Geekonomics: What Did Those Stats Reveal?

You likely saw this recent New York Times article that pegged technology as widening the “time-wasting” gap between upper income and and lower income families. A principal in the article “doubted the value of putting a computer in every home without proper oversight.”
The article goes on to discuss the FCC’s desire to establish a digital literacy corps that would be funded with 200 million dollars.

This group of hundreds, even thousands, of trainers would fan out to schools and libraries to teach productive uses of computers for parents, students and job seekers.

That is a commendable and stellar idea. My concern here is with educators who might not see the value of a computer in a student’s home. Anything that would impede digital proliferation into the homes of the underprivileged is a big step in the wrong direction. Don’t forget where we, educators, came from. The principal did qualify her remarks with “without oversight,” but . . . really?  Granted, oversight is always good with school-aged children, but if the choices are no oversight = no computer, then a staggering amount of our students wouldn’t have a computer at home.

We Have Been the Problem

Before we dismiss the value of computers because a percentage of school-age children waste time on them at home, we have to remember how long educators fought technology in the classroom. In the 90s, we put a computer in every classroom. Teachers, though, lacked proper professional development with their new toys. They saw it as “another thing to do.” They wondered how these machines related at all to what they were doing in their classrooms. Left to their own devices, educators quickly established new records in computer solitaire. Some scores still survive on educator solitaire forums on the Internet. Others mastered the art of eBay, often having to dash back to their classrooms after lunch to see if they had the winning bid. Most of us have come a long way. The value was always there, though, we just had to find it.
Many educators are still battling classroom technology. 75 percent of high school students bring incredibly powerful computers (smart phones) to school every day, but principals won’t allow students to use them. Interestingly, though, in schools that ban cell phones, 63 percent of the students in those schools still use them. We are painfully missing out on great opportunities to make our schools more relevant and close the technology gap. Parents, like some educational leaders and teachers, might need some coaching on how to use this stuff, become digital citizens themselves, and help their children make better use of the computer at home.

No Panacea Here

Over and over I hear that technology is not a “panacea.” It’s said with such a condemning tone, that you must wonder why we ever even pursue it. You know what else, though, is not a panacea? EVERYTHING else is not a panacea. Nothing is a cure ALL. More teachers, more testing, less teachers, less testing, free-range classrooms, complex scheduling, zero technology, all of technology . . . none of it is a panacea. But if you don’t see the value in having a computer in every home that has children growing up in it, then we live on different planets.
And I would like to welcome you to Earth, by the way.
If you don’t think computers are useful in a home, try removing yours for a month. This goes well beyond the towering walls of academia. Computers are simply a real world necessity, especially for families living at or near the poverty level. Information is power. Pure and simple. The better access that lower income families have to information about financial assistance, health care, nutrition, education, housing, and the like, the better chances they will have at changing their situation. The social aspect can’t be dismissed either. No one wants to check the box in the survey that they don’t have a computer at home.
Yes, people can and do survive without a computer or the internet, but why would we want lower income families to do things the hard way? Especially when we wouldn’t do it that way for ourselves? Try this, go to Cambridge near Harvard and tell the parents there that computers aren’t necessary to their child’s development.

Passivists Turned Activists

We can help diminish that time-wasting gap at home by turning our students from consumers to producers. We’ve made them passive computer users at school, not active users. We have them watch videos, watch teacher presentations, read e-books, and read content on the net, all of which are passive activities. Yet the Internet and computers long ago moved beyond being tools solely for passive consumption.
If we had e-portfolios at our school (like Mahara or Digication), would students have anything to put in them? They can’t showcase multiple-choice tests or worksheets. Are we having them actually DO anything? Because if not, they are taking those same passive, consumption habits home, where they turn into real time wasting activities.
Writing a paper for class accounts for most of a student’s digital production time. Not that it’s unimportant, but it’s like having a Selectra with a screen. It’s at the bottom of the production ladder, and we have to send students home with better activist skills than that.
Internet technology lets students easily demonstrate the highest two skills on Bloom’s: creating and evaluating. Both skills lend themselves to production nicely.
Turn students into producers with apps like Stupeflix, YouTube Video Editor, Slideshare, Glogster, Aviary, or Animoto. They are easy, fun, and as educational as you want to make them.
Parents, not sure where to start at home? Adopt this easy rule: Every hour of consumption (watching videos, looking at images, surfing Facebook) is matched with an hour of production.
Got kids who love to surf the net? Then capitalize on that with a RATE100 project, where students rate (evaluate) 100 products on the net by clicking “Like” buttons, +1 buttons, “Fav” buttons, and leaving reviews in the comments section of an item. A simple project could let less-advanced students just keep a list of their 100 rated items on a Google doc. A more involved project could have students curate each item in Delicious and then share it with the world.

Does this have value? Yes, real-world value. Marketers and advertisers are both amazed and shocked at the consumer influence that this Generation Z crowd generates. Let them shape our nation, and let them know that they are doing it.
Even better, if you fell in love with Pinterest, you must check out Learnist, a social pin board for the classroom.

Change the culture at the school, and habits will change at home, as well. Move students from consumption to production at school, and they will be more likely to become producers at home.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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