The current generation of college students has grown up surrounded by technology. It’s easy to assume that all of them possess a superior technical literacy to students in years past. But the digital divide—a gap between those who have easy access to technological tools and those who don’t—can mean not all your students have the same level of digital literacy. You need teaching strategies to assess the digital and technical literacy of your students to make sure they’re able to keep up with the digital assignments and resources you use in your course.

In McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14e, Wilbert J. McKeachie and Marilla Svinicki noted that while access to technology, particularly computers and the internet, has been dramatically increasing, “there are still segments of the population that may be far less familiar with technology…. Thus, it is important not to assume that all students have had the same exposure and access to the technology you plan to use in class” (McKeachie, 241).

Technical literacy

There is much more focus in the media about digital literacy than technical literacy, and the two areas do overlap. What is the difference? According to the National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council 2006 report, Tech Tally: Approaches to Assessing Digital Literacy, hosted on the National Academies Press web site, technical literacy is a broader subject. Technology encompasses human innovation, especially as it applies to making changes in nature to meet the needs of humanity. Thus, there are very different types of technical literacy depending on a person’s level of experience: they may not be able to write in a programming language but be perfectly at ease making repairs to their car, constructing an elevated garden, or running the light board in a theater. The writers of the report suggested that the more technical experience a person has, even if it seems unralted, the more they’re able to apply that experience across technologies.

To assess technical literacy, the writers recommended looking at three interconnected basic areas:

  • Knowledge
  • Critical thinking and decision making
  • Capabilities

It’s important to recognize the difference between capabilities and knowledge, particularly: a student may have theoretical knowledge about how technology works but no hands-on experience, while her fellow may have hands on experience with no real understanding of why it works.

Digital literacy

Digital literacy and the digital divide refer to slightly more specific technologies, particularly in relation to computers and the internet. McKeachie recommended these steps in helping assess and train your students:

  • Give a survey at the beginning of the semester asking students to rate their own fluency on different types of digital technology.
  • Offer a brief orientation to the technology you expect students to use when you assign a project, such as a podcast or online presentation.
  • Seek out the office on campus that gives support to students with disabilities or who are at a disadvantage and find out what resources are offered by the college to give those students an edge.

McKeachie also noted that some students struggling with technical assignments may be frustrated by the responsibilities of those assignments (eg. “monitoring their own learning goals”) rather than the tools. If you notice a student falling behind on digital assignments, don’t assume it is due to lack of capability when it may be struggling with prioritizing.

How do you assess your students’ technical skills? Share your ideas below!

Reference: McKeachie, Wilbert J., Marilla Svinicki. 2014.  McKeachie’s Teaching Tips, 14th Edition  Belmont, CA Wadsworth Cengage Learning.