The Digital Limitations of our “Digital Native” Students

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WGU Labs, a nonprofit affiliate of Western Governors University, surveyed 250,000 students at 13 institutions to learn how well EdTech products meet student needs. 

They evaluated how those products impacted the student experience and tried to learn how to support the full life cycle of EdTech in order to solve new problems in the higher education landscape.

In this survey, WGU researchers wanted to know: What are the digital limitations of our “digital native” students?

Dr. Nicole Barbaro, Research Scientist at WGU Labs, joins the Enrollment Growth University podcast to discuss their recent College Innovation Network EdTech student survey and the surprising takeaways regarding our students’ digital struggles in navigating pandemic-related EdTech.

Students’ Online Learning Experiences During the Pandemic

The College Innovation Network’s EdTech student survey is the first in a new series of research studies. The goal with this study was to understand how students were experiencing online learning over the past year. Specifically, the researchers wanted to know how students were using educational technology and then discover what targeted strategies could help learners get the most out of their online learning experiences.

WGU researchers found that about 40% of students had encountered tech difficulties in the past year, including not having access to the technology they needed or having trouble with functionality when they were using it.

What is EdTech self-efficacy?

Educators implicitly assume that students today, especially traditional age college students, are “digital natives” who have grown up with technology and can use it almost intuitively. In fact, technology has been seen as almost a non-issue when educators think about building online courses. 

WGU’s researchers, however, evaluated a novel concept they called EdTech self-efficacy, defined as how confident students are in their ability to learn and adapt to these new education technologies in their courses. EdTech self-efficacy was one of the most robust predictors of a student’s overall experience with learning.


WGU’s researchers found that about 20% of students reported that they’re really struggling with all the new EdTech. Roughly 30% of students said they were having difficulty keeping up with the new technologies across their courses this past year. And the same number reported that most of the technology they encountered in their courses was actually new to them. 


Those students who felt more confident with new technology also felt more prepared for next year and had more positive learning experiences. 

WGU’s study revealed that not all students love technology or are comfortable with it. Instead, a significant portion of students may actually be struggling with technology. That’s an important insight that can lead to more actionable strategies to make sure that all students are getting the most out of their online learning experiences.

Is Friction a Necessary Part of the Technology Learning Process?

In any good teaching practice, you want to push students a little beyond their comfort zone without overwhelming them because that’s where the learning happens. 

Ideally, students will feel pushed — but not overwhelmed — so that their lack of knowledge about the technology will not inhibit their learning the course content.

Although we assume that students know how to use technology, it will pay off for instructors to take a moment to determine their students’ confidence and abilities with EdTech. 

How to Incorporate EdTech Into the Classroom Well

Any new technology requires proper instruction.

Teachers need to be sure they’re spending time demonstrating to students how the different technologies work and how they enhance the learning experience. 

A great time to do this is the first day of class while you’re explaining course operations. Actually show them how to use the technology, and ask them to practice working with it in early, low-stakes assignments. That can help get students comfortable while not being stressed out about earning a certain grade. The goal is to identify any friction or access issues early in the semester. 

Personally, Nicole uses a survey on the first day of class. She asks every student:

  • Do you have access to this technology? 
  • Are you confident in using this technology? 
  • Is there anything you want to know about this technology?

Their answers let Nicole identify the handful of students that may not have access to or feel comfortable with that technology. 

Next Steps to Providing Better Student Tech Support

Overall institutions are doing fairly well in this area. Only 15% of students in the survey reported that their institutions weren’t helping them adequately solve their tech problems. 

But institutions need to realize that tech support is only one piece of the puzzle. Students need prompt answers when they’re having an issue with technology. Faculty members need to make sure that they’re setting up their students for success early on in the semester. Institutions need to create peer support communities so students don’t always have to rely on faculty, administrators, or staff. 

Taking a multi-pronged approach across peers, within the classroom, and throughout the institution can help address the multitude of different tech issues that students may encounter.


This post is based on a podcast interview with Dr. Nicole Barbaro, Research Scientist at WGU Labs. To hear this episode and many more like it, you can subscribe to Enrollment Growth University.

If you don’t use iTunes, you can listen to every episode here.