Students Believe Their Computer Skills Are Below Average

Our colleagues at the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) at UCLA have publicly released some information from their annual survey of first-year students.  There are already several media reports on the topic and we can expect many more to come out over the next few days.  What caught my eye is that they shared some of their data with The Chronicle of Higher Education who created an interactive graphic showing how student responses have (or have not) changed over time.

Several of the questions on the survey ask students to compare themselves “with the average person your age” and “rate yourself above average or better in terms of __.”  For nearly all of the questions of this form, students have consistently rated themselves as above average: ability to see the world from someone else’s perspective, tolerance of others with different beliefs, openness to having their own views challenged, ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues, ability to work cooperatively with diverse people, academic ability, emotional health, and physical health.

So for what topics do respondents believe they are below average?  Computer skills, spirituality, and writing ability.  I don’t care to comment on spirituality (a commenter on the Chronicle’s website asks a good question: “What on earth does [that question] mean?”).  I’m puzzled that first-year college students believe they are below average in writing ability but I’m not an expert on writing so I’ll leave that puzzle to others.

What does it mean that 35% of the respondents to the survey rate themselves below average in computer skills?  And what does it mean that students have consistently responded like this since the question was first asked in 1999?  Well, to know for sure we’d have to ask them.  I would want to know how they interpret “computer skills.”  What do they consider to be computer skills?  How are they measuring their computer skills?  And to whom are they comparing themselves?  Heck, given the proliferation of smart phones and tablets it would be a good idea to ask students (and ourselves!) just what they think of as a “computer.”

One possible factor in all of this may be related to the gender imbalance in undergraduate education in the U.S.  More women than men are enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities.  According to the most recent data published by the National Clearinghouse Research Center, 56% of the students enrolled in the fall of 2012 were women.  Why is this important?  We know that women typically underestimate their computer skills whereas men typically overestimate their skills.  If the data reported by the Chronicle are unweighted then this may have an even larger impact on the data because women typically respond to surveys in higher proportions.

(Aside: The National Clearinghouse Research Center is doing some incredibly cool and vital research these days. They have a huge warehouse of data about college enrollment and it’s great to see them putting it all to use! Check out what they’re doing – it’s good stuff.)

In any case, it’s interesting that most undergraduates at 4-year institutions believe their computer skills are below average.  I doubt that it’s actually true but I would certainly agree that they are nowhere near as proficient as some of the common assumptions (e.g., “digital natives”) make them out to be.  Is this a problem?  Should we be worried or looking for a solution?  That’s a different and more complex discussion but I think it’s safe to say that first-year college students are precisely as proficient as they have needed to be given how they use computers in their daily lives – just like everyone else.  They don’t typically use their computers to perform complicated or deeply technical tasks so why would we expect them to be profoundly tech savvy?

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