If you and your teenager are considering college, you’ll want to be aware that the postsecondary education landscape has undergone a technological revolution in recent years. Until a few years ago, basic computer knowledge such as word processing and Internet exploration were the only technological skills necessary for students transitioning into college. Today, colleges and universities require students to be proficient in much more than basic computer skills. Nearly all colleges have electronic catalogues in their libraries, Internet-equipped study stations, Ethernet access in the dorms, and offer college courses online. Laptop computers have become not only commonplace but also an essential admissions requirement for freshmen entering many colleges.

An awareness of the ways in which technology has transformed and reshaped postsecondary education is important for a successful college experience for all students, but is especially relevant for students with learning disabilities (LD) and/or Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD). Traditionally, assistive technologies such as audio books, talking calculators, and portable word processors have been part of the solution for students with LD. Today’s students, however, may require additional technological skills and support. This article will highlight some of the changes on the tech horizon with the hope that high school students with LD and/or AD/HD will learn these tech survival skills in a supportive environment before entering college so they will be better prepared for learning both online and offline.

Educational technology in today’s colleges

Educational technologies can be broadly defined as information and communication technologies used to manage, inform, instruct, and communicate in higher education. While educational technologies can support and accommodate students with LD, they may pose unforeseen obstacles for some students. Special education administrators, general and special education teachers, and parents need to be alert to these hurdles and be sure that the Individual Education Plan (IEP) for a college-bound teen includes objectives for both assistive technology and mainstream educational technologies. For example, a student who has significant problems with written expression may benefit from learning how to use assistive tech tools such as Dragon Dictate, a text-to-speech software program. Students also need to be fluent with mainstream technologies such as Web CT, a tool commonly used by faculty for presenting a course syllabus, handouts, and assigned readings online.

Tech-enhanced learning environments are not a replication of the traditional classroom experience in a different setting. Rather they represent a different learning environment which requires both students and teachers to adapt to a new mode of instruction, communication, and evaluation. Rose & Meyers (2002) point out that the digitization of information allows students to customize the information they are learning, and provides multiple ways of engagement and multiple means of representation of course content. Although this sounds exciting, in order to be successful, students with LD and AD/HD must have the skills necessary to make informed choices among the vast alternatives that technology makes possible.

Essential tech skills for college students

Students entering college need to be competent in educational and communication technologies such as course-authoring tools (e.g., WebCT, and Blackboard), and Internet searches. Carmen Luke (1996) notes that the shift from print and paper to an electronic medium combined with the proliferation of information resources and databases requires very different multimodal and multimedia literacy skills from those traditionally promoted in our schools. Fluency with website navigation in accessing instruction and campus services is a clear expectation in postsecondary education. Yet, prior to college, students are rarely taught ways to make informed navigation decisions and extract relevant decisions from the Internet. For example, students need to know how to archive an Internet search as they navigate from one link to the next. Unlike the well-defined boundaries of a textbook, students who surf Web pages need to stay focused and on topic. They also need to be careful that they are not lured or distracted by commercial websites and Internet advertisements that appear to be legitimate sources of information, but in fact are personal opinions posted by individuals. Learning these skills can be especially challenging for students with LD and/or AD/HD.

In light of the growing importance of educational and communication technologies, traditional campus services have also had to change. Consider these examples:

  • In the past, students were required to first meet with their advisor and then sign up for courses in-person on a designated date. Today a student receives advice about course selection online from his advisor, shops for courses on dedicated departmental websites, and registers online.
  • Face-to-face meetings with faculty during set office hours have given way to email communication which can occur at any time, day or night, and from any location.
  • In many colleges, information regarding admissions, degree programs, student support services, housing, and extracurricular activities are no longer confined to the pages of a printed brochure or guide but are prominently displayed on college websites. According to a 2002 survey of 559 two- and four-year colleges by the Campus Computing Project, two thirds of colleges surveyed offered online course registration, and more than eighty percent offered course catalogues online.

A continuum of tech-based college classrooms

At the very least, most classroom instruction today is technology supported, which means technology is part of the lesson either through Internet research or email communication. While traditional technologies such as television, video tapes, audio conferencing, and overhead transparencies are still in use, a new cadre of multimedia options are quickly becoming commonplace. It is not unusual to see faculty using video and computer technologies as an integral part of their teaching. PowerPoint presentations, video conferencing, and the Internet are standard features of today’s college instruction.

An even more tech-enriched environment includes classes conducted in computer lab settings. These tech-enhanced classrooms are increasingly popular as computer capabilities for all students become an essential part of instruction. Often these courses require students to be competent in supplementary technological competencies such as working with databases, spreadsheets, and statistical programs. Each student has his own computer and follows the lesson, both online and offline.

The most sophisticated technological learning environments are virtual classrooms. Almost all colleges now offer some distance education courses along with traditional classroom-based instruction. By definition, distance education is instruction at a distance where communication between the students and the teacher does not occur face-to-face in a classroom, but at any time through a virtual medium. For example, students can download a class lecture and view it at their convenience. Distance education classes are conducted exclusively online and require students to interact primarily in written format through email, chat rooms, discussion boards, or blogs. It’s true technology-based courses increase the opportunities for immediate feedback and closer monitoring of student progress. However, it also may give students a false expectation that the professor will be available 24/7, which is simply not the case.

A learning curve for college faculty

New educational technologies in our classrooms require that teachers have an expanded repertoire of skills for accessing and presenting digital information to students. Today’s college faculty needs to facilitate the flow of information from a multitude of sources rather than being the sole purveyor of course content. In place of term papers and book chapter readings, faculty often assigns students projects such as designing Web pages and electronic portfolios. As a result, students are required to access information from traditional sources (e.g., textbooks and lectures) as well as non-traditional sources (e. g., Internet, chat room discussions, and list serves).

Seasoned college professors, as well as adjunct faculty, may not think to provide students with guidance on how to participate in virtual communities and other tech-mediated environments, if they assume students already possess such skills. Students with LD and/or AD/HD may find it challenging if they are left to fend for themselves in virtual learning communities when they have limited written language skills, poor keyboarding, and slow information processing abilities. However, when faculty can anticipate these problems and teach tech skills and “netiquette” in conjunction with course content, all students can benefit.

Your teen’s tech readiness: assess and progress

Now that you understand the ever-increasing role of technology on today’s college campus, you and your teenager will do well to assess his technology skills while he’s in high school — and plan for his future. There are three steps to evaluating his tech readiness and matching his skill level to specific colleges:

  1. Evaluate his current technical skills.
  2. Identify additional technology skills he wants to develop before he goes to college.
  3. Learn about the technology skill requirements and support at the colleges he is considering.

To begin this assessment and planning process, download our worksheet, Questions to Help Teens assess their Tech-Readiness for College.


  • Luke, C. “Cyber-schooling and technological change: Multiliteracies for new times.” In B. Cope & M. Kalantzis (Eds.), Multiliteracies: Literacy learning and the design of social futures.. London: Routledge, 2000.
  • Rose, D. H. & Meyer, A. Teaching every student in the digital age: Universal design for learning. Alexandria, VA: ASCD, 2002.