Technical Education in K-12

Our small school is nearing the end of the four-year cycle for a one-to-one program that provides all students in grades six through twelve with a white MacBook. Students are free to take the laptop home, and parents must sign an agreement to pay for any damages. Over the course of the past few years I have become strongly, almost vehemently opposed to the program.

Since my wife works at the school, they issued her a laptop as well. Issuing staff a computer seems reasonable, but with both Rhonda’s and my personal computers, and the three from the school, we have five computers in our house. That just seems unnecessary, and our experience with the kids using the laptops has not been positive.

We have had to set limits on when and where the kids can use the computers, and of course, as soon as you set a limit on something you are causing friction. The kids would happily spend all day, and all night, with their nose in the computer. I understand that, believe me I’ve been there, but I worry about what spending so much time online will do to the kids. It would be one thing if the kids were doing something useful with that time, but no, they are not. They spend their time playing flash games, or chatting with other kids on Google Plus, or posting pictures of themselves making faces on Instagram, or just telling the world how bored they are. The students were given this amazing tool and set loose, but were not given the appropriate training on how to use it. Parents are given little say in how the computers are used. There is no administrative access for parents, but the computers are expected to be able to get online at home. Homework is regularly assigned that requires Internet access to complete.

One of the selling points the technology staff has used to sell the computers to the school board is iLife. iPhoto and iMovie are great, as recreational applications, but the kids could, and should, be learning so much more. The technology curriculum seems to center around learning their way around certain applications. My daughter might come home with an assignment to create a Keynote presentation, for example, but I’m not sure if even those skills will translate over to PowerPoint or any other presentation software.

The point is, without a core understanding of what a computer is and how it works, learning a single application becomes futile as soon as the applications user interface is updated. If the student memorizes where a button is to accomplish a task, and that button is moved, how will the student react? Neither the students or the teachers have a grasp on the rightful place of technology in our lives, what it really is, how it works, or how to effectively use it to get meaningful work done. Students are given Gmail accounts, taught how to trade personal information for “free” services, how to post embarrassing pictures of themselves online, and sent home with a $1000 toy. Problems ensue.

Students go into 6th grade knowing nothing about computers, no ability to type, no concept of basic applications, and are given a laptop and told to take it home and use it. My vision for a technical education is much different, and could start as early as kindergarten. There is no age limit for abstract thinking. One is never too young to understand that the pictures they see on the screen don’t come from the screen, but from the computer attached to it. One should at least start learning the basic components of a computer: RAM, CPU, storage, keyboard, monitor, and mouse, before they are given one to play with. Some people think this is too advanced for elementary school, but I believe it is only considered “advanced” or complicated because they have never taken the time to learn it.

My vision for a technical education for “21st Century Skills”:

  1. Teach the basics of what these tools are before they are given access to them.
  2. Teach students to type
  3. Teach students the basic hardware components of a computer and what they do.
  4. Teach students what an operating system is, what applications are, and how they interact.

Students could be issued an iPad Mini that would be their responsibility for the four years of high school, and then given the option to purchase the iPad from the school for a fair price. They could write reports using an inexpensive bluetooth keyboard and Pages or any of the many excellent text editors. But, the important thing would be that by the time they got to high school the students would already know how the device worked. In elementary, they could visit the computer lab occasionally, and be given instruction on typing and basic component recognition. In middle school they could continue to visit the computer labs, but be given more advanced training on past and current trends in common applications like office suites and web browsers. Speaking of web browsers, students should have a solid understanding by the time they enter high school of how the Internet works, what a web browser is and what it does, and possibly be given an optional track in HTML, CSS, and Javascript web development. By high school, before they are given an iPad, they should be able to explain how the web works, how a computer works, what an operating system is, what an application is, why there are system updates, and a basic overview of security and privacy.

Maybe that is asking for too much, but I don’t think so.

In high school the students should be exposed to the Adobe creative tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, science classes could explore the basics of Unix, which underpins nearly every smart phone and web server on the planet. Math, design, art, science, music, history, and even PE can benefit from computers, but not if the computers are used to show pretty Keynote slides instead of diving deep into the topic. Computers should be used when what they can do exceeds what can be done without them.

Real education can be enhanced by technology, but only if it is used correctly, as a tool, not as an end unto itself. What we need are kids who learn how to think. We need kids who can solve some of the big problems that are going to be there when they enter the workforce.

iPads lend themselves to this goal better than traditional computers. They are small, personal devices that are limited to one task at a time, much like how we think. We learn best when we are not distracted, and the myriad possibilities of what we could be doing at any given time on a Mac can be a load on our cognitive resources. iPads do not have that option, and as a dedicated research and report writing device they would work well. Think “electronic book, notebook, and infinite encyclopedia” all wrapped into one. Much like a book, the student can only do one task at a time, which allows them to focus.

I came home one day to find my daughter “doing homework”, with her iPhone in one hand, music turned up in iTunes, a chat window open, and her math textbook and homework in her lap. She was getting frustrated that she did not understand the assignment. So, I asked her for her phone, closed the lid of the laptop and set them on the coffee table, and told her to concentrate. Concentrate.

Focus.

I am more convinced then ever that our ability to concentrate is what will set us apart in the next generation of work.

Computers let our minds flutter about like birds, skimming across the water and jabbing at one thing and then another, but never diving deep into any one subject. It takes discipline to be able to resist launching Facebook or Twitter or Google chat, or tabbing over to iTunes or taking another break to check that “one little thing”. Computers are fantastic devices, “bicycles for the mind”, but we need training, and maturity, and understanding to be able to use them.