studies have shown that six in ten young adults lack basic skills, such as sorting, searching within documents, and working with spreadsheets.

As an educator, I come face-to-face with this sobering reality on a daily basis. My students are incredibly skilled at using the small devices in their hands, frequently texting, uploading and editing photos, and more recently teaching me how to better use my newly activated Instagram account. But while their phones have more power than the computers initially used to send men into space, once I force them to use a computer for any kind of assignment (and as an English teacher I’ve had them use nearly every productivity tool in the Google Suite), they are lost. Even skills I consider pretty basic, such as dragging text, setting margins, indenting paragraphs, and inserting page numbers, sometimes baffle them.

I would say that my students are the only teenagers lacking the necessary skills that I learned in computer processing my freshman year of high school, but anecdotal evidence in conversations with my friends across the country tells me that I’m not alone in my observations. So if we are all noticing the same problems, how can we fix it?

I believe that first, we need to make sure that we are proficient in basic computing skills ourselves so that the blind are not leading the blind. As a Xenniel (you know, that micro-generation between Gen-X and Millennials) I have watched technology in education change drastically since I started teaching seventeen years ago. Most of the things I learned in my educational technology classes went obsolete shortly after I graduated and I’ve been learning new tech along with my students. But because I learned most basic skills before I regularly used my phone for nearly everything, I can pretty easily switch back and forth between devices (with some help from my IT-manager husband) and unlike my students, I understand that different devices serve different purposes. However, since I started teaching I’ve been surrounded by colleagues slow to adapt their personal and professional computer use to new tools and trends. And while the solution to this issue is complex, to say the least, it is something that we as teachers need to look at if we are going to help our students gain the proficiency that they need.

Then we need to walk alongside our students. We can’t just demonstrate how to do technology driven task with a PowerPoint and a projector and believe that is enough for our students to complete the task effectively and efficiently. We need to be scheduling the classroom time to check on their progress and be available to help them when they get stuck. Just like teachers, students have different degrees of knowledge when it comes to computer proficiency and we need to give them the necessary time to develop that proficiency. This also allows teachers to learn from our students. There have been several times, as I’ve tried new tools when my students have taught me how they have taken their project to the next level. This has allowed me to pass that lesson on to my other classes so that they could do the same. 

Is finding this time difficult? Yep! We have state standards, testing, and administrative expectations that we need to meet. I know that for most teachers, the thought of cutting out even a sliver of precious instructional time so they can spend a couple extra days working on a project sounds like career suicide. After all, what will our principals think if they walk into our classroom and they find our students quietly sitting on their computers for the entire period instead of us standing in front of them giving direct instruction? Even if we are working individually with students during the duration of the period, in some schools this can be a hard sell. How will we manage all of our students and keep them on task, especially with increasing class sizes? How do we make sure that they aren’t playing games, watching movies, or using Google Docs to chat with their friends, as was recently suggested in an article from The Atlantic

There are no simple answers to these questions. While kids haven’t stopped being kids, the management challenges today are certainly different than they were even twenty years ago when I was starting education classes. But I do know that, for me, this is about improving the overall learning in my classroom. My primary job is English, not technology. But their ability to write effectively can be hindered by their inability to word process efficiently. I enjoy being creative and having them use Google Slides and Sites for presenting their work. But that also means that I can’t just assume that they know what they are doing. If I want the work done well and if I want them to take pride in their finish products, I need to be willing to take the time to teach them by breaking larger technology driven tasks into pieces, checking into their progress to make sure they are doing what they are expected to be doing in class, and helping them correct their mistakes as they go. 

I don’t want “I didn’t know how to do it” to be an excuse in my classroom. I want them to stop resorting to Google to find the answer for how to do some menial word processing skill every time they need to know how to do something, only to forget what they learned ten minutes later. I want them to learn how to do it and own it. 

I often tell my students that they can choose to put in the work on the front end or the back end, but either way it has to be done. The same can be said for us as we explore ways to be better instructors. I’ve discovered that when I put in the work up front and make sure my students do things right the first time that my grading is more enjoyable and student grades are higher. It took me far too long to learn that lesson and I don’t plan to go back.

We Can Move Them from Tech Dependent to Tech Proficient

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sarahstyf

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Sarah is a high school English teacher and yearbook adviser in the Houston area. When she's not lesson planning, grading, or revising yearbook pages, she enjoys biking, running, reading, writing, and camping with her family. She spends her "free" time writing about camping, faith, family, and occasionally politics on her personal blog Accepting the Unexpected Journey.

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