Skip to main content

Students don't know what files and folders are, professors say

Cluttered Windows desktop
(Image credit: Future)

University students in courses from engineering to physics are having to be taught what files and folders are, The Verge reports, because that's not how they've grown up using computers. Whenever they need a file, they just search for it. 

"I tend to think an item lives in a particular folder. It lives in one place, and I have to go to that folder to find it," astrophysicist Catherine Garland said. "They see it like one bucket, and everything's in the bucket."

Strange as it may seem to older generations of computer users who grew up maintaining an elaborate collection of nested subfolders, thanks to powerful search functions now being the default in operating systems, as well as the way phones and tablets obfuscate their file structure, and cloud storage, high school graduates don't see their hard drives the same way.

"Students have had these computers in my lab; they’ll have a thousand files on their desktop completely unorganized," Peter Plavchan, an associate professor of physics and astronomy at George Mason University, told The Verge. "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."

"My family always gives me a hard time when they see my computer screen, and it has like 50 thousand icons", said Aubrey Vogel, a journalism major at Texas A&M.

As The Verge points out, "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 [...] 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."

This isn't necessarily a bad thing, or a reason to recoil in horror because how dare the youth of today do things differently, why the very idea. "When I was a student, I'm sure there was a professor that said, 'Oh my god, I don't understand how this person doesn’t know how to solder a chip on a motherboard,'" Plavachan said. "This kind of generational issue has always been around."

And Garland, the astrophysicist teaching an engineering course, has started using her PC's search function to find files in the same way her students do. "I'm like, huh ... I don’t even need these subfolders," she said.

Of course, over here in PC gaming land we're more likely to need to mess around with our folders. In an attempt to demonstrate how hidden modern directory structures are, The Verge asked, "Your Steam games all live in a folder called 'steamapps'—when was the last time you clicked on that?" For me, it was the day before yesterday when I installed a mod for higher-res NPC models in Pathfinder: Kingmaker. But still, the point is made. The filing cabinet metaphor is pretty dated, and these days I find myself leaving everything I download in the Downloads directory, and searching for Google Docs rather than hunting for whatever Google Drive folder they're in.

Jody Macgregor

Jody's first computer was a Commodore 64, so he remembers having to use a code wheel to play Pool of Radiance. A former music journalist who interviewed everyone from Giorgio Moroder to Trent Reznor, Jody also co-hosted Australia's first radio show about videogames, Zed Games. He's written for Rock Paper Shotgun, The Big Issue, GamesRadar, Zam, Glixel, and Playboy.com, whose cheques with the bunny logo made for fun conversations at the bank. Jody's first article for PC Gamer was published in 2015, he edited PC Gamer Indie from 2017 to 2018, and actually did play every Warhammer videogame.