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BELLTONES: What Kids Know (and Don’t Know) About Technology

By Mary Ann Bell - Posted Jan 1, 2010
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In my last column, I wrote about how to keep up in today’s fast-moving world of technology. As part of my preparation, I posted a survey seeking ideas about how to stay current. One suggestion that was repeatedly offered was to “keep a kid around.” In other words, if you want to learn about technology, just ask a Digital Native—someone who has grown up with computers and the internet.

I agree that we can absolutely learn from our students, children, and even grandchildren. It is a terrible mistake to be afraid to admit to youngsters that they might know something that you do not and, thereby, avoid technology out of fear of showing your lack of understanding. At the same time, though, I think that adults need to be careful not to attribute more expertise and understanding to youngsters than is justified.

As I started working on this column, the first question I asked myself was, “How much do kids really know about technology?” In my early exploration of this topic, my original premise was that there are many things that youngsters do not know. My observations tell me that kids are very confident and competent using devices. If you hand a kid a gadget he or she has never seen before, it is likely that he or she will fearlessly and successfully figure out what to do with it in short order without the slightest thought to reading instructions or seeking help. Kids are growing up with all the wonderful devices and applications that stymie their elders.

Yet these same kids are likely to give little thought to the most efficacious or safest ways to use technology. Part of being young is to ignore warnings and directions. This combination of intuitive ability and lack of examination can lead to less productive and even dangerous use of technology by Digital Natives.

Here are some examples of what I mean:

Kids don’t know how to search.

Kids don’t know how to evaluate.

Kids don’t know how to stay safe.

Frankly, I think I could come up with other things they don’t know. But for the sake of this article, these three are major concerns that we need to address.

Without expressing my own predispositions, I asked via Twitter, my blog, and listservs for people’s reactions to questions about what kids do not know about technology. As always, I was rewarded with generous and thoughtful replies. I do not find it surprising that the responses bore out my presupposed ideas because they are based on my own experiences as well as what I hear from fellow librarians and educators. Here are some things I learned.

Kids Don’t Know How to Search

Yes, Google is great, and everybody uses it—and rightly so. It is an excellent tool, though it is but one among many that we should encourage students to use. To be sure, it is a mistake to just turn kids loose and say, “OK students, here is your assignment: Ready … set … GOOGLE!” All too often I fear that is what happens.

Any teacher or librarian who really watches students as they seek information on the internet knows that they lack sophisticated search skills. In fact, many people lack the most rudimentary skills. Something I used to notice was that many patrons, whether adult or teen, simply went to the browser address line and typed in a word or two, thus bypassing search engines altogether. This drives me crazy! However, it is a small problem in the larger scheme of things. In fact, most browsers now assume that people will do this; they have been designed for that event, with words typed in address lines being automatically searched by Google or other tools.

But here is a bigger problem: When I did a little preliminary reading regarding kids and search habits, I came across a term that I had not heard before describing another problematic behavior: “bouncing.” David Loertscher, Ph.D., used this very appropriate label to describe what many searchers, both young and old, might admit is a common practice: moving quickly from one resource to another without closely reading any material. Granted, this type of skimming may be used early in a search to find promising information, but it is not productive if a reader doesn’t carefully follow up on that information.

Bouncing’s first cousin might well be named “print mania.” During my days both as a junior high librarian and a community college librarian, I saw lots of examples of people printing out masses of text, far more than one could ever plan or need to read. This wasteful and pointless activity gives the user a sense of getting work done when, in reality, little is really accomplished.

Even if students move beyond the very basic step of actually using a search engine, many never leave the comfort of Google-land, and few employ search techniques such as varying search terms or using Boolean logic. In an effort to receive feedback from professionals about kids and searches, I posted a survey to and invited participants via Twitter, Facebook, Classroom 2.0 Ning, and various listservs. What I learned reinforced the impressions I just described. My survey garnered more than 100 responses from librarians and teachers. It can be viewed at

Here are some of the things I learned from my survey:

Yes, indeed, kids still put search terms in browser address lines. Well more than half of the respondents replied that this happens at least some of the time, with 18.5% calling it a frequent practice. Again, it is true that such a habit can lead to results, but it certainly is not the route we want our students to take.

Google does indeed rule. Less than 1% reported that students never use Google (I suspect these responses are from the few schools that actually block the use of Google), 19.7% said students always go to Google, and the rest report frequent use.

Subscription databases are not getting the attention that I would have hoped. Only about 25% report that they are used often or frequently.

Educators seem to be fighting an uphill battle to get students to use the databases; more than 75% report that they try to promote the use of these resources. A depressing 16% say students never use databases. Alas, I do not know if this is because the databases are not available.

The practice of bouncing from one site to another without closely examining either is epidemic; more than 90% of survey takers agreed that patrons are doing this.

Indiscriminate printing is also a concern for more than half of the respondents.

I wondered if efforts are being made to actually teach students safe and smart search skills. While students do display some techniques, there is certainly room for improvement:

The simple process of varying search terms is not common to many young searchers: 10.2% responded that kids “never” do this, and 71.2% said they “sometimes” do. Only 2% could boast that their students always know to do this.

Narrowing a search is another simple skill utilized far too seldom, with 20% reporting this never happens.

As to Boolean searching, the gap was the greatest: 56.2% said students never use these methods, which suggests to me a lack of instruction. No one reported that students always know to employ these techniques.

While it does not surprise me, I do find it worrisome that teachers are not aware or concerned about their students’ lack of search skills. I asked how many librarian/technology teachers observe other faculty members giving students guidance regarding how to search: 36% reported that teachers leave students to their own devices when it comes to searching, offering no instruction or guidance about the process.

The information I was able to garner from librarians and teachers by way of my online inquiries caused me to remember an old cliché: never assume. Teachers should never take for granted that their students know how to search and find accurate online information. By the same token, librarians, technology teachers, and administrators should not assume that all their teachers know what is necessary to help students seek information online. I will talk more about teacher training in my conclusion, but I want to point out here that the need for staff development covering internet use is a continuing and unmet necessity.

Kids Don’t Know How to Use Technology for Learning or Productivity

It is not enough for youngsters to be masters of their sophisticated cell phones, social networking sites, and gaming devices. Yet these are the three primary areas where kids concentrate their interest and use. Teachers are assuming too much if they take it for granted that students are experts at using applications that are available at school such as office suites, mind-mapping software, graphics tools, etc. Granted, they are likely to be quick to learn, but they do still need instruction and guidance. My own experience with adult M.L.S. students is that far too few of them are adept at the most basic computer applications, including office suites and other ubiquitous programs. Here are some shortcomings I observe regularly:

Most of my students come into our introductory computer class professing a great deal of confidence using office applications, particularly word processing. They are, however, surprised and thrilled to see demonstrations of such basic features as drawing tools, charting and graphing tools, and other formatting options. If they do not know these programs, how can they teach students about them?

While word processing is commonly used, spreadsheet applications such as Excel are very often overlooked. I am a big fan of Excel, but the need to provide basic introduction to this useful and versatile application continues. Kids can use Excel for all kinds of great graphs, timelines, tables, and other projects, but only if they are exposed to the software.

Presentation software such as PowerPoint is often used only at the most rudimentary level with no interactivity involved. This results in the many glorified slide shows that teachers and students produce.

Even though Paint is available on all PC computers, many teachers never use it; some have never even seen it in use. This is one application that many kids already use, and it’s a great tool that is readily at hand at no cost. If teachers know to tap into kids’ interest and ability in Paint, they can use the application for original artwork in many ways.


Kids Do not Know How to Be Smart and Safe Online

A great deal of concern has been generated about online safety. Many educators seem to rely on filters as the ultimate solution. This is not accurate and, I am convinced, conspires to make kids less safe. Because filters offer a false sense of security, the teaching of safe internet searching and communicating is often given short shrift. After all, the filters are keeping out all the bad stuff, right? Wrong. Here are some problems with this line of thinking:

Filters both over- and underblock. Even the “tightest” filter can sometimes let objectionable material pass through. At the same time, a great deal of valuable information can be blocked. I have within the last year asked students to search for terms such as “triggerfish,” “sperm whale,” and “breast cancer” only to be blocked.

Teachers and administrators often have a false sense of security because the filters are in place. Thus, they do not actively teach students about safe internet use. When these youngsters go home, to the mall, to the public library, etc., they may be babes in the woods due to the lack of instruction about safety. That is why I assert that filters can cause students to be less, rather than more, safe.

The law that seeks to protect students, the Children’s Internet Protection Act (CIPA), only mandates that sites with obscenity or extreme violence be blocked. Most schools and districts block far more than these and, thus, are in violation of the letter and the spirit of the law.

This is a topic I have addressed in other columns and articles and, indeed, one that is the subject of many books and presentations. My reason for mentioning it again here is just to point out that this is definitely an area where adults should not “assume” kids know what they should and should not be doing online.


So What Should Be Done?

In this article, I have tried to dispel the notion that Digital Natives have some sort of innate ability regarding all aspects of technology, by virtue of the fact they were born into a digital world. It is true that they cannot imagine a world without cell phones, powerful computers, mesmerizing video games, and the internet. At least that is true if you do not consider the sizeable group of youngsters who do not have the means to enjoy these things. We all need to remember that there are many students who do not even have electricity at home, much less multiple computers and internet access. Surely, everyone concedes that these youngsters need extra assistance and access at school. But putting aside this group, educators need to face up to our responsibilities to teach even the most tech-savvy kids. What should be done?

For starters, we need to continue promoting greater awareness of the areas where students need instruction and better instruction for both faculty and students. I do not particularly subscribe to the line of thinking that says that if someone admits to having a problem, he or she is well on the way to a solution. Lots of people have been trumpeting the needs I have listed in this article for a long time. Recognizing a shortcoming is a positive step, but the big leap is to then take steps to solve the problem.

I have been saying and writing this for years, as have leaders far more important than me. There is a crying need for teacher training and ongoing staff development. How to provide such instruction is a subject for other articles and books, but the lack of training must be addressed. For as long as I can remember working with technology and learning, I have personally observed that far too many schools and districts will spend thousands of dollars on equipment and software and then fail to provide time and resources for training. Alas, the problem persists.

Anyone who is reading this magazine clearly has concern and interest about using technology in education. We are the people who need to become actively involved in teaching both educators and students about smart and productive computer and internet use. This can be done by presenting at conferences, writing articles, and, most of all, working directly with colleagues and students. If we don’t do this, who will?

Mary Ann Bell , B.A., M.L.S., Ed.D., is an associate professor in the Department of Library Science, Sam Houston State University, where she teaches classes related to technology and librarianship. She is the author of Internet and Personal Computer Fads, Haworth Press, 2004, and Cybersins and Digital Good Deeds: A Book About Technology and Ethics, Haworth Press, 2006. She has also written for numerous journal publications and made conference presentations on the topics of information ethics and creative teaching with technology.She is active in the Texas Library Association, American Library Association, Texas ­Computer Education Association, Association for the Advancement of Computing in Education, and Delta Kappa Gamma. She can be reached by email at


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