I bet you’ve heard this phrase before: “The students know more about it than I do.” The phrase itself is nothing special. It’s the method of delivery that gives it weight. Usually, it’s accompanied by a grudging smile, a shoulder shrug, and/or an exasperated sigh. It’s always used in reference to some digital tool or concept. The person uttering this phrase may be a librarian but is just as likely to be a professor. Generally, it signals a line in the sand. This far and no farther.
This phrase makes me want to cheer, stand tall, and punch a wall. Frequently at the same time.
I want to cheer because it acknowledges an area of “shit you know you don’t know.” And if you’re aware of the existence of something, you’re a step ahead. You know it’s out there somewhere, and you can figure out how to get it.
I stand tall because I am in the business of figuring out how to get it. I am also in the business of digital tools and concepts. This phrase is an opportunity for me to demonstrate the value of libraries and librarians.
I want to punch a wall because this phrase also acknowledges a moment of learning lost. A moment of connection, an exchange of ideas and knowledge between students and teachers disappears.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a professor asking me for help. I love the outside-the-box thinking that pushes a professor beyond comfort. Sure, I’ll step into that moment. I’ll take the glory. I’ll be the one know who knows or can find out. But the underlying fear and assumptions makes me a little uncomfortable.
For one thing, throwing the “digital native” blanket over our students does them a disservice. It has not been my experience that students know significantly more about digital tools than a reasonably connected professor. We hear these statements on the media and believe them without holding them up against our experience of our students. Particularly at an institution like mine, where the majority of our students come from backgrounds that cannot fund the kind of digital connectedness we assume of their generation, these generalizations fall short.
In addition, even when students have more knowledge than a professor on a particular digitally-based topic, they are often one-sided users. They might know how to edit video, but they probably only know one way to do it. That one way might be produce a perfectly good product, but we’re missing out on a chance to expand their options and create critical thinkers. That’s the point of higher education isn’t it?
You know what they say about assumptions, right? Don’t be that guy.