It’s hard for us old folks to get it (or teach it)

Four heads are better than one
John Naughton had a nice column in The Observer last month about the chronic problems with IT courses for kids. There had been a plan for a new required exam in information and communication technology (ICT) for 14 year olds in the UK, but enthusiasm for the requirement has waned and it looks like it ain’t gonna happen.

The requirement and the exam are sadly typical of so much K-12 tech education. As Naughton put it, these kinds of requirements (and courses) tend to be “An Old Person’s Guide to ICT”:

There’s a surreal quality to it, conjuring up images of kids trudging into ICT classes and being taught how to use a mouse and click on hyperlinks; receiving instructions in the creation of documents using Microsoft Word and of spreadsheets using Excel; being taught how to create a toy database using Access and a cod PowerPoint presentation; and generally being bored out of their minds.

Then the kids go home and log on to Bebo or MySpace to update their profiles, run half a dozen simultaneous instant messaging conversations, use Skype to make free phone calls, rip music from CDs they’ve borrowed from friends, twiddle their thumbs to send incomprehensible text messages, view silly videos on YouTube and use BitTorrent to download episodes of Lost. When you ask them what they did at school, they grimace and say: ‘We made a PowerPoint presentation, dad. Yuck!’

When I came to UMM in ’91 we had a computing requirement as part of our general education requirements. That was dropped in ’99 when we converted from quarters to semesters, largely based on an understanding that the state was going to be requiring some sort of computing course for all high school graduates. Unfortunately those high school courses are typically just the nightmare that Naughton describes, leaving the students with little real understanding of the underlying technologies or larger issues, and with a seriously bad taste in their mouth regarding these sorts of courses (a bad taste that carries over to college when we get here).

While I certainly think we need more science, math, and technology courses in K-12, it’s also clear that we need good classes and not misguided exercises in teaching outdated ideas that end up being a really annoying form of babysitting.

I tend to have mixed feelings about Morris dropping our computing requirement. The requirement was certainly good for our program. It brought lots of students through our courses, many of which would probably have not taken a computing course otherwise. Quite a few of those became majors, and those “walk ons” represented a very large proportion of our female and minorty computing majors. Now that the requirement is gone, our majors consistent almost entirely of students who come to college intending to be computing majors, and we get almost no “walk ons”. Consequently, our pool of majors (who I love dearly) is nearly 100% pasty white boys.

My experience with the students here is that they are often very familiar with Facebook and MySpace like Naughton suggests, but it’s by no means universal. I used blogs in my First Year Seminar course last semester, for example, and found considerable variation in the students’ experience with blogging. While many were very experienced, others were still very uncomfortable around the technologies.

Would a computing requirement here help? If so, how? What do our students need, and how do we serve them? And how do we avoid teaching just the sort of courses that Naughton so rightly skewers?

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3 thoughts on “It’s hard for us old folks to get it (or teach it)”

  1. …… with all those question marks it is as if you are trying to get us to participate, even carry part of the load. PZ is using the ‘writing a book’ excuse for this purpose….. et tu Phi?

    But I digress ….

    There is a large continuum of computing skill among those youngsters who can perform various entertainment activities on a computer. However, well rounded skill sets that use computing are another matter. Searching is one example where this comes into play, and an area for focusing appropriate education. Good search skill requires knowing how to use google, but also how to create more general and more specific parameters, possibly knowledge of geography (find a city in North America …. does that include Mexico?) I have spent considerable time working with very bright and motivated ‘geeks’, but found that I can often find the answer to a technical problem faster because I can pose the search parameters better and then process the results to achieve the desired goal. But then I have a varied education and half a century of experience to draw upon.

    Your incoming students by and large know good computing basics, and many excel at technology entertainment. What they need is a well rounded education which includes technology as a component, just as it includes, math and science and language and geography and art and philosophy; as technology can and does interact with all of those traditional liberal arts subjects. I think that an integrative approach would bring the best results …. if that doesnt mean ‘create a powerpoint’ just for the exercise. What is the best tool and why for the purpose? How to communicate effectively using IM, email, express, snail mail, magazines, books. … why and how, again. How to use blogs in a corporate environment, academia, politics. What is the interplay between bloggers and more traditional news sources? How does one establish that information and opinions on the internet are correct or worthy or following? When is it appropriate to restrict access to technology on a college campus? Are there any limits? Has high speed internet and cell phone technology created another important class division in the world? Does this matter?

    These are the things that your technology education curriculum should address, whether that is done as a course or integrated into other fields is as much a question of resources on your campus as anything else. All else being equal I prefer the holistic approach, but seldom is all else equal.

  2. When I went through UMM (93-96) you still had the requirement. As I intended on being a CompSci major I took the more programing oriented class which also satisfied the requirement. In my case that wasn’t a terribly good class, as I had already done Pascal in High School. At the time I sneered at the other class because it wasn’t real. I was doing all of that.

    That changed my mind when it came to working in the real world. What those classes teach is what could be more accurately described as ‘office skills’. I didn’t touch a spreadsheet until I got to the ‘real world’, and their use wasn’t quite intuitive. Relational database concepts I had in college so I was able to build fairly complex Access databases pretty quickly. I had been using Word Perfect since High School, so word processors were no biggie either. Just Lotus was the mystery.

    The kind of classes they’re talking about aren’t so much ‘computer familiarization’ as they are ‘office computing familiarization’. Which, to be frank, is dead boring to kids. Each generation seems to think itself better at technology than the previous one. This introduces a skeptacism in being taught basic technology by previous generations. Hard to overcome.

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