I got my first computer when I was 17. I’m not sure the exact reason why I wanted it, but I suspect it was partly to do with the frustration of sharing the family PC in the living room and probably something to do with piracy. I remember the specs though; 233Mhz, 128Mb RAM, 8Gb Hard disk…all second hand for the price of £150. This was in 2003 and, looking back on it, I think I realised this was an extortionate amount of money for the specs even then! I remember having about £15 left over to get myself a second hand monitor from the computer store (long since closed) up the road from my mum’s house. I remember carrying this 14 inch CRT monster back, with the sharp plastic edges digging into my hands. I also remember being desperate for an internet connection in my bedroom, something that was never going to happen given the lack of phone point in the room. I saved up my money, bought a Netgear 802.11b wireless router and secretly bought a broadband line from Pipex (a long dead ISP). I hid the broadband line from my tech-phobic mum for nearly two years!
I don’t write about these things to lionise my achievements, but as a teacher it has coloured some of my experiences of my students. Teaching in Hong Kong is a huge privilege, and I honestly feel I have the pleasure of guiding some of the most committed and focused young people in the world. However, when it comes to technology, I wonder a little if the way my students view problems and solutions might be a bit…lacking.
I teach in a 1-to-1 laptop school. The students all have a MacBook and most also carry their phones around too. I make a fair bit of use of their devices (I post every material I use to teach students up on my website for them to access later, for example) but I find that students seem to fall apart whenever something particularly difficult presents itself. In fairness, these young people have grown up being made to feel as if they’re geniuses for being able to use an iPad, never really realising that these devices have been designed to be accessible to the lowest common denominator possible. Additionally it seems that they have bought into the rhetoric from adults about children being almost naturally able to do things. I find it amusing that my own generation was told the same thing and it seems like a rehash of the digital natives/digital immigrants argument. However, it is millennials who are now the parents of this generation of young people…and it’s not like millennials didn’t receive the same message from adults while they were growing up.
But what are these young people actually doing on these devices? I ask because I strongly suspect that they are not learning Excel or learning to write code beyond the lego-like packages like MIT’s scratch. I would bet that the vast majority of this computer use is passive consumption - Youtube, Social Media and whatever else. While I don’t have a problem with how people chose to blow off steam (outside of my opinions on the heinous privacy transgressions of Social Media companies), I wonder if the net effect is a generation of young people who’s self concept includes a sense of mastery over technology without the requisite skill to back this up.
What with the large amount of studies showing the necessity of strategies to delay gratification to really push learners to develop beyond a superficial level, I wonder if when faced with the instant gratifications of passive consumption that we might be damaging young people. Certainly they seem to collapse into denial and moans of “it’s broken” or “it doesn’t work” frequently before giving up completely.
I have been running extra-curricular activities with students learning Linux, open source software and various techy projects for a decade now. I accept that my views on current students and a lack of resilience may be coloured by rose-tinted glasses, as well comparing students from the U.K and Hong Kong. That said, I really do feel that there is a difference in mindset. Case in point, my current batch of students have spent three weeks just getting Ubuntu installed in Virtualbox on their laptops. This is a trivial task and resources online to help with this are plentiful. There are forums, Githubs, subreddits, youtube videos and countless other places to help…and yet I have had students drop out by not turning up to meetings. I have demonstrated, given links to resources and generally tried to motivate, but this just doesn’t seem to have paid off.
This is getting to be a little bit of a rant at this point. I don’t really have answers beyond the usual recommendations for building resilience and grit. However, with few dedicated ICT lessons I don’t think this is going to have a particularly groundbreaking impact for my students in the future. With the proliferation of easy to use devices backed by companies who provide easy to use software (in exchange for freedoms and, in many cases, basic privacy), I really do wonder what the next decade will do for young people and their mindset regarding technology.