Forgive me for going all Thomas Friedman – "Here's this thing I noticed from this person I talked to, and here are some broad generalizations about mankind based thereupon!" – but the longer I teach the more this nags at me.
College-aged people today are on the internet about 18 hours per day. They go nowhere without a suite of disposable Chinese-made electronic devices, almost all of it devoted to listening to their horrendous AutoTuned "music" or browsing the internet. As a teacher this is problematic inasmuch as at any given moment 75% of the class have their laptops open and are diligently staring at Facebook. Another 15% are furiously texting away with their iPhones and Blackberii in their laps. The remaining 10% are either sleeping or, for want of other ways to occupy themselves, paying attention.
This can be irritating, especially when students choose to sit front and center in the classroom and pound away at their cellphone at point blank range. When I am trying to be optimistic, however, I consider that this should be producing generations of young people with good basic tech skills. They should be computer literate given that they are using one almost constantly. They should understand how to find things online given that they are online constantly. The constant reading and sending of email and other forms of communicating on the web should, theoretically, provide some incremental benefit to their writing abilities.
If any of you work in tech support, I bet you know where I am going with this.
These kids, unbelievably, are more technologically inept than my 60 year old colleagues whose first experience with computer data processing involved punched cards. Contrary to all logic and my minimal expectations, their near-continuous computer usage has had no effect on them. None. Many of them are absolutely fucking baffled by the concept of correctly attaching something to an email. Perhaps 1% of them understand how to take a Word document and make it into a PDF. Most of them have never used basic software like Excel or PowerPoint that comes pre-installed on their package-deal laptops. Installing a program is as comprehensible as open heart surgery. I recently overheard students talking about upgrading to Windows 7 and one asked earnestly if she needed to send her laptop back to the factory to have it done.
All that time on the internet must be helping though, right? Unbelievably about half of the students I encounter (and this is a pretty decent school, mind you) have not the faintest idea how to find something on the internet. I assign research papers in every class, and in the course of that assignment I am bombarded with emails to the effect of "I am having trouble findin sources for my paper on executive orders. do you have any suggestions?" As calmly as possible I am required to reply suggesting they enter "Executive Orders" into Google and, if they're feeling really punchy, visit the online library catalog and do the same. They ask me where they can find copies of the Constitution since the full document is not in any of our textbooks; again I have to point out that putting "Constitution" into a search engine produces quite literally hundreds of results, all of which will provide the mysterious information they seek.
In short, this constant exposure to the best consumer technology on the market today has had two effects: they know how to open Facebook and they know how to text message their friends in gibberish, in some bastardized version of the English language that has been lured into a windowless van and fingered. They have learned nothing else. My attempt to find a silver lining on the fact that they are forever glued to computers has failed. I suppose, given that high schools do not send students to college with basic math and writing skills, that it is silly to expect that they would arrive with basic computer skills. The only thing sillier is expecting that they might acquire any on their own.