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October 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 2

A Parent's Perspective / Educating the Digital Generation

A computer-savvy generation is entering the classrooms of elementary and middle schools. We need to bridge the educational gaps in our classrooms to meet the unique needs of this new generation.

E-companies love the demographics of the Internet generation, the young people ages 13 to 30 who grew up using the Internet.
But the digital generation—a younger group from kindergarten through middle school—is redefining computer literacy. Some of these children, my own four included, have been exposed to computers since birth and have mastered the digital world in ways that their elders still struggle to comprehend.
Computer literacy no longer exists only for the privileged few. More than half of U.S. households today have a computer, and many children master a keyboard and mouse before they can recite the alphabet. Chat rooms and e-mail are a social lifeline for middle schoolers, much as the telephone was when I was a teenager. Ask 8th graders in our school district what "instant messenger" means, and most know the answer.
  • Many teachers didn't grow up with computers and aren't receiving the training they need to operate them.
  • Some children don't have a computer at home, whereas others may have several—as in our household, where evaluation of educational software is a way of life.
  • Educational standards for computer literacy don't match the needs of today's children or today's employers.
How do you prepare computer-savvy youngsters for tomorrow's world of knowledge workers and information-technology jobs? What if your students can operate a joystick and download a computer game with ease, but you can't?

Listen to Our Children

Many young children today have keyboarding skills that are superior to their handwriting skills. My 1st grader, for instance, often asks me how he can learn to type faster, "like you do, Mom." He doesn't like to practice his penmanship and asks me why it matters—he assumes that printed output comes from printers.
It's hard to make a case for practicing penmanship to a 7-year-old who plays chess with competitors on the Web. He is earning a national rating in the online game Starcraft and competes against other players whom he finds at BattleNet, an Internet meeting site. The latest generations of video games have defined his understanding of high-resolution graphics.
Children, with their ability to instantly absorb new technology, can be intimidating, even to a Silicon Valley executive. But let's not feel so threatened that we fail to hear what they are saying and experiencing. We must understand what skills our children bring to school and, at a minimum, allow them to employ those skills.

Benefits in the Classroom

We've all heard reasons for not using computers or multimedia for class projects: Very young students should not use computers for reports because they need to work on their penmanship, and classroom computing gives children with computers at home an unfair edge over classmates without home computers.
But such arguments overlook the benefits of computers in the classroom. As a parent, I've seen firsthand the vast differences in learning styles and capabilities of my own children. In today's diverse classrooms, good educational software can help bridge serious learning gaps.
For children with language difficulties, software interventions can change the way that children's brains process language. Dyslexic students can use visual and auditory-support mechanisms offered by computers. Students with remedial reading skills can find text-to-speech programs to help them improve their word-recognition skills. Software that employs extensive audio features can help second-language learners master vocabulary, grammar, and subject matter.
Those who argue that classroom computers take up time that could be spent more valuably on developing academic and social skills miss the point. Guided use of the Internet for research develops a child's critical-thinking skills. Children learn to collaborate, consider multiple points of view, and evaluate various forms of information. Children who have advanced computer skills develop social and academic skills by sharing their knowledge with their peers and elders. All students benefit from the resources that computers and the Internet offer.

Bridges to the Future

The shift from a manufacturing economy to a knowledge economy has created a mismatch between available jobs and workers with the necessary skills. A study by the Information Technology Association of America (2000) cites the current shortages of information technology workers and estimates that one job in every twelve is vacant. The summary of this study, Bridging the Gap: Information Technology Skills for a New Medium, notes that "demand for workers with Web-related talents is now almost 13 percent of all IT jobs."
Prospective employers will look for students with skills in Web media and content production, the study says, and this trend is not likely to reverse itself anytime soon. Web skills that children acquire in the classroom—even the elementary school classroom—could one day translate into high-paying jobs.
According to U.S. News & World Report (U.S. News Online, 1999), e-commerce companies are projected to spend $22.2 billion on ads by 2004, with marketing and sales jobs plentiful. The occupation of "Web promotions producer" qualifies as one of the magazine's 21 hot job tracks. As for training, "your college major doesn't matter as long as you've had experience designing Web sites and promotions."
Not all children, of course, are headed for a career in multimedia design or marketing, nor should they be. But why not do what we can to make this career option available to our children?

Standards for Teachers

Efforts to define standards for K–8 teachers and students took a meaningful step forward in June 2000 with the release of the new International Society for Technology in Education standards. This nonprofit group of teachers of technology recommends that 2nd graders use a mouse and digital camera in school and that 5th graders participate in online discussions and create multimedia reports. Descriptions of the standards will be distributed to 50,000 public schools.
According to a U.S. Department of Education report (1999), only 24 percent of new teachers feel sufficiently prepared to integrate technology into the curriculum they are using. When it comes to training and standards development, there really are no quick fixes, but we seem to be moving in the right direction.

Closing the Instructional Gap

A few years ago, one of my children was fortunate to have a teacher with excellent computer skills. Her husband worked for Intel, and the children boasted that they had the fastest computer (it was a test model) in the world in their classroom.
That year, I bought a Web site development software package for my children for Christmas. I told them that they could build our family Web site. I was floored by my children's response. My 4th grader explained that, as young children, they should not put their pictures, names, and ages on the site because of potential misuse by pedophiles. He went on to cite safety and security issues. He explained the guidelines that his class used for its class Web site. I gave up on the idea of a family home page after that—but I appreciated the knowledge and sensitivity of the teacher.
In our highly structured educational system, teachers often have difficulty finding time to learn technological skills. We need an infrastructure that supports continuing education for teachers so that they can stay ahead of their students. Private sector companies have begun to address these training deficits. For example, some companies offer reasonably priced online and offline training programs for teachers.
The Palm Beach County, Florida, school district teaches Web basics for teachers at middle schools and magnet schools. The district uses a self-paced Web-design curriculum to teach teachers basic skills, such as using browsers and sending e-mail, to pass along to their students. The students, in turn, will gain a competitive advantage as they head for higher education and the workplace.
  • Encourage computer-literate children in your classes to help teach the other children.
  • Encourage computer-literate children to share their knowledge with you. This two-way educational relationship worked for the ancient Greeks, and it can work in the contemporary classroom.
  • Take advantage of educational software and training programs that help you acquire computer skills, and pass these skills along to your students.
  • Stay tuned. Efforts are underway to improve technology training for teachers and to provide skills guidelines for elementary school students and their teachers.
We're still in the early stages of learning how to harness the power of computing in the K–8 classroom. Let's not eliminate computers from the classroom and the curriculum simply because we haven't yet discovered the best possible ways to use and teach computer skills.
By providing access to computers, offering teachers training in technology, and developing a standards-based curriculum for computer literacy, educators can respond to the needs of this new generation. The rewards will be many: students entering the work force with the requisite skills, teachers prepared to harness the power of today's technology, and both students and teachers benefiting from the opportunities that computers and the Internet offer.

Information Technology Association of America. (2000).Executive summary: Bridging the gap: Information technology skills for a new medium. Available: www.itaa.org/workforce /studies/hw00execsumm.htm

U.S. Department of Education. (1999). Teacher quality: A report on the preparation and qualifications of public school teachers, 1999. Washington, DC: Author.

U.S. News Online. (1999, November 1). Hot job tracks 2000 [Internet home page]. Available: www.usnews.com/usnews /edu/careers/cchot19.htm

End Notes

1 Visit www.iste.org for more information.

2 Two companies, Winstar and Macromedia, have teamed up to create interactive training on Internet basics for teachers. Educators can link to the Training Café at www.trainingcafe.com to take up to 20 free hours of training in basic Internet skills.

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