As I embark on a new career after spending almost 20 years as a teacher, I find myself now free to publicly comment on certain trends in education without either “biting the hand that feeds me,” potentially embarrassing my institution, or getting in trouble with those above me in the food chain. That being said, I’ll probably tackle one issue every few weeks. The issue I’d like to reflect upon now is Computer Literacy vs Technology Education.
A few years ago I went to a conference of computer and technology teachers, and there seemed to be a disturbing trend away from teaching students the basics of computer literacy and pushing them into more technologically advanced and “cutting edge” things such as robotics, computer-aided design (CAD), and moviemaking. Similarly, a number of public school districts in the Syracuse area had stopped teaching basic computer literacy classes because “the kids already know how to do that.”
I disagreed with that, as did a number of the teachers I met at that conference. We felt that our schools were making a big mistake that they wouldn’t recognize for about five years. It’s true that today’s students are much more familiar with using computers than they were when I first started teaching. I remember having to teach kids what a mouse was, and the difference between clicking and double-clicking. But familiarity with the device doesn’t mean competency with it.
About 20 years ago, in one of the computer labs at Syracuse University, I saw a student working on her resume. And as she sat there typing, she said that the thing she liked most about using the computer to do this was that if she made a mistake, she could just wipe it out with the eraser tool and put in the correct word.
I was aghast! The eraser tool? She was doing her word processing with a paint program. It apparently was the first program she had learned how to use, and she figured that that was all that she needed to know. She was probably also using that to write her papers with, because no one had made her learn any differently.
Today we have students who aren’t much different from that young lady at SU. They know a few simple things about Word or Pages, and figure that’s all they need to know in order to get their work done. Worse, their principals and superintendents think the same thing. They think, “Oh, they know how to open the program, how to write, how to save, how to print, and how to quit. That’s all they really need to know. Now we can move on to the cutting-edge stuff that looks cool, impresses parents, and will help America return to number one in the global economy, right?”
Well…no. Computer Literacy and Technology Education are two different, but complementary, things. I like to say that the first is Driver’s Ed while the other is Auto Shop. A smart school will recognize this, and have one teacher for each area. In fact, when I first started teaching, it was understood that I was the basic Computer Literacy person, while the other guy they hired was the Advanced Technology person. But as schools of all kinds, both public and private, find themselves with funding and enrollment issues, they’re trying to do more with less, thinking that they can do without basic computer literacy anymore, and putting a lot of high-tech window dressing on their other classes in a mistaken attempt to look cutting-edge and relevant.
They’re not doing anyone any favors.
But let’s leave high school for a moment and look at colleges. We just recently finished the college process with our older daughter. And as we looked at schools for her, did we ask about whether they had a great robotics lab? Did we care about the high-end CAD classes? Did we care about how many iPhone apps had been written by last year's freshmen? No. What we were concerned about was that they had the two programs she was looking for – Linguistics and Music – and what they had in terms of tech support for the students in the dorms who come in with printer problems, networking problems, and yes…problems with their word processing, spreadsheet, email, or music composition software.
Where will the students who become the experts at these campus computer centers come from if no one is teaching them the ins and outs of the software they’ll end up supporting?
Our schools area making a big mistake, and it's not just me saying that. If they talk to any of their graduates who’ve been through college, they’ll say the same thing. They’re graduating a generation of students who’ll be able to build great Lego robots, but will write the paper about how they did it using a paint program.
But maybe they’ll figure that out in about five years.