Friday, January 25, 2013

A Dearth of Computer Skills

Every fall since 1966 (nearly 50 years!), UCLA's Cooperative Institutional Research Program has surveyed American college freshmen, asking them about their demographics, high school experiences, college choices, attitudes toward issues, and future plans. The survey results reveal not only what current freshmen are thinking and doing but how freshmen have changed over two generations. Many of the survey's questions have remained the same over the years, but others have been updated as times change. For example, "Your mother's occupation?" was added in 1971. "Is English your native language?" was added in 1987. Students were asked whether they agree or disagree with the statement "Same-sex couples should have the right to legal marital status" beginning in 1997.

Not surprisingly, the survey's questions about computers have evolved over the past few decades. In the list of past-year activities, "Used a personal computer" appeared in 1985 (when 27 percent had used one). "Playing video games" appeared in 1995, and "Used the Internet for research or homework" in 1998. More recently, the survey added a question about whether students had used online social networks, such as Facebook. The survey also asks students to rate their abilities, and computer skill was added to the ability list in 1999. Only about one-third of college freshmen say their computer skills are above average.

This is unfortunate, since computer production (rather than consumption) skills are as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic in the Internet Age. With that in mind, it might be time for the freshmen survey to track the development of computer production skills in more detail by asking college freshmen whether in the past 12 months they had learned a programming language, written a piece of software, designed a web site, produced a blog, or created an app. The answers to these questions might reveal more about the future wellbeing of young adults than questions about video games or Facebook.

Source: UCLA, Cooperative Institutional Research Program, Higher Education Research Institute, The American Freshman: National Norms Fall 2012

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