What does it mean to be ‘tech savvy’?

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Hard at Work… by Samantha Decker, on Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I’ve written about my experiences with the not so tech savvy millennial students I’ve encountered while teaching at a small midwestern university. A recent self-study done by our campus IT department found for those participating in the Student Survey of Engagement their use of technology fell below that of students attending comparable schools. Our students were significantly less likely to:

  • Text message and create, read, and send instant messages;
  • Rate themselves as highly skilled in using the Internet to search for information, use presentation software, or perform computer maintenance;
  • Use Wikis or discipline-specific technologies in their course during the current semester;
  • Report that the use of IT in their courses improved their learning;
  • Want to be contacted by text message during a campus emergency; and
  • Use of E-mail on their handheld device.

From this the authors conclude that “These results lead to some doubts about the technological “savvy” of our students.” (Biasca & Dumke, 2011)

Though I agree that many millennial students are not as technically savvy as the literature portrays them to be, I question whether the authors can base their conclusion on the results above. What does it mean to be “tech savvy”? Is there some standard by which we judge ‘savviness’. Are the student peers aganst which they are being compared tech savvy to begin with?

Student learning gains from employing technology depends on effective use by the instructor, as well as the student. Lack of familiarity or skill level with technology is related to their exposure to it. Is a person less technically savvy if they have no need or have not been required to use presentation software?  Building skills in the use of digital tools comes from being required to use them. Whether a student uses wikis or discipline specific technologies in their classes depends on whether the instructor employs them or not.  If students aren’t required, or at least strongly encouraged to use presentation software, they may not become skilled in it use.

Saying that a student is less technically savvy because they don’t use email on their handheld device implies that they have a data service and phone capable of doing so, but the self study doesn’t have such data. I suspect at the time of the 2009 survey a majority of students were using simple feature phones.

Though one does not rate themselves as “highly skilled” in searching or using presentation software, are they not tech savvy if they are just “skilled”? I don’t know, as there is no data for the “skilled” category, or any other for that matter.

Whether learning is improved with information technology depends on the instructor as much as the student. Learning will more likely occur if meaningful assignments using engaging content is easily accessible to the student, and at their convenience.  What is missing from the report is data concerning the use of such skills in their courses. Comparing student skills to course use could identify places in the curriculum where defencies in technology “savviness” can be addressed.

Reference: Biasca, K & Dumke, D. (2011) Information Technology Self-Study. University of Wisconsin – Stevens Point Information Technology. 28p.

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About Michael Ritter PhD
Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, science textbook author, educational technology blogger, podcaster, and freelance media consultant.

3 Responses to What does it mean to be ‘tech savvy’?

  1. Chris Duke says:

    I asked and addressed that exact question, “What does it mean to be tech savvy?” Through the literature, it can mean anything which suggests it really means nothing. Through literature review, the issue I noticed was that “tech savvy” typically does *not* mean computer literate. The body of research literature has addressed “tech savvy” from every angle except for students knowing enough about computers to be productive in an academic or workplace environment. My dissertation research focused on the extent to which early college learners are computer literate; the short version? Using a one hour exam representing a benchmark against the IC3 (certiport.com) certification exam(s), 369 students completed a computer literacy exam in the 3rd week of Spring 2010 semester; of those, 212 also completed the exam again in the 14th week. A conservative cut score of 650/1000 was used as a passing score; 80% failed to achieve that score. On the pre-test, there was a statistically significant difference between the scores of younger learners and older learners, but that difference could not be attributed to age alone. And, a mere 11 weeks later, the older learners had surpassed the younger learners. If there is a difference between the computer literacy skills of younger and older learners, the difference was overcome in this instance by only 11 weeks of computer literacy instruction.

  2. I agree that “tech savvy” can mean a variety of things to people. Similarly, “computer literacy” doesn’t necessarily equate to “digital literacy”. Therefore, the survey I speak of doesn’t really get at what educators like I are truly interested in, digital literacy.

  3. Pingback: Tech Savvy Faculty and a Vision of 21st century teachers | The Digital Professor

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