Tech

Some students don’t understand the concept of computer files and folders

WTF?! To readers of this site, the idea that some students on courses ranging from engineering to physics don’t know what files and folders are might seem strange, but it’s true. According to a new report, the fault lies with popular modern operating systems and devices that include all-encompassing search functions or hide file structures from plain view.

Those of us of a certain age will be familiar with maintaining a nested hierarchy of files, having grown up with the likes of Windows 3.1 and relying on MS-DOS. But as highlighted in a new report by The Verge, the advent of smartphones, tablets, search functions, and cloud storage made the need to understand what a directory is less critical.

“The first internet search engines were used around 1990, but features like Windows Search and Spotlight on macOS are both products of the early 2000s. Most of 2017’s college freshmen were born in the very late ‘90s,” writes the publication. “While many of today’s professors grew up without search functions on their phones and computers, today’s students increasingly don’t remember a world without them.”

Saavik Ford, a professor of astronomy at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, said it best: “I grew up when you had to have a file; you had to save it; you had to know where it was saved. There was no search function.” She added that among her students, “There’s not a conception that there’s a place where files live. They just search for it and bring it up. They have a laundry basket full of laundry, and they have a robot who will fetch them every piece of clothing they want on demand.”

Generational issues are not something new, of course. Peter Plavchan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at George Mason University, noted that while some of his students have over 1,000 files in the same directory, one of his own professors was amazed that people didn’t know how to solder a chip onto a motherboard. This writer, meanwhile, recalls a 1990’s lecturer who thought all GUIs were the devil’s work.

Plavchan is considering offering an entire course based solely on directory structure, but is such a thing even worth it? “I imagine what’s going to happen is our generation of students […] they’re going to grow up and become professors, they’re going to write their own tools, and they’re going to be based on a completely different approach from what we use today.”

Addressing fellow educators who look on aghast at students unable to comprehend filing systems, Plavchan warns, “This is not gonna go away. You’re not gonna go back to the way things were. You have to accept it. The sooner that you accept that things change, the better.”

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