Survey: ‘Digital natives’ need more IT support

A new survey claims to show a 'perception gap in how adept students are versus how savvy they are presumed to be.'
A new survey claims to show a 'perception gap in how adept students are versus how savvy they are presumed to be.'

Marc Prensky, the education writer who made popular the phrase “digital native,” says there’s no reason a college freshman should be expected to know every function of even basic computer programs such as Microsoft Word. And Prensky’s claim is reinforced by a recent survey that shows even tech-savvy college students require more campus IT support than you might think.

Only four in 10 college students surveyed said they receive adequate support for education technology tools on campus, although 70 percent of respondents said they would prefer to take a course with “a great deal of technology” if proper IT help was provided, according to Instructors and Students: Technology Use, Engagement, and Learning Outcomes, released April 7 by higher-education research firm Eduventures and Cengage Learning, a Connecticut-based company that provides research, learning, and teaching solutions.

While college students are adept at manipulating complex social-networking tools through their iPhones and BlackBerries, along with video and computer games, “they’re not nearly as proficient when it comes to using digital tools in a classroom setting; this turns the myth that we’re dealing with a whole generation of digital natives on its head,” said William Rieders, executive vice president of global new media for Cengage Learning.

Prensky, who penned the 2001 article, Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants, along with three education technology books, said educators in K-12 schools and colleges have come to expect too much from students who grew up surrounded by digital toys and classroom tools.

“After almost 10 years, some people are reacting, but they’re reacting from a very silly point of view,” said Prensky, founder and president of Games2Train, a company that has made more than 50 learning-based video games. “Some people act as if [college students] were born knowing how to use Microsoft Word. … But kids don’t grow up with Word, they grow up with texting … and nobody knows a system if they haven’t been taught how to use it.”

The Cengage/Eduventures survey shows that 65 percent of student respondents believe three-fourths of their professors “use IT effectively,” and 65 percent of instructors surveyed said “students grasp how to use IT effectively.” More than seven in 10 instructors believe student engagement has improved as “the use of digital tools increased.”

The research was based on interviews with 765 college students and 308 instructors.

“Clearly, students are asking for better guidance, support, and training in using digital tools in the classroom and we, as an industry, need to pay attention and effectively respond to those needs in order to improve engagement and learning outcomes,” Rieders said.

Prensky said the way campus IT officials offer support to students has changed over the past decade. Instead of sitting down with a student and moving step by step through a program like Adobe Photoshop, for example, IT support staff might recommend a series of YouTube videos that explain how to use the program.

“You can learn a whole career in online art through YouTube videos,” he said. “It’s all out there to teach them.”

Research on digital natives as they move through high school and enter college has become widespread since Prensky defined digital natives as students who “think and process information fundamentally differently from their predecessors,” having “spent their entire lives surrounded by and using computers, digital music players, video games, cell phones, and all the other toys of the digital age.”

Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society and the Research Center for Information Law at the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland launched the Digital Natives Blog in November 2007 to help educators adapt to a generation of tech-savvy pupils.

The Library of Congress in 2008 hosted a four-part lecture series of children who were raised with everyday computer, cell phone, and video game interaction, questioning if IT experts were prepared to help a generation ingrained in technology.

In a recent post, the Digital Natives Blog presented common conundrums faced by educators in the age of college students who grew up with digital technology—and the researchers’ conclusion supported the charge that even digital natives need computer training. Teaching a modern college class can be difficult, even if all students are comfortable with computers, because “no two digital natives are created equal.”

“Each of them has varying degrees of access to digital technologies, literacy skills, and participation within their peer culture,” the blog says. “What’s more alarming is the ‘divide’ opening up between those that have access to the network and those without. … Like many other crucial skills, digital literacy needs to be taught and learned through constant practice.”


Cengage/Eduventures survey

Marc Prensky

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.

Sign up for our newsletter

Newsletter: Innovations in K12 Education
By submitting your information, you agree to our Terms & Conditions and Privacy Policy.