Digital Expectations: Taking Student Technology Skills into Account

At least a couple of times a semester I’m asked by faculty members to help out with course-related projects that involve students creating media-rich documents — think short videos, digital audio, photo journals, blogs, wikis, etc. Almost universally the reasons to include these non-traditional projects as part of the course are sound and will have the effect of making courses more engaging, fulfilling, and add to a student’s understanding of the subject matter. However, almost as often as not, when getting started with planning of these projects I seem to run into two related issues: an underestimation of how much time would be required for students to complete the tasks initially proposed for the course, and an overestimation of students’ general digital prowess and how this translates to the specific projects at hand.  The former problem is usually a direct result of the latter or of the faculty member’s own lack of in-depth experience with the creation of media-rich documents.

Journalist Lucy Morgan in 1985 — could an 18-year-old do this?

Under 30 Means Tech-Savvy…Right?

I find that faculty members often buy into the commonly held belief that folks under 30 years old are innately more tech-savvy. Certainly growing up in the Internet age and being bottle-fed on Facebook, YouTube, smart phones, Twitter, and so on should have a huge impact on the innate digital skills of our “youth,” no? Well, while in some very specific areas this may be true to a significant degree — I certainly am no match for my son in ANY of his Playstation games, nor can I text at even a quarter of the speed of my daughter — all of my (extensive and anecdotal) experience, at least in a place such as William & Mary leads me to believe that the “generational” differences in regards to tech skills are indeed much less than what we might be led to expect (motor skills not withstanding).

From what I have seen, when asked to complete a tech-intensive task related to media-rich materials, roughly a third of people can fairly easily complete the task with no, or only a small amount of training; another third will need a fair amount of training and additional time to complete the task; and the last third will need the training, additional ongoing support, and even more time to complete the task. Faculty and students, in this respect, do not differ by much.

So how, if at all, does this affect the potential incorporation of media-rich assignments into new courses where these have not been part of the traditionally used skill set? For me at least, this is no idle question as in a few months I will be supporting a faculty member and a group of students (10-20 or so) in a study abroad program that will be collecting, editing, and presenting media-rich materials.

Before you Embark

Here is my short checklist of things I have suggested to faculty members in the past (and will need to follow myself now) when getting started with such projects.

  1. Planning. I’ll start with the obvious first… if you are expecting students to use a particular technology or set of tech skills that you, yourself, are not at least very familiar with, you should consult with someone who is familiar with the technology to get an estimate of how much time and work the production of the media-rich “component” will entail.  If you are able to fully complete the task(s) that you are asking students to perform, then you should have a very good idea of what skills, hardware, and time are necessary to complete the task and you can move on to the next step. Fortunately, if you are not, there is a team of folks on campus with a pretty comprehensive set of skills in this area (yes, us in academic technology as well as folks in the Swem Media Center) that would be more than happy to help you with your planning.
  2. Communication. In your course description in the catalogue and on your syllabus make sure you communicate what technology skills students will either need to bring to the course or will need to learn during the semester to complete the tasks assigned. Just as you would for any other course requirement, be sure to include as many specifics as possible. For example, for our travel abroad students we may want to include something a la: “One of the goals of our study abroad experience will be to create digital documentation of our experiences and research. For each of us this will include the active participation and creation of media-rich materials for use in a joint project webpage.” Ideally the communication should be two-way, and you should encourage students to contact you with what skills they may be bringing to the table or that they particularly feel they may need help with. With this information in hand you should be in good shape to move to the next step.
  3. Training/Support. As I mentioned above, it is likely that many of the students will not have the digital “toolkit” that you may have expected at first glance.  Therefore, if you are looking to be as inclusionary as possible, you will need to develop a plan to provide training and/or support to make up for possible gaps in a significant number of your students’ skill sets. As in the first section above, if you possess the skills needed to complete the tasks required for students, you should take into account the time it will take to provide training needed by your students.  If you need assistance in providing this training, and/or additional support during the semester keep in mind that while our IT/Swem team often can help, our resources are limited in this more time-intensive regard (unlike the less intensive “consultation” provided in the first step) and you should seek this help well in advance of when it will be needed.
About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.