Are today's students truly 'tech savvy'?

Are today's students truly 'tech savvy'?

Summary: A new report released by the ESRC puts doubt in the theory.


It is difficult to prove that the Generation Y and young people today are not more technologically adapted than their older counterparts.

They may sometimes display an unhealthy level of dependence on their mobile phone, become bored easily when taught in school how to use basic commands in Microsoft Word and be called upon often to fix the problem with the printer, but are all members of this age bracket clued-up and comfortable with technology?

A new study conducted by the Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC) explored this question in an attempt to find out just how the younger generation connect and use technology.

Among other findings, the council discovered that there is a minority of students who choose not to use email and are confused by the range of technology used and available at universities. However, many students demonstrated heavy dependence on their mobile phones, and often find themselves distracted by social media during study.

The research was led by Dr Christopher Jones of the Open University, a global course provider, and is named "The Net Generation encountering elearning at University". The team interviewed and collated data from over 2000 students in their first year at five British universities. Dr Jones said:

"Our research shows that the argument that there is a generational break between today's generation of young people who are immersed in new technologies and older generations who are less familiar with technology is flawed.

The diverse ways that young people use technology today shows the argument is too simplistic and that a new single generation, often called the 'net generation', with high skill levels in technology does not exist."

The study found:

  • 97.8 percent of students owned a mobile phone;
  • Just over three quarters -- 77.4 percent -- owned a laptop and 38.1 percent owned a desktop computer.
  • 70.1 percent felt their access to computers was sufficient to meet their computing needs.
  • The mobile phone was chosen by 83.2 percent as the device students would miss the most if it was taken away.
  • A small minority of students don't use email or have access to mobile phones.

Students 20 years old or younger reported being more engaged in instant messaging, texting, social networks and downloading video media than students who were aged 25 years or more. Only 4.3 percent of those 20 or younger never used social networking sites, and for those 35 or older this rose to 78.5 percent.

Younger students were more likely to use these services for information and communication, whereas the older age bracket claimed to use them for study purposes. Social networking sites including Facebook and Twitter were commonly referenced as distracting, but students said they sometimes turned them off or 'took breaks' when studying.

Certain technologies used by universities were used by students rarely, no matter the age; contributing to blogs -- only 21.5 per cent -- and wikis -- 12.1 per cent -- and just 2 percent stated they had used a virtual world, outside of gaming.

Despite the rapid development and increased adoption of mobile technology, students still inhabit the same 'learning spaces' that other generations relied upon. They continue to study in their bedrooms, university libraries and study spaces, and few choose to use mobile technology more than occasionally to study in other areas, such as coffee shops.

According to the research, there was little evidence that today's students demand modern technology when entering university that the academic institution cannot provide. Technological integration is expanding, however in terms of study, students may not be as reliant on it to learn as we stereotype them to be.

Image credit: Bartosz Maciejewski


Topics: CXO, Collaboration, Social Enterprise

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  • Users!=techies

    It seems to me that the average computer user knows less about the equipment they use than they did 20 years ago, though they're more adept at using it.
    John L. Ries
    • Complete agreement

      This is just like what's happened in the past with cars, telephones & other technological gadgets: just because there's a larger pool of users of the gadget doesn't mean that there's a higher percentage in that group of techies.

      A techie isn't someone who surfs on their smartphone or sits in front of a game console for hours at a time. A techie is the one who knows how to fix (or at least troubleshoot) the smartphone/game console/other tech toy, if not assemble one from components.
    • Provided 'using' doesn't mean programming.

      They may appear to be quick users but in terms of being innovative or technical, no they're generally not. A computer offers so much power that they just can't tap.
      • That was part of my point

        And it was actually made worse by the "computer literacy" movement which encouraged people to be users only, rather than programmers. Previously, programming was a part of any computer class.
        John L. Ries
    • There's less TO use

      Just press a button on an iPad vs. understanding navigating a file system in a Commodore 64 or Atari 800XL...

      *sigh* The days where magazines devoted to computers had programs one could type in, save, and augment... but, as people say, "the 80s sucked" - I bet none of them had any intellectual skills... but who needs those when it's easier, fun, and more profitable, to bamboozle people with psychological manipulation...
      • Man, now I feel old

        Because I [b]do[/b] remember those good old days with the BASIC programs in the magazines.
    • Technology relatively new to mass consciousness

      250 years ago, 80% of the old world were on the land. After the Industrial Revolution, 80% were in factories. In the 1950s, 80% were in offices. Now, 80% are possibly in service industries.

      Smartphones had been around for a while before a critical simplification (abandoning the live info with it manual placement for just a sea of icons) allowed them to be OK with the mass population.

      Use of technology does not equate with understanding. I suspect that what you are witnessing is that 20 years ago, technology was less prevalent and those using it tended to know a lot about it (though there were many salespeople willing to put their feet in their mouths). Now with technology so prevalent, and the actual raw % of the total population that are capable of understanding it possibly not much greater than then, the average technical understanding of users of the technology has decreased over that period.

      Probably most technology users are less innovative with it than some animals.
      • Assumption of skill

        Sadly true and leads so many "users" to the incorrect assumption of " I am a tech user therefore I am tech savvy".

        Ouch. In my mind sometimes more dangerous than someone who knows they have no clue.
    • too true

      any more than owning a Mack truck makes a person a diesel mechanic .. or owning a Ferrari F40 makes a person a Ferrari engineer, so it is with the latest generation. Tech devices, tech toys everywhere ... but not a drop to drink.

      It's a generation or two (Gen Y and the Dot Commers) that fall into that category. Granted there are exceptions, but we're obviously not talking about youngsters that are either brought up immersed in I.T. (via parents with a background), studying I.T or that already have some qualification and requisite competency in an area of I.T.
  • high school students

    HS students who grew up with all of this tech equipment for the most part are highly clueless about the tech they use. I have been director of tech for 2 private high schools for last 8 years where many of the kids are mega-wealthy. they are the first to have the toys but take absolutely no initiative in really learning how to use the stuff. they upgrade to the latest i-thing whether there is a need/reason just to be "cool".

    They for the most part are terrible problem solvers when it comes to tech.
    changing printers in the programs they use is beyond most of these kids.

    While they take word, excel, powerpoint classes in middle school, they can't do any real formatting in word besides center, bold, italic and font changes.
    forget about excel and powerpoint presentations they do are extremely rudimentary.

    Lets hope when they finally grow up, these kids don't support the computers that run any critical systems otherwise put your head between your knees and kiss your arse goodbye.

    just my observation
    • I agree wholeheartedly.

      The younger generation grew up with the tech and they just expect it to be there and work. They don't really have to learn how it works. To them, tech is like a toaster or refrigerator is to the older generation- it's just there and always has been so why bothering to learn how it works?

      Being that computing devices are such powerful-- and vulnerable-- tools, if people really want to be safe using them they shouldn't avoid understanding how it works. Yet, they carry around in their pockets/backpacks tools that are hundreds of times more powerful then the computers that got astronauts to the moon and wonder why they got a virus.
      • And we just basically scrapped the space program...

        I think the gov't saved 4 billion dollars by throwing out much of what it took us 50 years to achieve. Very sad. I'm sure that the GSA has probably spent that much on parties.
      • Modern tech companies foster a 'replace with better looking' mentality

        Just look at the rapid degradation in the technical competancy of ZDNet bloggers in a mere couple of years.

        And the mass consciousness seems to worship those who have encouraged us to be merely consumers of technology. However, those that we remember long after they are dead are not those who gave us what we desired, but those who dared to challenge us to be better and take responsibility for ourselves.
  • Clueless

    I have been working with users in various roles for 30 years. I had hoped that by now there would be some competency in basic computer and office skills. But, sadly I think we are devolving.

    At least in the "olden" days you could find competent office workers who knew how to compose a letter and be a "competent" secretary. Now, not only do very few people know how to use Word and Excel, they also lack all the other office skills that were previously taught.

    I must be an old codger, but mostly I see kids wandering around talking or texting and oblivious to the world around them.
  • All thumbs

    Kids text but their competency on desktops is not great. They eschew email for texting on their iPhones. My nieces are somewhat interested in Pages in iWork, but think Word looks and feels terrible. They always gripe about having to wade through the ribbons.

    Typing skills? Almost non-existent.
    • Typing skills

      I should like to take issue with the typing incompetence as a generalisation. At my son's school a typing course was part of the IT curriculum. I think they started aged 11, and he reached 110 words per minute! That is the speed of a competent, old-style secretary, IIRC.

      At about 14/15 they rightly drop IT as a separate subject altogether. Admittedly the school is an independent one but I am not sure the state schools here in the UK are that different.

      Now aged 15 he still touch-types at high speed.
      • Unfortunately it's probably not standard

        Even back in my high school days, Typing was a separate class from the Computer Programming classes in school. College was pretty much the same: keyboarding was not part of the IT curriculum, although you might see it in the "Introduction to Computers" courses meant for non-IT degress (or for those "IT-lite" associate's degrees).

        However, in my senior year in high school, since I'd already taken all of the available computer programming courses, & couldn't take any more study halls, I took the Personal Typing class. We actually had IBM typewriters -- not the ones with built-in correction ribbon, but the ones where you had to hold the plastic correction tab between the keys & paper if you wanted to "white over" a mistake. The thing is, even a few decades later, I can still touch-type over half of the time, & still type over 80 words/minute...not to mention being able to hit 13,000 keystrokes/minute for alphanumeric data entry. Some of that's from using computers for all these years, but the majority is from that typing class.
    • Me too

      I hate wading through ribbons
  • It's a joke!

    I actually had a researcher at the University tell me the kids now a days are tech savy, we were discussing admin right access, I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair(my boss was there and literally told me to bite my tounge, so my only alternative was to laugh)...haven't seen it yet...agree with the postings above, sure if you need to post a tweet or update your Facebook page, grab a student...if you need something technically repaired, you better look for someone a little more 'seasoned' in the IT community...the students (and some 'adults'-it isn't all students) provide daily comedy, regarding IT, in one form or another...
    • Couldn't agree more

      Kids today are no more "tech-savvy" than they were 15 years ago. The mediums may have changed (SMS replaced by Tweeting, BBM etc), but their knowledge and more important their UNDERSTANDING of this stuff is for the most part, non-existent. I work in a K12 education environment as IT Manager and frequently have the "techie" kids come see me and ask for work experience. They don't understand the fundamentals of operating systems, hardware, client-server environments ad infinitum. It would be laughable were it not for the fact that these kids are the future. Shudder.