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U.S. Young Adults' Tech Skills Lag Behind International Peers

By guest blogger Ben Kamisar

Young adults in the United States are falling behind their international peers in their ability to use technology to perform tasks such as sorting emails, organizing data, and scheduling meetings, a skill gap that some experts attribute to lack of access to quality technologies.

A new study highlights a significant lack of computer literacy and troubleshooting abilities among young adults, as fewer than 38 percent of Americans 16 to 24 years old successfully completed tasks more difficult than sorting emails into folders. That performance ranked the lowest of the 19 countries participating in the assessments.

The United States also had the second-highest rate of young adults fail to reach basic proficiency, with almost 11 percent unable to perform more than the most basic computer exercises.

"The performance of young people in the U.S. is surprisingly poor for the country which invented the personal computer," William Thorn, a senior analyst at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, said in an email. Thorn's organization, an international group that works to spur economic growth, published the study.

Thorn said the study found a major discrepancy among the results for young adults of varying socioeconomic backgrounds, a finding he called "worrying."  Participants whose parents did not receive at least the equivalent of a high school education were more than seven times more likely to have no computer experience or fail the basic skills test than those born to parents who both completed that level of education.

"Some people in the U.S. will do very well," he said. "However, people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds do very poorly. It will be these people who lose out in terms of employment and income."  

That gap is no surprise to Brian Lewis, the chief executive officer of the International Society for Technology Education, an educational technology advocacy group.  He said the study underscores the need for equality of access.

"Whether I'm 55 or 15, the resources that are available to me, whether the technology, the Internet access, the educational programs or the education level of my parents, these are the factors that influence my ability to learn," he said. 

Lewis added that educators should help engage students with technologies they feel comfortable with and are motivated to use, such as digital games. That method is used by teachers like Saleta Thomas of South Hills High School in Fort Worth, Texas, who teaches students coding languages through video-game design

The study asked participants to perform tasks on three difficulty levels. Tasks ranged from sorting emails, organizing data into a spreadsheet, and managing reservations for a virtual meeting room, which required the participant to identify a reservation to decline and to inform the person that they could not reserve the room. 
Less than a third of American young adults could complete those spreadsheets and just 6.5 percent achieved the highest level. Several countries had a higher percentage of young adults reaching the highest two levels of proficiency than the United States . Swedish young adults topped the charts with 44 percent reaching those levels.

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