[By Nic Lindh on Thursday, 01 December 2011]
Part of my job is helping students use computers at a university. A good university with very bright students. You know, the Cyber Generation, the Digital Natives.
Which they are, in the sense that they use technology every day and don’t fear it.
But they don’t understand technology in the same way fish don’t understand water.
Update Facebook? Got it! Send text messages at blistering speed? Got it! Write a term paper? Watch me type away in Word!
Where it falls apart is when they need to understand how computers actually work. Learning HTML is a great example of this. When you write HTML you’re interacting with a computer much more on the computer’s terms: You have to be exact and you have to follow a strict syntax. While not programming, per se, it’s the closest most of our students have ever come to it. It requires a different kind of thinking, an understanding of how a computer interprets commands.
For most of our students, something as innocuous to nerds as learning to write HTML is staring into the abyss. They have never experienced anything like it.
And why would they have? They were never taught to.
I’ve worked in K12s in both the U.S. and in Sweden, and from talking to people from other countries I feel pretty certain that my experience carries across at least the Western world: With some excellent exceptions, K12 teachers are not adept at technology. At all. (I’m not sure why this is and would love to find out so we can get at the root of the problem.)
When a school district spends a significant portion of its budget on technology, you tend to end up with a bunch of very expensive machines being used very poorly indeed. If a teacher can barely type emails in Outlook, how are you expecting that teacher to be able to convey the workings of a computer?
So our young people spend their K12 years barely being taught to use office software, usually the Microsoft Office suite. Word, PowerPoint and perhaps—if they’re lucky—some Excel. And they are taught the Office Suite poorly—Word is a typewriter with red squiggly lines and magical white-out and PowerPoint is a digital version of overhead slides.
The other stuff, Facebook and texting and whatnot, they teach each other. And they get really good at it, since it’s relevant to them. The Office Suite is a chore so they stick to what they are taught, which is very little but the basics.
K12 students won’t hit the job market for many years. In those intervening years, what will happen to technology? All we know is it changes at an exponential rate, so whatever specific software skills students pick up are outdated by the time they are put to use.
Which in itself is reason enough to teach strategies and core concepts instead of specific software package skills.
Unless current trends continue and our children end up scavenging for gasoline in a post-apocalyptic hellscape, the one thing we can be sure of is that they will lead an existence surrounded by technology and that their chances for gainful employment will depend on understanding and using technology.
OK, things are screwed up. How about some solutions, Captain Smartypants?
If I were the secretary of education, I’d make the following changes:
No computers until high school. In elementary and middle school, students need to learn to read, write and think. Computers are little help in that process. As a side effect, this would save school districts a tremendous amount of money that could be put to an infinite number of other needs, like, oh, having a nurse on staff in every school and serving students something besides pizza for lunch.
In high school, the first year has an introduction to computers class. It teaches how the machines actually work. Yes, this would include basic programming and basic computer theory. The key is to make students understand what happens when you click the button. You can’t get good at something you don’t understand.
After the introductions are over, somebody who knows how to use computers effectively teaches strategies for efficiency. A computer is not a glorified typewriter with access to pictures of naked women.
If we implemented a system like this we would be able to dedicate a lot of resources to other crucial areas of education and prepare our young people better for the future.
We need to at least have a serious discussion about this as a society.