Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Making College Computer Classes a Requirement

The more I think about it, the more I wish all incoming students were required to take some manner of introductory computer class. I haven't come across any of these labels in awhile - possibly because they're finally out of fashion, or just not as widely publicized - but the cliché that all students under a certain age are computer literate (in and of itself a difficult term to define) or, even worse, digital natives is simply not true. (It's about as true that all students above a certain age are hopelessly and functionally computer illiterate because computers weren't present in our Kindergarten classes.)

These assumptions are frustrating for a number of reasons, not the least of which being related to ageism. There's also a mistaken presumption that simply having been exposed to computers means students know how to use them. One doesn't become literate just because there are books in the house; one needs to be taught how to read. Similarly, people need to be taught how to use computers and navigate the relevant programs.

I remain frustrated by one of my undergraduate professors who insisted that because of my age, I was a "digital immigrant," whereas my classmates, most of whom were five to ten years younger than I, were "digital natives," an assumption based solely on age. Because I had maintained my own website and multiple blogs for years, I was familiar with basic HTML and several blogging platforms. Most of my classmates, on the other hand, created website that looked terrible, the type I'd seen a lot of in mid-1990s. I still encounter students whose knowledge of what I'd consider basic computer skills is minimal; one student I had last summer didn't know how to attach files to e-mail.

This came back to me this past week when I was helping a student with her podcast, one of the assignments I require for my college students. Knowing that most of my students have never created their own podcasts - some students have never heard of the term, and the number who listen to them is similarly small - I use Audioboom. a fairly simple and intuitive podcasting platform that requires minimal software (one can upload one's podcast via a free smartphone app, or record and/or upload an audio file through a browser). It can take a little getting used to, but by no means is it designed to be prohibitively complicated.

The student just got temporarily tripped up and saw relatively quickly how to resolve her questions, but noted that she might consider taking a computer class. This led to a brief discussion of how helpful a first-semester computer class might not only help the students, but help the teachers, who are often required to provide tech support to students who don't know how to use Canvas, the learning management system (LMS) we use, and which I use extensively in all my classes. (I make announcements, post assignments, have pages for each assignment, and require students to upload all assignments on Canvas.)

Providing an introductory class could help students make sure they know how to navigate Canvas and upload files; perhaps teaching basic tenets of ePortfolio platforms and word processing, among other basics, could help reduce or eliminate many of the problems I have to resolve in my class. No matter how many times I encourage my students to seek help for their ePortfolios or get tech support from the appropriate departments, many wait until the very last moment to get help, at which point, more often than not, it's simply too late, because they need more time than they'd realized. Some students are simply frightened of the technology and put off familiarizing themselves with it, which exacerbates the problem.

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