Author: Monica Chin
Source: The Verge (https://www.theverge.com/22684730/students-file-folder-directory-structure-education-gen-z )
For many of us, the Windows explorer with its folder tree structure is an elegant way of storing and retrieving files from our computers. However, as in the several instances this piece highlights, kids, particularly those born in or after the nineties, struggle with such a file-folder system. And the author links this behaviour to the emergent ubiquity of search engines in our lives, which effectively makes an organised way of storing information somewhat redundant. Using search as an example, the piece highlights how generations of technology users adapt differently based on what they have been exposed to.
“Garland came to the same realization that many of her fellow educators have reached in the past four years: the concept of file folders and directories, essential to previous generations’ understanding of computers, is gibberish to many modern students.
Professors have varied recollections of when they first saw the disconnect. But their estimates (even the most tentative ones) are surprisingly similar. It’s been an issue for four years or so, starting — for many educators — around the fall of 2017.
Peter Plavchan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at George Mason University, has seen similar behavior from his students and can’t quite wrap his head around it. “Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganized,” he told The Verge, somewhat incredulously. “I’m kind of an obsessive organizer … but they have no problem having 1,000 files in the same directory. And I think that is fundamentally because of a shift in how we access files.”
Aubrey Vogel, a journalism major at Texas A&M, has had similar experiences to Drossman. She’s encountered directory structure before; she shared a computer with her grandfather, who showed her how to save items in folders, as a child. But as she’s grown up, she’s moved away from that system — she now keeps one massive directory for schoolwork and one for her job. Documents she’s not sure about go in a third folder called “Sort.”
“As much as I want them to be organized and try for them to be organized, it’s just a big hot mess,” Vogel says of her files. She adds, “My family always gives me a hard time when they see my computer screen, and it has like 50 thousand icons.”
Why have mental models changed? Drossman, for his part, has no idea. “I don’t think I even thought about it at all when I first started using computers,” he says.
It’s possible that the analogy multiple professors pointed to — filing cabinets — is no longer useful since many students Drossman’s age spent their high school years storing documents in the likes of OneDrive and Dropbox rather than in physical spaces. It could also have to do with the other software they’re accustomed to — dominant smartphone apps like Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and YouTube all involve pulling content from a vast online sea rather than locating it within a nested hierarchy. “When I want to scroll over to Snapchat, Twitter, they’re not in any particular order, but I know exactly where they are,” says Vogel, who is a devoted iPhone user. Some of it boils down to muscle memory.
But it may also be that in an age where every conceivable user interface includes a search function, young people have never needed folders or directories for the tasks they do. 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. They were in elementary school when the iPhone debuted; they’re around the same age as Google. 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.”
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