They May Not Be As Savvy As You Think

In one way or another over the past decade or so I’ve been involved in helping teachers learn to use computers in their classrooms. Many of my adult students, however, carry around the myth that the computer competence of every one of their teenage students is far above them. I try to point out to them that many of their kids, while certainly skillful in instant messaging or downloading music, usually lack the skills necessary to effectively use computers as a learning tool. The big difference is that their kids are not afraid of experimenting, nervous about ruining the computer.

Simson Garfinkel, has a terrific article in Technology Review that takes a look at what he calls "generation N" and makes some of the same points.

But the more time I spend with the kids who should be members of Generation N – today’s high school and college students – the more convinced I am that the notion of universal computer competence among young people is a myth.

Experts in human-computer interaction say that the real difference between teenagers and their elders is teens’ willingness to experiment with computers, combined with their acceptance of the seemingly arbitrary conventions that are endemic to contemporary computer interfaces. In other words, teens aren’t worried about breaking their computers, and they’re not wise enough or experienced enough to get angry at and reject poorly written programs. The teens just deal with computers, as they are forced to deal with many other aspects of their lives. These strategies, once learned and internalized, are incredibly effective for working with today’s computer technology.