The myth of computer literacy

It is quite easy to assume that the modern student is computer literate.  Indeed, when you see students operate their mobile devices and when they reveal their knowledge of the internet, you automatically tend to assume that they are miles ahead of us lecturers in terms of computer literacy. But when it comes to the really important stuff, like putting together a professional document in Word, or performing calculations on Excel, my experience is that many students lack very basic skills.

When producing technical reports in Word, I find that the work they produce is often unprofessional and downright sloppy. There is poor sizing of graphs and figures, mis-labelling and non-labelling of axes on graphs, inconsistent use of fonts, inconsistent line spacing and inconsistent justification of paragraphs. Indeed, the paragraph is an alien concept to many. Many students have trouble with the Equation Editor. Likewise with Excel, I have found that even third year students lack any idea about how to use a spreadsheet. Many students simply use Excel as a ‘glorified’ calculator.

Part of the problem, at least when it comes to the students I teach, is that we no longer give them any formal instruction in the use of these packages. We have fallen into the trap of assuming that because most students use mobile technology routinely, they also have all the important computer skills, like using Word and Excel that one needs to operate in the workplace. That is a big mistake on our part. It is like assuming that a reader of Hello magazine has the skills to be an Irish Times journalist.

On a related matter, I wonder if the poor writing skills of our students have anything to do with the fact that they simply do not have enough experience of writing with a word processor. Handwriting is still used extensively in second level and it is still the dominant means of communication in examinations at both second and third levels. I’m no cognitive scientist but I suspect that the mental processes involved in writing by hand are a little different from those used in word processing. I think it is far easier to become sloppy and complacent when using a word processor because in the back of your mind is the thought that you can easily change what you have written. But, if you’re used to writing on a word processor, you develop an iterative approach to writing (at least I do) in which the final version of a sentence may be much different from the original version. It is possible that students develop sloppy habits because they know they can easily correct a sentence, but for whatever reason, they fail to go beyond the first iteration.

Anyway, to get back to the original point of this post, I will be making the case to my own colleagues for giving our students a lot more formal instruction in basic IT skills.


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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