Nov 29, 2010

Schools Get an F: Our Kids and Tech

While I am loathe to admit it, I danced on a lighted dance floor. I did The Hustle. I was quite underage to be going to clubs, but that's what we did. Those were the times I grew up in.*

Why the confession?

Because while I was a girl--disco dancing under a mirrored ball--I got a better computer education than high-schoolers get today.

At my working-class public high school, I took a "computer" class. We had to learn a language and write a program. We called the computer on the special phone, put the telephone receiver in suction cups and typed the commands to run the program. If the program didn't work, we had to figure out why. Line by line. And when it worked, we had accomplished something and did a happy dance.

I used  the C:\ prompt on my first computer (at work). Not because I am geeky, but because that was all there was. We had to imagine what was behind the dir command, because directories were opened one at a time. There was no tree, like in Windows, so you had to abstract and remember the directory structure.

The very, very basic programming and directory commands that I learned introduced me to using computers. I've been lucky enough to work with nice, smart, truly geeky people to help develop my technical knowledge. But I had something to build on, a basic computer literacy.

My kids go to pretty good schools. Their computer classes include how to use Excel and Powerpoint. Kids don't need to learn how to use productivity software. They just use it. "Programming," when offered, is usually HTML markup. They don't use logic. No IF...THEN...ELSE statements. The teachers don't use computers and are reluctant (don't know how?) to use them in class. The teachers who teach technology are hockey coaches. Kids get lessons in net-etiquette but not in three tier architecture.

We think that "born digital" kids know technology, but many of them can only put together a tacky, over-animated, under-researched slideshow. We have web "programmers" with a knowledge of HTML which they have parlayed into a visual programming language, but without any understanding of databases and data structures, systems analysis, or resource management. And, we have leaders who run programs based on technology, but who disengage whenever tech is mentioned.

Kids use technology and computers from sunup to sundown, but they don't know how it works. And they need to. Whether or not they are computer scientists or technologists, everyone needs a basic technical literacy. We teach the basics of reading, the building blocks of math, the structure of writing, but no fundamentals of technology. This is a huge mistake.

Government depends on the effective deployment of technology to solve problems. We need to recruit people who can write effective RFPs, navigate technology issues, oversee technology and technologists, as well as be geeks. But, that means we need people with the right knowledge and skills in the pipeline.

Kids do need to learn that The Cloud consists of physical servers, that data quality is critical to good output, that the semantic web can help machines make sense out of information on a web page so information structure counts, that information stored across multiple datasets and servers can be combined and mined, and all this is at least as important as whether a train leaving Boston for New York will beat an earlier, slower train from Providence.

Teachers, principals, schools, Secretary Duncan, let's get back to the future and do some meaningful updating of our technology curricula.

Technology is the fourth "R"--reading, (w)riting, 'rithmetic, and rechnology (that last one only works when spoken like Scooby-Doo another relic of my past).

[* here's how I was saved. Not quite fodder for On dot-gov.]


  1. Thanks very much to Joe Sanchez who passed on the link to the excellent post by Douglas Rushkoff in the Huff Post, "Why Johnny Can't Program: A New Medium Requires A New Literacy." Mr. Rushkoff does a much better job on this topic than I did.

    And, follow Joe on Twitter @sanchezjb.

  2. Reminds me of the high school students in a Texas school who signed up to participate in a telephone fundraiser, and had to ask the adviser how to dial out. See, their cellphones allow any 10-digit number to be dialed without a "1" or "9" first. Not for those telephones. When I heard the story, it was a wake-up call.


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