Learning the limits of our tech-savvy students

digital recorderMaybe you, too, have been to professional development workshops during which you discuss the  “digital natives” supposedly filling our classrooms.  Our students served as the IT departments in their own homes during their childhoods, so we often make the mistake of assuming that any technological task is second nature to them. I fell into that trap last semester when assigning an oral history project in my history methods course.

I am an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore where I regularly teach courses in community history, women’s history and urban history. I am also the director of the Community Studies and Civic Engagement major, a position that has enabled me to design courses that integrate public history methods into traditional history courses. In my history methods class I try to incorporate a public history project each year. In previous years, my students have interviewed residents of a neighborhood that experienced racial succession in the 1950s and people who lived in Baltimore during the uprisings that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

In the fall of 2011, I asked students to interview the founders of the People’s Free Medical Clinic here in Baltimore. The organization, which still exists as the People’s Community Health Center, was eager to learn more about its own history, and the folks who had been in their early 20s in 1970 when the clinic was founded still had relatively fresh memories and passionate opinions about health care.  We planned to provide both the audio files and the transcriptions to the clinic founders and staff. The transcriptions demonstrated that the interviews were fascinating. Unfortunately, I could not hear them.

I had made a tactical error.

At the beginning of the project, I had told students about digital recorders they could check out for free from the AV department, but then I had uttered the words that would come back to haunt me: “I bet a lot of you have the capacity to record your interviews right in the palm of your hand.  You might find it more convenient to use your phones.” The results? There were dozens of clips in formats I could not play or convert.  Groups turned in twelve or fifteen files with indecipherable extensions instead of one continuous .mp3.  I spent hours in our university’s IT department begging for help with the audio, and I sent countless emails pleading for students to try to convert the files themselves.  I learned my lesson. In the future, I will require students to submit their work in a standard file format, especially if they are submitting audio files.  I will continue to ask students to record interviews, but I will insist in the syllabus that they use a device that records in .mp3 or .WAV.  And I will make sure my institution has plenty of devices on hand that will do just that.

Using technology may be second nature to our students, but in this case providing accessible products to a wide audience was not.  This experience was yet another reminder that our students still need instruction in technology.  They can do many digital things expertly and efficiently, but we should not assume that they are complete technical wizards.  Even if one or two have fabulous software and ingenious work-arounds that outpace our tired and true methods, we should not assume they all do.  We need to be as careful in our technical instructions as we are in our other methodological ones.

~ Betsy Nix