Is the “online generation” as tech savvy as we think?

Technology is deeply embedded in a student’s personal and academic life. For most students in middle school through graduate school, it’s not a question of whether or not technology will be used but rather what kind and how much. You would be hard pressed to find yourself in a college course that didn’t require your assignment be typed before handing it in for a grade. Or one that didn’t require all cell phones be silenced and threaten a grade deduction for texting, Googling, or gaming under the desk. A recent study performed at Ball State University found 99.8% of their student population owned a cell phone, of which the majority were smartphones.

Some make the assumption that because this “online generation” is comfortable with technology that they are also technologically savvy. A study by the Nielson Norman Group found college-aged students spend as little time as possible on a site and leave quickly when they are confronted with a new interface style. They also found teenagers and college-aged students preferred sites that were image heavy over text heavy. Students resorted to the search engine as a tool to get them out of a foreign design, but if one wasn’t available on the site they weren’t willing to sacrifice their time by learning how to navigate or read through the content to find their way. The older generations are correct in believing the “online generation” is comfortable with technology. But they are comfortable creatures of habit who prefer to keep their navigation to clean and familiar sites and are not to be confused with computer engineers.

Just because this generation has spent more time with their fingertips against a keyboard doesn’t mean they have learned the skills to navigate efficiently, understand how their chosen search engine uses search engine optimization (SEO), or how to decipher who is a credible and reliable source and what is an advertisement, scam or opinion. Even more, in the 18-24 age range that was used for this study, 40% will have literacy skills too low to read a website that uses anything more than basic sentence structure. Maybe we should support this generation to become the technology gurus we believe them to be and provide them with the skills to use the internet as a resource as well as an entertainment machine. How are some ways classes can use technology besides typing a paper or using a PowerPoint?  Teaching students to navigate in unfamiliar territory will promote their critical thinking skills to find credible sources, and to turn on their brains and turn off auto-correct and predictive technology.   It will also help them to understand when it is best to tune out the technology and connect interpersonally.

Read the study “College Students on the Web” at

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One Response to “Is the “online generation” as tech savvy as we think?”

  1. Johnsonc2228 says:

    Carol: You’ve raised an important question. I find that students’ inability to effectively use many types of technology, combined with low reading skills, are barriers to success in courses that use the Blackboard course management system as a supplement. I’m concerned about the assumptions some administrators, staff, and faculty members make about students’ abilities to use technology. I don’t think students’ skills are keeping pace with the additional tasks they are expected to complete using technology.

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