Debunking the Myth of the Digital Native

Between texting, Web surfing, music downloading, and social networking, students are constantly connected. In fact, a recent study by the International Center for Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland found that when a group of college students were asked to go just one day without media — television, mobile phones, Internet access, etc. — they exhibited addict-like withdrawal symptoms.

Despite the fact that this generation has grown up with technology, a recent survey conducted by Cengage Learning and Eduventures reveals they need help taking advantage of digital tools in the classroom. The challenge for faculty, academic institutions and content publishers is to find new ways to engage students with educational technology that addresses various levels of ability and comprehension.

The study, “Instructors and Students: Technology Use, Engagement and Learning Outcomes,” shows that 65 percent of instructors think that students are tech savvy, while only 42 percent of students believe there is enough support and instruction for these tools. The survey also illustrates that both students and instructors recognize that increased use of classroom technology results in improved levels of engagement and learning outcomes, provided there is sufficient support for using the tools.

Rethinking Expectations of Digital Natives

There is no question that students rely on technology in their personal lives and are increasingly demanding technology in the classroom. However, it is quickly becoming clear that educational technology does not always come easily to all students. The survey found a significant disconnect between student technology prowess versus how adept instructors perceive them to be. If instructors overestimate their students’ abilities when it comes to using educations digital tools, the students miss out on an opportunity to become more engaged with the course material.

While not all students may be as tech savvy as their instructors assume, the world of higher education should not feel deterred from integrating such tools into the classroom. In fact, the survey shows that 70 percent of students prefer courses that utilize a great deal of technology, provided there is enough support in using the tools. Today, technology is evolving faster than ever before. It is vital that students are given the support needed to understand these tools, so they spend less time worrying about the technology and more time on the course materials.

Technology, Engagement, and Learning Outcomes
Technology has changed the way students expect to receive and share information. Just as it has revolutionized social communication, technology is flooding the world of education. While instructors may misjudge students’ digital competency in the classroom, there is no denying the fact when it is used properly, technology can dramatically enhance traditional teaching methods. This, in turn, results in a more productive, interactive, and successful classroom experience.

Whether or not they have experienced it firsthand, students and instructors see the value in classroom technology. The survey revealed a direct correlation between classroom technology use and overall learning outcomes. Nearly 60 percent of students polled believe that technology helps to engage them with their coursework and improves their ability to learn the information. The digital tools most preferred by students include Websites, communication tools, office suites, digital homework tools, and static digital content.

Instructors expressed a similar sentiment to that of the students. Three-quarters of instructors believe that student engagement has improved as the use of digital classroom tools has increased. Additionally, of the instructors who believe engagement levels have improved, 87 percent feel that learning outcomes have improved as well.

Where We Go From Here

Students today are more vocal about their learning needs. They are asking for “anytime, anywhere” access to educational information, just as they have come to expect such access in their personal lives. Students are holding their instructors and schools more accountable when it comes to providing enough guidance, support and training in the classroom. While we may not solve problems overnight, it is imperative that we, as educators and content providers, acknowledge these pain points so we can improve engagement and learning outcomes.

William Rieders is executive vice president of global new media for Cengage Learning. In this role, Rieders focuses on accelerating growth and using digital media and technology to create new opportunities. He also plays a significant role in defining and leading other strategic initiatives for Cengage Learning, including efforts to capitalize on synergies between Gale and the Academic and Professional Group. Rieders holds a BA from Connecticut College, and an MBA/MSIA from Carnegie Mellon University.