Just last week EDUCAUSE posted a compelling video (shown above) in which a father-son team discussed generational differences related to learning, and we heard the term “digital native” a lot in that piece. This is a popular idea- that because current students have grown up in a world inundated with screens and computers, they have an advantage when learning and working in these environments. Yet research and experience have given educators reason to question this assumption (Read more here). We sat down with Amanda McCollom, Multimedia Literacy Coordinator at the University of Delaware Library, Museums & Press, who works with students across disciplines who are tackling video, audio, web and image creation projects to peek behind the curtain and unpack some of these assumptions.


QUESTION: What have you noticed about how our students approach digital content creation projects such as podcasts or videos? 

Along with older generations, Gen Z students also buy into the idea that “digital native” means they are fluent with technology and digital tools. If a student has used a tool before, such as iMovie, they may assume they know all they need to know to create their video and they can just quickly throw it together to complete the assignment. This mindset can prevent them from critically engaging in the multimedia creation process, which in turn can further develop their digital literacy skills. Learning new software may not pose a challenge to all, but few students have prior experience with the planning process such as storyboarding, creating shot lists, and writing a script, which can help them become more confident, creative and intentional in their approach. 

Access to technology and equipment plays a huge role in the level of comfort towards learning a new technology. Some students will have participated in 1:1 laptop programs in high school, while others may have had limited access to technology at school and at home. Some may have learned how to use Adobe Creative Cloud, while others may be struggling to master Google Docs and Canvas. One thing I’ve noticed is that many students seem more comfortable creating content on their phones because it is accessible, and sitting down at a desktop computer to learn software is more challenging. While it is great when faculty  recommend specific tools they can use, especially if these tools are widely available in the Student Multimedia Design Center, being open to alternative apps and web-based platforms can help those who find it particularly daunting to learn a new tool, if the tool itself is not vital to the assignment’s learning outcomes. 


QUESTION: What are a few things that have surprised you about students that are often labeled “digital natives”

Before I started teaching students about creating multimedia, I  believed that digital natives have an advantage when it comes to learning digital tools and producing digital work. In reality, I’ve found that just like any other generation, there is a big range when it comes to comfort with learning new technologies. I regularly have students comment that they aren’t a “tech person” or that they are overwhelmed with the task of learning a new tool to complete their assignment. Part of my goal when I teach students about concepts and tools that will help them create multimedia is to emphasize that using a new tool is not the end goal. They don’t need to become experts- rather they need to become comfortable enough with the basics of the tool to communicate their ideas and scholarship through new modalities.


Another aspect that has surprised me is that students are not necessarily skilled behind or in front of the camera. I think it’s easy to assume that because Gen Z students have been exposed to social media much earlier in life, that they are more adept at creating digital content or performing for an audience. Even if they do actively create content for their friends and followers, producing a video or podcast for their professor or their scholarly community can take them out of their comfort zone. Focusing on best practices related to shot composition, audio quality and interview techniques can be just as valuable as learning the tools that will allow them to put their project together. 


QUESTION:  What can faculty do to assess their students’ skill, access to technology or comfort level when assigning multimodal projects? 

Some faculty I’ve worked with will poll their students at the beginning of the semester about their comfort and experience with technology. Others will pair less experienced technology users with those who do have experience to create a peer-to-peer learning experience. Being flexible with what tools students use to create their multimodal projects can also help break down some of the barriers to access mentioned above. 

As with any kind of assignment, taking time to learn about your students, their prior experiences working with technology or composing in multimedia environments, and their attitudes remains important. Do what works well for you and your course, whether that is low-stakes assignments or quizzes, conversations or other check-ins, challenge your assumptions about your students.  See the article above, Things to do RIGHT NOW to get/keep your course on track (part II) for some excellent tips for keeping your course on track for lots of great ideas. 

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