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Media Outlet: Community College Week (Fall Tech Update)

Date: 11.15.07

Preparing college freshman to succeed in the 21st century classroom and beyond

By Ken Ross

The purpose of higher education is to prepare young people for a future of work and life in the 21st century — where every aspect utilizes various information communication technologies, including computing. Yet in our society, the pace of technological change is truly astounding. It has left no area of our lives untouched, even education.

Historically, the heart of education has always been literacy. From the establishment of the 3 Rs (Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic) until now, achieving literacy has stood as a consistent yet evolving foundation. Now a new literacy is required, one more broadly defined than the ability to read and write.

The rapid development of digital technologies confronts students with situations that require both the effective utilization and evaluation of digital tools and electronically accessible information.

Possessing strong computing and Internet skills — essentially the fourth fundamental skill today — is every bit as vital to education and employment as reading, writing and arithmetic.

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Re-thinking assumptions on student digital literacy
We often make the erroneous assumption that incoming college students as a whole possess digital skills as some sort of innate ability. After all, they’ve never seen a day without computers. But exposure doesn’t necessarily translate into literacy. Recent research from a four-year university showed only 7 percent of incoming freshmen could meet digitally literacy standards.

So, why do these so-called “Millennials” struggle with technology vital to education and employment?
Some educators suggest students are so enamored with social technology (i.e. networking on the Internet, cell phones, gaming, etc.) they fail to learn “true literacy” in the digital domain.

The digital skills gap is a universal issue that is exacerbated in higher educational settings. Few institutions have developed comprehensive technology plans that specify learning objectives for students or ensure successful integration of technology in curricula to enhance students’ digital literacy. Not acquiring specific digital skills makes it difficult for students to get through even non-computing courses as more and more instructors are requiring computing competence (i.e. Excel spreadsheets in a math class, Internet research for English, after-hours e-mail communication to faculty). Instructors expect students to accomplish these tasks without utilizing class time for step-by-step instruction on digital tools.

Research has shown that without basic skill elements, higher levels of thinking can’t be achieved. In fact, a recent study found a correlation between current drop-out rates and the lack of digital literacy among students. College graduation rates are stagnating while enrollment continues to grow. Many institutions are losing one in four students while just 63% manage to earn a bachelor’s degree in six years. Although the lack of literacy is only a contributing factor, it is unwise to think we can do more than turn on the computer to teach higher skills without ensuring students’ posses these digital skills.

Notwithstanding the mountain of data that shows many incoming freshmen are matriculating into college before they are prepared, most high schools have also not notably altered curriculum to match higher education requirements. The result: Often students “need significant remediation before they can take credit-learning courses.” As one director of the Education Trust, a non-profit organization created by the American Association for Higher Education, stated, “An awful lot of institutions just assumed that getting [students] in the door was the most important thing.”

A new approach to measuring and developing digital literacy
Emerging consensus between the public and educators seems to suggest that students need to be digitally literate. Currently, five out of six regional accreditation bodies for colleges and universities in the United States recommend institutions have a digital literacy component for their students. Institutions generally assess student math, English and writing skills before they ever enter the classroom. Today, a growing number of institutions are seeking ways to evaluate and enhance student digital literacy.

Some colleges and universities have tried integrating segments of computer training through required curricula, while others have mandated students take fundamental computing courses. These programs have experienced varying degrees of success, but some higher education administrators are now seeking ways to evaluate student digital literacy before they take credit-bearing courses.

Broward Community College in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., is the sixth-largest community college in the United States with a student body of up to 60,000 students. After determining the school’s 10,000 incoming freshmen would benefit by gaining the current and relevant skills needed to excel in their studies, the institution decided to shift emphasis from a one-credit computer literacy class that was marginal, at best, to a proficiency exam based on the Certiport IC³ standard (www.certiport.com). Broward has worked with Certiport to develop a new approach to providing digital literacy for incoming students.

By determining the digital literacy of incoming students through this performance-based entrance exam prior to credit-earning courses, institutions allow any student who passes the digital assessment to satisfy the digital literacy component of their general education requirements. Any who fail to score 85 percent or better on the exam will take a college-sponsored computing course covering the Certiport IC³ standard. Students in this class can receive targeted instruction based on the personalized learning plan created by the initial assessment. To demonstrate their digital literacy, students will achieve the Certiport IC³ certification as an exit exam.

As determined by a college-sponsored committee that felt competency begins with understanding, this new course will deal with a broader array of topics and traditional applications most effective in meeting the schools and students needs.

Having just instituted this new proficiency testing process in the fall of 2007, Broward Community College has become a catalyst in promoting new ways to effectively measure, develop and validate student digital literacy.

As institutions look at bridging the digital divide, each must go through its own process in determining or reaffirming digital literacy’s value in higher education. At the present time, students may be entering higher levels of education without digital skills, but they certainly shouldn’t be leaving without them.

1 “Bridging the Digital Divide for Student Success,” Williams and Scott, March 2007.
2 “Connecting the Digital Dots: Literacy of the 21st Century,” Jones-Kavalier and Flannigan, 2006.
3 “A Survey on Student Dropout Rates and Dropout Causes,” Xenos, Pierrakeas, Pintelas, June 2002.
4 Testimony before U.S. Congress of Ross Wiener, Policy Director, Education Trust, July 2004.
5 “U.S. College Drop-out Rate Sparks Concern,” The Associated Press, November 15, 2005.