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Helping Students Navigate Educational Technology

The idea of college students as “digital natives” is pervasive in the teaching literature. Even in mainstream media, outlets like CNN and PBS are discussing the need to reach across the “digital divide” to engage this new breed of student in the classroom. Interestingly, professors are often surprised to learn how little these “natives” actually know about technology as it is commonly used in higher education. Ask your average 18-year-old what apps and programs they use, and you may be surprised at their responses.

For example, according to, the “most popular college student” apps include:

Generally, then, younger college students’ use of technology is primarily focused on shopping, engaging with others on social media, and consuming music and videos. Notably absent on this list are many of the apps professors would expect to actually help college students succeed, such as a calendar, task list, or email program.

Although today’s students may have grown up with Google, this does not mean that they will understand the basics of what professors are asking them to do with technology in a higher education setting. However, these skills, which include using technology for academic and business purposes, are imperative for their long-term success.

Consider these relatively basic tasks:

  • Double-spacing and adding page numbers to a document
  • Converting a file to PDF
  • Uploading an attachment to an email
  • Using a spreadsheet program to add two columns of numbers

These are tasks one might assume “digital natives” should approach with ease, but as many instructors probably know through the experience it’s just not the case. Today’s students are often completely baffled by this kind of practical technology; a problem made worse by their professors’ assumptions that instructions aren’t necessary.

So, then, if students aren’t coming into college with the technological skills they need, what can we do to help students acclimate? Fortunately, the solution is relatively straightforward: don’t assume that they already know how to do something. Be patient and provide directions, just as you would when teaching any new skill.

Here are some ideas for consideration:

  1. Don’t Assume They Know

Spend an hour or so going through your class with an eye for the technical knowledge it requires. Look at your syllabus; read the instructions for your assignments. Note where you’ve made assumptions about students’ knowledge of practical, non-entertainment technology.

  1. Outline What They’ll Need to Do, Step-by-Step

With those assumptions in mind, add instructions for what they’ll need to know to navigate your course successfully.

  • If they are required to write a paper using 12-point Times New Roman font and ½ inch margins, provide instructions for changing the font and setting margins.
  • If they need to submit assignments through your LMS, show them how to attach their document and check that it was submitted successfully.
  • If students are required to use an outside website or 3rd party program, provide instructions (either written, video, or both) and links to any sort of FAQ or customer service help that might be included.
  1. Set Clear Expectations

Don’t assume that they are already doing something just because you’re doing it. Make your expectations clear. For example, if students will need to check their email daily to receive announcements in your class, instruct them to do so.

Although “digital natives” aren’t used to seeing technology as a tool for education, we know that tech can allow us to do some very creative and impactful things. So, don’t underestimate the idea of meeting the students where they are and letting them teach you a thing or two about their world!

Here are a few assignments you might try that take advantage of what digital natives do best:

  • Ask them to find a song or video exemplifying a key concept you covered in class. Better yet, ask them to record their own!
  • Have them create a fake text conversation with a friend about a topic that is relevant to your class. Explaining things in their own terms will help them understand it better.
  • Use social media, especially as an extra credit tool. I have given extra credit assignments where I’ve asked current students to tweet out advice for the next semester’s incoming students. For example:

#WhatILearned #PsychWithDrC
Meeting new people is fun! Till you get
to the psychopath/sociopath chapter.
After that everyone is a suspect.

When you study, don't just read through
your notes, make connections to other
concepts and real-life events to
remember things better #WhatILearned

Ask students for ideas applying their favorite apps to assignments in your class. They’ll enjoy the challenge and the ability to influence the makeup of their assignments, and you’ll get a fresh perspective on your material.