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Same old, same old… what does it mean to be “technologically savvy”?

September 9, 2015

A few days ago, a member of the Facebook group ALA Think Tank posted a link to an article in Time magazine. The article, which is actually from May, has an alarmist headline: “This Is Millennials’ Most Embarrassing Secret,” and goes on to inform us that we (as a country) lose “billions” a year because of it. The article addresses how today’s young adults lack basic technological skills and that it costs their employers money. Some of these skills involved using email, Microsoft Office products, and antiquated and inefficient systems already present in whatever organization employs them.

Kickman cover, Commodore 64

Kickman, Commodore 64. I mastered this game. Eight levels (the eighth repeated endlessly).

A hearty discussion ensued on the Facebook group about Millennials, technology, “digital natives,” and the role of librarians to teach certain skills. My impression? Young people today are just like young people twenty years ago, and I am growing tired of anyone who isn’t a young person (myself included) placing expectations on them and becoming concerned when the young people don’t fit those stereotypes.

I can buy into labels. I grew up solidly within the boundaries of Generation X. Just like with horoscopes (Gemini!), and Myers-Briggs personality tests (ESTJ!). I can read into the supposed characteristics of the MTV Generation and find all sorts of similarities, nostalgia, and applicable values. And because of my birthdate and generation, I am now moving into an age range where I can probably start voicing curmudgeonly concerns about younger generations. But I don’t really want to.

The article in Time quotes a 2011 Inside Higher Education article, “What Students Don’t Know,” by Steve Kolowich that talks a lot about exploding the “myth” of the digital native. The article references the ERIAL (Ethnographic Research in Illinois Academic Libraries) project — a series of studies conducted at Illinois Wesleyan, DePaul University, and Northeastern Illinois University, and the University of Illinois’s Chicago and Springfield campuses. The resulting paper Libraries and Student Culture: What We Now Know was published by the American Library Association in 2012. Some of the findings included the fact that students were “basically clueless” about the logic underlying how Google organizes and displays results, and that many students “described experiences of anxiety and confusion when looking for resources…”

Is this unique to the younger generation, to 2015? I remember college, even if it was 20+ years ago. I also remember my level of technical ability. My father was very interested in computers and as a result, we had a Commodore 64 when I was in high school and the Commodore 64 used to come with an instruction manual that contained small 10-20 line BASIC programs that would enable a note to play or a ball of color to bounce across the screen. I used to love to type in those programs (the 1987-equivalent of cut-and-paste) and feel like I really had power to develop software. Obviously, I did not. I might have known more than someone who did not own a Commodore 64, but that was the extent of my abilities. Other skills in my possession at the time I entered college were the ability to program VCR to record a television show and the ability to replace fuses in my aging Volvo stationwagon. I could also convert music from vinyl records into cassette tapes.  WordPerfect 5.1?  A former colleague and mentor who now refers to herself as a “technodinosaur” taught me how to punch in formatting codes like a pro.

Did any of these skills enable me to be an effective user of my college library’s extensive card catalog my freshman year? I remember the anxiety. I remember the confusion. Add to that my university’s first online catalog (Note: image link is to another university, but you get the idea). No one taught me how to use it. I noticed the little terminals with their black screens and green text sitting in various places around the library and in addition to discovering I could type words into it to find books, I also figured out how to hack in through the back-end and check my email using the Pine email client. I apologize, but if I had library instruction in 1990, or any other guidance other than “go to the library,” I don’t remember it.

To make matters worse, I was a Russian Studies major but I did not fully grasp the concept of a research paper. Why would I want to write a paper that involved regurgitating information I found in other books? I wanted to (and thought I was supposed to be doing) original research. I had no real idea of what that meant, but I had an inkling that to truly write a stellar paper about the Khazars, I would have to become instantly fluent in Russian and Arabic and perhaps travel internationally. This filled my young heart with dread, and although I did ultimately end up turning in an acceptable paper, I have no idea how I managed. All I remember was the apprehension and the feeling that I was doing something incorrectly.

So here are my thoughts. First, as librarians, I propose that we as a profession spend a lot more time enhancing, resolving, linking, and cleaning metadata.   Metadata is something that we know about and it is an area where we really can shine. We already create a lot of it. Second, as a profession we can invest time and energy into making the metadata, and the systems that index and utilize it better. This is a real challenge, since the way that Google and Amazon and Netflix do this may (or may not) violate privacy principles that we, as librarians, hold dear. Third, let’s stop making assumptions, negative or positive about students, and instead, happily teach them without those expectations. Maybe we need to understand a little bit about what they already know, but maybe it is not the most important thing. School is all about learning, not about pointing out what people don’t know yet. Most toddlers understand the concept of swiping and tapping through screens on a smartphone, but does that make all toddlers technologically savvy? The fact that today’s incoming college freshman have been raised with Google and smart phones means that they can type words into a search box and see results, and that they can use a smart phone. The fact that I could program a VCR to record a television program in 1990 says nothing about my ability to follow catalog card references. When I was eighteen, I had a lot to learn. Come to think of it, I still feel that way, and sometimes it takes me a few attempts to find the citation, article, or book that I really need.


One Comment leave one →
  1. Christina Steffy permalink
    September 9, 2015 4:21 pm

    This is a great post that makes an important point. I’ve often had to remind my school director and faculty that just because students can use smart phones or computers for searching Google doesn’t automatically mean they are tech savvy and can use any program we need them to use for assignments. Using a search engine or sending an email is not the same as using MS Word to format and type a paper, PPT for a presentation, or anything else. And just because they can log in to a computer doesn’t mean they know why it functions the way it does and can apply this to other technology. For some reason people have come to think that using a phone to check Facebook equals the ability to use various software programs. They don’t do the same functions, so checking Facebook every day does not prepare you to use something like Word. And I’ve seen people get frustrated that these digital natives don’t automatically remember how to use programs once you teach them. It seems like they expect that basic tech knowledge to automatically translate to more advanced skills. Even those of us who are tech savvy have a learning curve when we are learning a new program.

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