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Technology in the Classroom: Students Are Not Experts

Jordan Catapano


Many teachers falsely make the claim that “Students are the technology in the classroom experts … I need to catch up to them.”

This statement might at first appear abundantly true. After all, our students are digital natives, born and raised on the technology in the classroom that we’re just getting introduced to. They seem to know how to click, find, send, and navigate just as naturally as we knew how to play a cassette tape or use the yellow pages.

But the truth is that students aren’t the tech experts that we sometimes mistake them for. While they definitely have intimate experience with some tech components, they are absolutely clueless about others. And it would be a grave error to assume students are experts with what they’re really ignorant about. The truth is that for the majority of students, they only know enough about tech that they need to survive – but they don’t quite know all that it make take to thrive. But as teachers, we can show them.

Using Technology in the Classroom: Digital Survivors vs. Thrivers

A survivor is someone who stays alive – in the same sense Robinson Crusoe survives his deserted island ordeal. Life is precious, and survivors do whatever is necessary to keep it. But we cannot confuse someone who is staying alive with someone who is truly thriving.

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A survivor masters a few important skills to subsist in their environment. They get along, but are not living life to the fullest nor have the opportunity to do so.

A thriver, on the other hand, has mastered a variety of tools and resources, has made connections, understands how to acquire more of what they need, is productive and prolific, maximizes their resources to accomplish significant goals, and is able to impact others in the process.

When it comes to using digital tools, students are more often surviving than thriving. They often learn the minimum necessary to “keep up” with their peers and their needs – but don’t necessarily understand how to fully leverage these tools for loftier aims. While students’ survival skills are often remarkable with their resources, we cannot mistake these impressive feats of survival with thriving.

An Example: Social Media

It has been well-documented that teens and professionals use social media differently. What are those differences? Students are more likely to treat social media like public text messaging – sharing quick, often unsubstantial thoughts, photos, links, jokes, and updates. It’s a way to stay up-to-date and socially involved with others when not physically together. By using social media, teens are making sure they’re not left behind. But is “Making sure I’m not left behind” the same as thriving? Definitely not.  

Professionals, while engaging in many of the same behaviors as teens, also understand how to leverage these tools for greater impacts on themselves and others. Twitter, for example, is a forum to build a professional network and find resources and ideas otherwise inaccessible. Thoughtful questions and discussions can occur, leading toward making these people even better professionals. Adults are more likely to understand aspects of privacy, separate personal and professional issues, and customized experiences. They are far less likely to experience online bullying, and are more cognizant of their digital footprint and citizenship.

These are generalities, of course; some teens use digital tools far more sophisticatedly than some adults do. But overall, teens learn what’s necessary to stay afloat in their social and academic environment than to thrive in it.

The same essence is true for a myriad of tech aspects. Even things we consider quite basic – like inserting a text box in a Word document, or ordering a book from Amazon with a credit card – can seem quite challenging for students who haven’t had to do these things before.

The Perils of Assumption

If we assume that students are thrivers and know more about tech than they actually do, there are several pitfalls we’ve just created. Most of all, we will be setting expectations higher than what students can live up to. The results they produce will be confusing or disappointing. Or worse, they’ll be unable to produce anything in line with out objectives at all. Ultimately, we’ll all become frustrated.

The first course of action is to determine where exactly our students are: What tech they have, how they use it, and what they are currently good at. Only when we have this baseline knowledge of our students’ tech skills can we introduce them methodically to the next steps toward thriving.

What We Can Count On

So students don’t know everything. They know just enough. This doesn’t mean that they can’t learn; it just means that we have to show them more about how to use tech than we might have originally assumed. Here’s what we can count on when it comes to students using technology.

We need to become thrivers ourselves. Students learn from the adults around them. If we intend to teach them about leverage technological resources, we need to be prepared to teach them. A teacher who doesn’t know math can’t try to teach math to someone else. Same with using tech: We want to thrive ourselves so that we can pass that on to students. Show students what you do, what you know, and what results you get.

We can learn from students. While students are typically not thrivers themselves, they are in fact experts in the areas they survive in. Ask them questions, learn from their experiences, and know what they know. This will help you get better and will open the lines of dialogue for further talks about tech. This will in turn help students to ask you questions as needed as well.

We can help students learn and adapt quickly. There are no safe assumptions, but chances are high that students – digital natives – will be able to adapt to changes and prodding regarding tech relatively quickly. If you create the environment where students can explore tech tools and approaches beyond their survival level, then they will begin to thrive.

Students are not the tech experts we thought they were. But that doesn’t mean they can’t get there. As long as we ascertain what they know, avoid assumptions, and steadily introduce them to how they can thrive with the tools at their disposal, our students will steadily blossom with their tech skills just as they do with their academic skills.

How do you help your students go from tech survivors to thrivers? Tell us your perspective and leave a comment for us!

Jordan Catapano is a high school English teacher in a Chicago suburb. In addition to being National Board Certificated, he also has worked with the Illinois Association of Teachers of English and has experience as a school board member for a private school. You can follow him on Twitter at @BuffEnglish, or visit his website

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