We Fail Students by Not Grappling with Technology

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Americans are terrible at using technology.  

Yes, that’s a sweeping generalization that needs unpacking but it got some empirical evidence this week when the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)–which is coordinated by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD)–released its latest findings. Among the things the nationally representative study in 24 countries tries to measure is “problem solving in technology-rich environments,” by which they mean (citing an OECD definition) “using digital technology, communication tools, and networks to acquire and evaluate information, communicate with others, and perform practical tasks.”  When it comes to such skills, folks in the U.S. are dead last among the countries studied.

tech skills

Setting aside issues of methodology and measurement for the moment (the example questions are well worth reading, though), a couple of things struck me as interesting about this effort.

First, it’s notable that the attempt to measure such skills now sits alongside measures of more traditional literacy skills and basic mathematical and computational abilities, two other areas the study measures.   The study’s authors note:

…the Internet has increased instantaneous access to large amounts of information and has expanded instant voice, text, and graphics capabilities across the globe. In order to effectively operate in these environments, it is necessary to have:

  • knowledge of how various technological environments are structured (e.g., an understanding of the basics of the environment, including how to use command names, drop-down menus, naming protocols for files and folders, and links in a web page); and
  • the ability to interact effectively with digital information; understand electronic texts, images, graphics, and numerical data; and locate, evaluate, and critically judge the validity, accuracy, and appropriateness of the accessed information. These skills constitute the core aspects of the problem solving in technology-rich environments domain

The ability to use technology matters and efforts to understand how well people are learning these skills will only increase as we move forward.

Among the many questions this raises: Where are colleges and universities in this process?  Are we making digital competencies explicitly part of our curriculum–both as specialized topics and as integrated into the curriculum broadly?  Where and how are such life-long learning skills–and critical thinking about technology–being taught?  Who is responsible for ensuring that faculty–let alone students–can problem solve in technology rich environments? We’re only beginning to meaningfully grapple with such questions.

Second, the basic rubric for measuring skills (bottom of this post) is fascinating in that higher level skills are understood to involve:

  • multiple steps and operations
  • multiple technology platforms and applications
  • respondent-defined goals
  • unexpected outcomes and impasses

In contrast, so much of technology in higher education aims to offer simple, easy-to-use, fully-integrated platforms, with pre-determined results, that avoid “unexpected outcomes and impasses.”  In other words, much of technology use in higher ed does little to prepare students for real-life problem solving with technology.

Certainly, courses need to be “managed” and some basic functionality needs to be standardized and made easy to use.  But the real stuff of learning–not course management–involves grappling with new and changing information, problem solving, and developing skills usable in ever-changing circumstances and environments.  That stuff is too often neglected.

We hear it all the time: technology’s “hard,” “complicated,” and “confusing.” Yes it is…as is anything worth learning.  We need to do a better job of embracing those difficulties and learning how to manage them, rather than assuming this is the domain of specialized tech-geeks. Otherwise, we’re failing to educate ourselves for our time and failing to prepare students for the world that awaits them.

tech skills rubric

Developing Employable Skills in Students

Education is about much more than getting a job.  However, ignoring this aspect of education is a luxury that only the privileged can enjoy.  Most students are rightfully concerned about how what they are learning in school can help them get a job.  This is especially true for first-generation college students who often see getting a college degree as the potential ticket to better employment than their parents had.

That was certainly true in my case.  I didn’t know what I would do after college, but I sincerely hoped a degree would allow me to do something other than work in the local paper mill, the major employer in my town where I worked summers to save money for school.   I first flirted with being a computer science major, mostly because that seemed very practical and I could easily explain it to my parents.  “See?  College will lead to a practical, good-paying job.”  After a semester of rudimentary programming (Pascal anyone?) I was bored to tears and quickly disabused of that idea.

Fortunately for me, I was at a liberal arts college that allowed me to explore, shifting my major to political science, then English, and finally sociology.  (I double-majored in the latter two.)  In the process of wandering, I was learning how to learn, how to think, and how to communicate.  In short, I was getting a real college education, rather than training for a job.  I had no idea at the time that my choice of major was largely irrelevant.  The skills I was learning were highly transferable to many different situations.

And so it is today that many students think of college in the narrow language of job training, rather than as a broad education.  This may be perfectly appropriate for some pre-professional programs where job-training is the focus and learning content is the emphasis.  But there’s considerable evidence that what many employers want is not narrowly trained students but broadly educated individuals.  For example, the National Association of Colleges and Employers found in a small survey (summarized in a Forbes article) that the ten skills employers want most are:

1. Ability to work in a team
2. Ability to make decisions and solve problems
3. Ability to plan, organize and prioritize work
4. Ability to communicate verbally with people inside and outside an organization
5. Ability to obtain and process information
6. Ability to analyze quantitative data
7. Technical knowledge related to the job
8. Proficiency with computer software programs
9. Ability to create and/or edit written reports
10. Ability to sell and influence others

With the exception of #7, all of these are broad skills potentially taught in many disciplines.

I was reminded of this again after reading about an interview with Laszlo Bock, the VP of what Google calls “people operations.”  In the piece, Bock makes similar points.  He notes that, for technical jobs, skills in a specific area are important but:

For every job, though, the No. 1 thing we look for is general cognitive ability, and it’s not I.Q. It’s learning ability. It’s the ability to process on the fly. It’s the ability to pull together disparate bits of information.

Another key concern is:

… leadership — in particular emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power…Your end goal is what can we do together to problem-solve. I’ve contributed my piece, and then I step back.

Once again, these are generic skills and processes, not specific content.

None of this is new or earth-shattering but these are important lessons for students, for whom this may be new.  They are also important for faculty to learn–or re-learn, as well.  We often focus disproportionately on content; on the specific subject-matter that we love and love to teach.  That enthusiasm is important but we need to be cognizant of the broader picture, making sure to incorporate skill-building exercises in our courses.  Multiple-choice quizzes are the assessment of last resort.  What are students learning to do in our classes?  How are they working with others?  Do they write?  Solve problems?  Create projects that let them practice communicating using various media?  How do they get to “show what they know”?  What skills are they developing?  All useful questions to ask ourselves as we design courses that help students truly prepare for the workplace.