Sunday, May 28, 2017

Digital Native = Tech Literacy? Oh, Puh-Leeez, Says this Old Codger...

Suppose you have two friends.  One of them spends an hour, (1:30 in traffic!) in his car each way on his commute to work.  The other walks to the train station, then takes the commuter rail to North Station, and walks from there to his office.  Once in a while, he drives if he has errands to run on the way home, and he also drives occasionally on the weekends, though not always.

That first friend must be "better with cars" right?  He can probably change his own oil, check other fluids, get the tires to the right level of air pressure, right?  If not, he's at least better than the other friend at that stuff?  "No, of course not," I would expect you to say. That's preposterous, right?

Let's imagine two other friends.  One is in sales, and she spends anywhere from 4 to 8 hours each day on the phone.  Your other friend, by contrast, rarely uses her phone.  (she is a site surveyor for an alternative energy company, and she rarely needs to use the phone during the workday).  Maybe, once in a while, she needs to call someone on a site before she arrives, and sometimes while on site she needs to call back to the main office to coordinate something, but even then the chats are pretty much short, sweet, and to the point.

That first friend must be "better with phones," right?  She must know all about RF waves, about the relative merits of 3G and 4G (LTE), and about pulse modulation?  Or, failing that, she must at least be a better user, right?  She must have a little more savoir-faire about how to answer, how to advance a conversation, and when to wrap things up and get off the line?   "No, of course not," I would expect you to say. That's preposterous, right?

Yet, we do this all the time with technology.  The conventional wisdom on this is so dominant that the prevailing theme (that age is inversely proportional with tech know-how, simply because younger people have grown up around technology and use it more) goes more or less unchallenged in most uses/instances.  Yet, this is so very utterly wrong.  Here are some ways in which this Big Myth is often manifested:

(1):  Wow, these kids today are incredible!  My two year-old nephew Timmy just picked up an iPad and started using it out of the blue.  Amazing!  Timmy is the next Bill Gates, I'm sure.  Our Grandpa hasn't even heard of an iPad and when we asked Grandma about whether she'd like an iPad for Christmas she just said, "no thanks, I haven't needed one of those in years!" and we just left that right there.  Yuck!

Well, the speaker might not have stopped to notice this, but the iPad comes without an instruction manual.  That's right.  It's literally so intuitive that there is no need for that extra paper insert that either a) goes straight to the trash anyway or b) goes straight to the 'screwdrivers, rulers, pens, old Chinese food menus, and things that I'll never look at but am not quite ready to throw away yet drawer.'  Monkeys (yes, monkeys!) have been given iPads and have actually manipulated them successively.  iPads have been taken to remote villages in Peru that are completely free of modern technology and -- wait for it...okay, you already guessed it, people are almost instantly able to use them.

If Little Timmy is running pre-school or daycare workshops about iOS app development, then that's really pretty Gatesian or Zuckerbergian, or whatever you want to call it.  But if Little Timmy is swiping around and opening and closing things left and right on an iPad, well, that's pretty much par for the course.  Show me a two year-old *not* able to do that, and *that's* when I'll do a double-take.

(2):  Teenagers are AMAZING with technology.  I mean, they're always on their phones.  How can we ever keep up?  I mean, they're sending 1000s of text messages and tweets a day, and my mom is so out of it, she thinks that Tumblr is spelled with an 'e.'  As IF!  They laugh at us for still using e-mail...and it's so true...we're just dinosaurs!!

I pretty much covered the way I'd respond to this w/my intro portion -- since when does using something a lot imply some sort of mastery?  It shouldn't.

Furthermore, how often do you see teenagers getting into trouble -- sometimes severely so -- for things that they write or post to social media sites?  If they're somehow so much "better" or "savvier" than the 35-and-up crowd, how could that be the case?

I've had a great vantage point to see this, by the way.  I've now taught dozens of Computer Science and/or CS "related" courses over the past four years that have ranged from basic computer applications for undergrads up to graduate-level Java Programming.  I've done this with wildly varying 'types' of students, too, in the sense of age, backgrounds, abilities, etc.  Many of these so-called digital natives are completely baffled by something like "just save that to your desktop," (and no, hahaha, this isn't about the efficiency of doing so, the showstopper was the actual act of doing so). Most use the Web every day of their lives but are completely baffled by even a few lines of HTML (not that that's a bad thing!!  I use the, uhh..facilities every day and know virtually nothing about plumbing) -- the only point I'm making here is that the conventional narrative is just bass ackwards.

The list goes on from there, but suffice to say, there is enough smoke there for me to say there's fire.

Okay, so why do I care so much about this?  Why even bother to point this out?  

Is this all just a bunch of reflexive millennial-bashing?  Maybe.

But maybe I also think there's something very dangerous about this.  The more adults feed into it, and the more it pumps young people up, the more of a head of steam this myth takes on.  And if your little Aidan, Jayden, Brayden, or Madison thinks that it's somehow "amazing" or "brilliant" that he or she set up a Twitter account, or posted a video to Snapchat, or figured out how to prevent Dad from being able to see his Facebook posts, and if you feed into that, then you're not ultimately doing that child any favors.

Look at what today's job market requires.  Look at the jobs that go unfilled.  Look at Silicon Valley's pleas for more H-1B visas.

Go there.   Run towards that need!

Become awesome at database management.  Start with some SQL, and then branch out.  Think it's amazing that your kid uses Dropbox?  Have Aidan get an Amazon Web  Server credential.  Did Jayden help Aunt Brenda get on to your home Wi-Fi network?  Okay, great, now let's get that guy a Cisco cert and a job.  Madison can reset the cookies and then get you 10 more free articles from some news site?  That's a nice start, but that's not *technically* harder than any other question that might involve a Google search and then following steps 1 through 3.  Maybe when she masters HTML5 she'll be able to help some company put together animations for its website.

At the end of the day (how's that for a cliche?), there are admittedly many ways to define tech literacy, none necessarily right or wrong.  But pumping kids up with lots of hot air with a label that they don't necessarily deserve isn't merely wrong, it's's a path towards overconfidence and an even worse mismatch with respect to the job market that they will someday have to enter.  

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