Published on 2013/10/31
AUDIO | Improving Technology Literacy to Improve Success
Ensuring students have a base level of technology literacy is critical for their success both in online and face-to-face classes.
The following interview is with Catheryn Cheal, associate vice president and senior academic technology officer at San Jose State University. Cheal was recently quoted in an article discussing a few of the challenges higher education institutions face when enrolling adult students who struggle with technology literacy. In this interview, she expands on those ideas, discusses some of the specific challenges students have with technology and shares some thoughts on how colleges and universities might help ameliorate some of these issues for non-traditional students.

Click here to read key takeaways

1. How real is the problem of technology literacy for adult students enrolling in postsecondary education?

We found when we were developing the San Jose State University Plus courses — which was our partner with Udacity for MOOCs [Massive Open Online Courses] — … that one of the main problems [students] had was they simply didn’t have computers and Internet connection at home. … Something as simple as not being able to afford an Internet connection at home can mean you don’t have an equivalent chance at schooling that others do.

2. What impact does a lack of technology literacy have on adult learners, both in terms of teaching and learning and in terms of retention?

It all depends. A program can certainly put in place, within its first couple of weeks, an orientation that can help the students get the skills needed. So, as long as they have the computers and the access, you can work with the students to get those computer literacy skills that they need.

Our traditional online courses try to put in an orientation that takes [students] through the course so they learn how to navigate the course. [It] makes sure they read all of the points about what’s expected, takes them through ideas about what to do if they have a technology problem and need a backup computer to use … and try to have them schedule the times over the semester where they’ll be available to do the work.

Trying to have the students think about all of the issues in taking an online course is preferable to having them deal with sudden problems that come up and not [having] thought about it. So, most good online courses can build that right into their content at the beginning of the course.

3. On average, do traditional-age students face the same challenges with technology that adults do?

Yes, I think they do. Now, there’s a range, of course, among adults and the traditionally younger students; it’s true that the younger students have grown up with computers, even if not in the home, certainly in the classroom. And they’re used to just clicking everywhere and aren’t afraid of breaking anything whereas some of the older generation might be a little more hesitant.

As far as just skill in using a computer and desire in using computers, I think you get the same kind of range over both age groups. I’ve seen very young students not able to navigate very quickly and I’ve seen older students who were able to do it. So, I don’t really believe there’s a strong difference among the generations; there’s a bigger difference between the range within a generation than there is between the generations.

4. What can higher education institutions do to help improve the technology literacy of their adult learners?

I think one of the things that works really well in self-paced online courses is to just have the proper flow of information. You make sure things are extremely clear and well organized and that should go small step by small step so the students don’t get lost or confused.

The proper construction of the course, the proper design of it, right from the beginning, does a great deal to help. And this can only be done really after one or two or three tries. I know when I’ve designed online courses the first time around, you get a lot of questions in certain areas. And you learn from that and you go in and do a second iteration, which corrects all of that, and you get less questions the second time around and so forth.

Really paying attention to the feedback from students is crucial in making each iteration of an online course better.

5. Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of technology literacy for non-traditional students in higher education and, on the converse side, the challenges adult students could face in higher education if they don’t have a base level of technology literacy?

I still think some of the main problems with technology are the beginning problems.

“How do you turn the system on that you’re facing at the moment?” If you can’t turn it on, you can’t get very far. “How do you use the mouse?” I still see people who are not familiar with that or on a laptop, “How do you use the touch pad?”

Some of those really basic human-to-machine interfaces are some of the most difficult. People might be able to get in and begin to use this once the system is all set up for them, but if they come up to a turned off system you’d be surprised at how that stops people.

We have faculty come into some of our classrooms, for example, that are called ‘incubator classrooms’ or ‘next gen classrooms’ and they are outfitted with a huge array of equipment and software — projectors, codex for TelePresence, video conferencing — but until the faculty member can hook up their laptop and get everything working, none of it can be used.

I think some of the most important literacy is that very early introduction to, “How do I get the system started and up and running?” And then once we’re beyond that, learning the actual software is really not so difficult because you can have instructions printed up for that kind of thing or workshops created or one-on-one sessions, so we work with faculty and students to get to that point.

– – – –

Key Takeaways

  • Adult learners are no less technologically literate or illiterate than their traditional-aged counterparts.
  • One of the biggest problems technologically-challenged students have is simply understanding how to operate their machines; using the mouse or turning the computer on, for example.
  • Creating orientation classes at the very beginning of programs that help students become comfortable with technology and understand the barriers they could run into during their program is an effective way to help students adjust.
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Readers Comments

Natasha Rubin 2013/10/31 at 11:38 am

Fascinating interview. Technology literacy is something we don’t talk about enough because it tends to be assumed that if students enroll for online programs, they know how to learn and produce work in that milieu. It’s good to hear Cheal address some of these misconceptions.

Brian Bloom 2013/10/31 at 2:23 pm

I too believed the stereotype that younger students are more tech savvy than older students. It’s interesting that Cheal finds there’s actually greater variation within a generation than between them. One issue I could see coming out of this is that younger students might be less likely to seek help for technological troubles, due to false confidence in their own abilities (aided by their own belief in the stereotype) or out of embarrassment. I wonder if anyone has found this to be the case, and what could be done to address it.

    Cathy Cheal 2013/11/07 at 11:51 am

    Hi Brian,
    Actually, most of our students are very quick to ask for online help when it is available and easy to find. The MOOC courses had 24 hour live chat help and the students loved it…once they found the button for it on the webpage. Faculty get constant emails requesting help. The perceived anonymity of the Internet does seem to mean that students are used to requesting online help and are quick to do so.
    Cathy

Rebecca Cruser 2013/10/31 at 3:38 pm

Having sessions to teach basic computer skills before a program starts is so important, regardless of the age of the student or the program he/she is enrolled in. “Technology skills” is an umbrella term we use to describe anything from performing simple word processing to coding a website. Institutions need to determine what their baseline is and ensure all students are capable of the key functions identified. There could be options for more advanced computer tutorials for interested students.

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