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Aug 15 / James Marshall

Kids Can’t Use Computers?

A friend of mine posted up on Facebook a link to a long, but interesting piece over on Coding 2 Learn about why “kids can’t use computers… and this is why it should worry you”. It got me thinking. It’s a great post, but I am not sure I agree with it totally.

I’ve had the privilege of working in two large secondary schools in my career, so I can relate to a lot of the article; except, unlike the author, I wasn’t a teacher. I was the IT technician, and later the network manager. The disdain and general derision to which the author refers was an almost daily experience for me.

I’ve always thought it paradoxical that the people often treated the worst in schools are those who the school relies on most to ensure that critical functions like being able to take the register, teach a lesson, and process exam results can be carried out every single day. You wouldn’t treat your GP or dentist that way if your body was broken, so why treat your IT staff so poorly?

You think you can, but you really can’t use a computer.

The author points out that a lot of this poor treatment comes down to the fact that most people think they can use a computer, and I’d wager that a lot of the treatment is driven by the embarrassment of having to ask for help without wanting to admit they are helpless. Almost none of the people that darkened my IT cupboard door could ever look me in the eye and admit they’d screwed up. It was always the computer’s fault.

The different scenarios the author defines as “not being able to use a computer” couldn’t be more accurate. From the sixth form student with a virus chewing through his system resources, through to the cluttered-desktop teacher who can’t find “the Internet”, and the student who doesn’t know how to turn a monitor on, I’ve seen them all first hand – and more!

It frightens me how unprepared the students and teachers I’ve worked with are when it comes to coping with the most basic problems.

You can use a computer if…

For what it’s worth, this is a list of some of the things I think you should be able to do in order to be considered even half competent at using a computer:

  • You can add more paper to the printer without breaking it.
  • You understand that repeatedly clicking on something will not make it load quicker.
    • Related to the previous point, sending a job to the printer 50 times will not guarantee that it prints.
  • You can work within the limits of the hardware (and OS) by not trying to run every program on the PC.
  • You can quickly figure out if a cable has come out of the back of the PC and be able to plug it in without breaking it.
  • You understand that your data is your responsibility, and that backing it up is important because the IT magicians can’t recover a bricked SSD, or broken memory stick, no matter how much you flatter them. Your network drive (or cloud storage these days) is there for a reason.
  • You can spot an advert on a website in seconds, and know not to click on it when it tells you you’re the winner of a competition you never entered.

The author goes on to draw a comparison between the students and teachers of today being like many car owners of today – pure consumers of the devices they use, with no knowledge of how to fix it when it goes wrong (beyond switching it off and on again. Thanks, IT Crowd), and being totally reliant on the skills of experts. Fair enough, but is that a bad thing?

I don’t know how my car works (beyond suck, squeeze, bang, blow) but I know that when it feels different to how it runs normally, or when a warning light appears on the dashboard, I should probably get it checked out. The same approach should apply to technology.

I don’t think for one second that everyone who owns a PC should understand what every component does, or be able to change them and upgrade them at will. I do think that everyone who owns a PC should recognise the warning signs and know when to call in the help of an expert – and to revere, not revile, them when they do.

You can’t teach common sense

…but that shouldn’t stop us from trying. I think it’s necessary that we come to terms with the fact that not every child is going to grow up to write the next search algorithms that power Bing and Google, or develop the next billion-dollar social network.

There’s been a lot of talk about teaching Computer Science, and focusing on programming skills, etc. and that idea is admirable. We should absolutely nurture and enhance the skills of young people who want to follow the IT path in life (things like Young Rewired State are fantastic for this), but the bottom line is that some people, probably most people, are only ever going to be “just” users. As well as preparing them for the world of work by teaching them how to use productivity software, we should engender a culture of lateral thinking and common sense when it comes to everything else that isn’t Microsoft Office.

It isn’t acceptable in modern society to be illiterate or innumerate and we should strive to make being technically illiterate just as bad.

I think that the solution is right in front of us. The non-technical skills people need are taught all over the curriculum already. From social development and understanding the world around you and the people in it (PSE), through to critically evaluating the authenticity and accuracy of a source of information (History), it’s all pretty much there but doesn’t ever seem to get applied to technology in quite the same way.

The author rightly points out that the people who govern our society are often shamefully clueless when it comes to technology – and yet they’re implementing policies that have far-reaching effects. Not all of them necessarily for the benefit of the voter.

I’m reminded of the poem “First they came…”. I’ve seen this creep up a number of times in recent months in relation to the sweeping powers that our governments are seeking, the long term impact on our society they would have and how the general ignorance of today’s digital natives is allowing it to go unchecked.

The author’s call to action to solve this is to build a generation of hackers, but I think that’s too simplistic. We don’t need all of our next generation to be able to write C#, or know what a ZIF socket is – that’s unrealistic.

Instead, let’s celebrate and indulge the interests and potential of those who want to learn more about how to develop, extend and solve the problems of tomorrow with technology, but ensure that people who just see technology as a means to an end have the common sense not to blindly blame the computer when it all goes wrong.

I say let’s build a generation of thinkers.

Feb 13 / James Marshall

Jensen Harris Tells The Story of Windows 8 at UX Week 2012

It might not surprise you to know that in my line of work I meet a lot of customers who are ready to give me their opinion about Microsoft, its products like Windows 8 and Office 365, and vision. It isn’t always positive, but negative feedback is just as important.

I’m really privileged in being able to work with so many talented and passionate people. I listen to the way they talk about what they do and I wish that I could condense that passion and sincerity down into a 2 minute conversation that I could have with people I meet.

One of the more popular topics for feedback is Windows 8. Luckily, I’ve found this fantastic video from UX Week 2012 where Jensen Harris talks about the story of Windows 8. It’s not a short video, but I’d encourage you to watch it all as it gives a rare insight into just how and why the Windows 8 Modern UI looks like does.

The Story of Windows 8

Feb 11 / James Marshall

Old Favourite: Changing Education Paradigms

I know this has been around for a while, but the RSA Animate version of Sir Ken Robinson‘s “Changing Education Paradigms” talk is such a good video I thought I’d blog it.

Whenever I need reminding why I stay involved in education, albeit much further away from the front line than I used to be, I watch this video.

I’d love to think that one day I’ll be blessed with such profundity. For now I’ll stick to listening to people who know much more than me about everything.

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