[caption id="attachment_1392" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Image courtesy of arztsamui"][/caption] As a college educator, the topic of technology is of extreme interest to me. At least one of the courses that I teach each semester is online, while I have also dabbled in so-called “hybrid” courses which combine the online classroom with face-to-face meetings. I like to teach this way because of my own experience as a student. I see the benefits that technology offers us. I was born in the early 1980s. Those born around the same time as me, some call us Echo Boomers or early Millennials, came of age along with technology. Therefore, the integration of computers and the internet into the classroom structure has always been appealing since we appreciated the benefits that the technology offers. Though I learned how to use a card catalogue and microfiche in college, by the time I got my Master’s degree in 2007 both of those methods of research were rendered obsolete by computer databases and online libraries, which saved me a lot of time and helped me focus on reading my research instead of finding it. The college students of today and tomorrow are a bit different, however. These students, born in the 1990s and beyond, have never known a school system without PC computers and the internet. As their teachers, we recognize this gap between our coming of age and theirs, and many of us try to bridge that gap through technology integration in the classroom and advanced skills that, we think, will put us on par with our young students who take Wi-Fi for granted. These assumptions may be wrong, however, as researchers from The Open University, a distance learning institution based in the U.K., have recently discovered. In a study funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) a team led by Dr. Christopher Jones surveyed over two thousand freshman at five different British colleges. The results of their study seem to hint that the “gap” teachers expect between their own technological know-how and their students’ is not as wide as once thought. It’s all about the Smart Phones I still remember the first mobile phone my family owned – you see we only had one to our household. The unit was about the size of a shoe and only performed one function: making and receiving phone calls. The one area where the students of today are most advanced is in this realm. In their survey, Jones and his team found that almost every (97.8%) first-year college student owned a cell phone. It is this device that most students (83.2%) claim would change their lives the most if they had to do without. However, the numbers for other technologies, those more closely related to the learning process, were not nearly as high. Slightly over two-thirds of the students surveyed (77.4%) owned laptop computers, but only a bit more than one-third (38.1%) owned a desktop. Whether or not some students owned both is not clear. Most concerning is that 70.1% of the students surveyed felt that their access to technology was sufficient to meet their needs as students. Though that number is high for sure, one is left to wonder about the 29.9% who cannot gain access to the technology they feel they need. Some Have Never Used Email The final, and most concerning results from this survey revealed that a small minority of students had never used email at all or do not have any access to mobile phones. For educators trying to integrate technology into the classroom or give options in terms of learning modalities, this is a problem. There are no hard figures available on which students had this lack of experience, but they were all in college, which leads one to question the gaps in technological education at the secondary level that would allow a student to go through school without access to email. College and the Social Network One final number that this survey reported on was the difference between the generations when it came to the use of these technologies. Students under the age of 20 reported using technology primarily for leisure activities such as social networking, downloading music and TV shows or movies, and instant messaging. These students used social networking sites at a rate of 78.5%. However, students over the age of 25 reported that their primary use of the computer was for study purposes. This gap in expectations when it comes to the use of computers and the internet is what stood out most for me as an educator. It seems that the expectations that we have regarding student use of technology, according to this survey, is a bit misguided. And, though this is far from a definitive study, my own experience as a college educator seems to confirm this supposition. Of the students I teach at the community college level, it is the younger ones who are more prone to texting in class and using smart phones for fun, even while in school. They are also the ones who struggle more with the technological components of my course – either through lack of experience or lack of listening skills when I explain each element’s function in the online classroom. Older students, though not what we refer to in education as “digital natives,” seem to focus more on the use of technology as an educational booster rather than a social tool. In the end, as educators, we need to figure out how to bridge this gap for the next generation of students. How can we ensure that each of our students has access to the technologies that they need to succeed in the college classroom and beyond? Also, how can we make sure that they see these technologies as more than simply social connections, but also as powerful tools for knowledge?
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