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PLATO Program

The University of Mississippi

Recognizing and closing the gaps in students’ digital skills

Posted on: July 7th, 2017 by Patricia O'Sullivan

In a recent news story, EdSurge asked What If Students Are the Biggest Barrier to Innovation? According to the article, both anecdotal and survey data indicate that students often resist technological advances in course delivery and assessment. This sentiment is echoed by another EdSurge story, posted a day after the first, entitled: Students Say They Are Not as Tech Savvy as Educators Assume. The second story is a summary of a student voices forum and town hall sponsored by EdSurge at the New Media Consortium (NMC) conference in Boston, June 13-15, in which a dozen students from across the nation shared their frustrations and suggestions regarding college readiness.


The students spoke of the confusion and difficulty in having to operate in several education systems at once, how they are not taught, but expected to know how to use Microsoft Office and Google apps, and how universities too often communicate with them through antiquated channels such as email and phone calls. In addition to the student forum and town hall at the NMC conference, UMass Boston biology instructors presented their failed pilot of Habitable Worlds, an online course created by Arizona State University’s School of Earth & Space Exploration and ASU Online, powered by Smart Sparrow, and funded in part by the NASA Astrobiology Institute. Why did the pilot fail? Habitable Worlds is the Mercedes-Benz of online courses with its high definition graphics, professionally produced video, and adaptive technology. But in this case, function won out over form. Students at UMass Boston prefered courseware they can easily operate over luxury courseware that did not integrate well with the LMS.


A common theme from these stories debunks the idea that Millennials are digital natives with an instinctive knowledge of technology. In truth, a significant percentage of college students are not Millennials, and even those that fall into that generational category are not masters of digital technology. According to the students at the NMC/EdSurge forum, when they arrive at college, they are proficient only in certain digital spaces such as social media, music, and other entertainment.

My experience as an instructor aligns with what the NMC/EdSurge forum students said, although without comprehensive data, it is difficult to say if the digital skills gap is a universal phenomena or not. My Pharmacy Ethics course, which is not offered to first-year students, is a flipped, hybrid in which course content is delivered online and face-to-face sessions are reserved for active learning and guest speakers. Class activities rely on the Realizeit Learning platform, Google collaboration apps, and several external websites. It took me by surprise when students struggled using Google Drive as a collaboration tool. More surprising was how many students do not know how to take screenshots, how to insert images into a Word document, or how to save a Word document as a PDF. So, while students had no problem navigating the courseware, it was the basics of Word and Google that tripped them up when completing group work and individual assignments.


Whether or not the digital skills gap affects a large number of students or a small number of them, it is essential to student success that we recognize the possibility for gaps and address them. However, closing the gap will require a meeting in the middle for students and instructors.

Rather than penalizing students for not knowing how to use digital tools, I provide written, video, and in-person instructions, impressing upon them that Microsoft Office and Google apps are tools they’ll continue to use as students and professionals. I have only recently started texting students immediate action information, and their positive response to this form of communication tells me I should have done this years ago. As my university’s operating system allows me to text without using my cell phone, I do not have to worry about sharing my personal phone number with students. Finally, I am working to reduce the number of account sign-ins by integrating them into the LMS. This will allow students to access multiple tools and platforms with one sign in.


However, because of the variety of tools and platforms, students will never get the UX simplicity they want regarding a single sign-in for all academic digital tools and platforms. They do not seem to struggle with multiple sign-ins on social media, which tells me they simply need to apply this skill set to academic and professional sites. As older generations understand all too well, for the sake of account security, it is a necessary inconvenience to have separate sign-ins for online banking, social media, professional tools, and a myriad of other digital platforms that help us organize our life.

Students need to be trained in Microsoft Office and Google in order to function in a professional setting. The key is to provide step by step directions and to walk them through using these tools. Telling students the importance of these digital skills is also important because they don’t always make connections that seem obvious to us.

Another interesting takeaway from the NMC conference is how students do not always want the best digital experience, they want the one that gets them what they want or need in that moment. However, at most universities, faculty preference determines which EdTech tools students must use, and if faculty do not understand the limitations of students’ digital skills, this can create frustration for both students and faculty. My experience is that students will ‘skill up’ as long as we provide instruction and assistance. Students having limited digital skills does not mean students are a problem, it simply means they are not trained in those skills yet.
Patricia O’Sullivan, PLATO Program Manager