If Digital Literacy is a Basic Skill, Who’s Responsible for Teaching It?

One of my students, a grandmother in her fifties, sat a full arm’s length away from the computer, recoiling from the mouse as if it were a snake. It was the first night of our Freshman Comp I class at the rural Drew, Mississippi campus of Mississippi Delta Community College, and I was trying to introduce her to our class website.

Like many of my students, younger and older, she does not use computer or Internet on a regular basis. In many cases, my students are learning to use the internet or their devices–beyond updating Facebook or texting—for the first time. I show them how to access our learning management system (Canvas), and how to access their essential student and college information on our administrative system (because there is no orientation or workshop for them on how to do that). But I also often end up teaching them how to use basic computer software (Word, Google).

There’s a misconception among some teachers and policymakers, especially at the college level, that students come to us already being tech-savvy. I recently learned that some of our secondary schools have done away with what was called “computer discovery” courses, based on that same reasoning. The truth is many of our students need teachers and schools to provide not only access but also direction and encouragement in navigating and using various tech tools.

Others believe simply putting students in a computer lab, or in front of a whiteboard, or even allowing them to bring their own devices will result in technology infused learning. Technology is not magical; students are not engaged by the technology alone, but by learning how to use technology to do meaningful things. As some of my own students pointed out on a webinar a few months ago, “It’s not the technology; it’s the teachers!”

A recent guest blog at Larry Cuban’s On School Reform and Classroom Practice focused on the need for teachers to be trained in how to do online teaching.  This warning comes at a time when many colleges have rushed into the competition to offer courses online while giving faculty little or no professional development in how to do it well. Learning and writing are different digitally than they are experienced face-to-face. Teaching an online class is much more than throwing our lecture notes (or a lecture video) up; whipping up a set of computer graded quizzes/tests; then setting the class on auto-pilot.

I practice blended teaching in my courses, which to me is really appropriate, given how a community college is situated as a transition into higher education. By requiring students to learn and use digital tools while they also have physical access to their teacher, I hope to encourage them to explore more ways to use technology independently (taking online courses, MOOCs, and other self-directed learning).

 Some of my English colleagues (here and around the nation) chafe at being expected to show adult students how to use a word processor, how to log-on or register on websites, how to do a focused web search, and other seemingly mundane tech tasks, not directly related to our course content. Yet, these are critical communication skills in our world, and as an English teacher, I am a teacher of communication. My personal professional goal is not just to cover the course, but also to prepare students for fuller lives, empowering them to communicate in a world that often wants to marginalize or take advantage of them.

Eventually, my reluctant student tapped the mouse and realized it wouldn’t hurt her, and she didn’t break the computer. Now, at mid-semester, she’s confidently navigating web sites, producing Word documents, and searching resources, and we’re on our way to learning new things together.

Yes, helping her get there took some time away from other things in my syllabus, so we won’t read as many pieces, or I’ll lop off a writing assignment. How terrible is that? It would be great if all my students came already knowing how to use these tools, but if they don’t, don’t I have a moral duty to teach them?

What about teachers in other subjects? How do you respond to students with varying levels of tech ability? Should we still have designated computer courses?