Saturday, June 18, 2011

Kids and computers

"Science is a tool for problem-solving - the best that humans possess. But it has this peculiarity, that when it is most successful it creates new problems, some of which are insoluble." (John Gray)

V's niece has a surprising fluency about the PC interface. Yet the notion that each generation is inevitably more au fait with information technology is a myth that could do with some challenging.

For example, V herself would have little trouble using the DOS prompt to deal with a tricky corrupted file that repeatedly crashes Windows Explorer once clicked on. Her niece meanwhile, for all her dextrous expertise, probably has little comparable understanding of the underlying hardware and software architecture of a laptop. For her, it's really just an oversize Blackberry that won't fit in her back pocket.*

I'm sure she knows how to use the simple Google search box to look up Justin Bieber, but if she didn't, I could show her in a matter of minutes. What I'd find a lot harder to pass on are the sort of sophisticated search techniques that became the basis of my living in the mid-1990s. This is because they are grounded in reasoning skills acquired across my formal education, many of which have little basis in either computers or technology in general (Medieval History for example!)

Here's another example that got us thinking. We have a young acquaintance in our colonia of apparently above-average intelligence and sensitivity, better-educated and certainly comfortable with computers. When V offered to help him improve his English conversation skills, we soon discovered that he didn't really know how to use a dictionary. Now you might think that this, rather like mental arithmetic, is exactly the sort of low-tech talent that kids today can dispense with, because there are electronic tools out there that make such tasks so much easier than they were in our day.

But dictionaries are systematised information, the very basis of the computational revolution that went mainstream in the latter part of the last century. And it's not just that our friend struggled, as so many Chapines do, with his ortografia: not knowing or caring for example if the translation of 'deep' is Hondo or Ondo. He didn't seem to have accurate mental map of how the letters of the alphabet are ordered, and once he got to the right letter for the word he was seeking, he started slowly reading every word in the sequence until he eventually found it.

It therefore surely goes without saying that the ability to mentally parse an index at speed without a computer is very much a preliminary life skill that one has to acquire before one has any hope of getting the most out of all that binary data stored on computers around the globe.

Most of the really important computer skills are not really computer skills at all. Hence, giving every teen in Guatemala a free laptop is unlikely to transform the nation into an IT powerhouse overnight...though it might drastically increase the number of irrelevant Facebook taggings.

The people who get the most out of these technologies are ultimately those who are using them as an extension — an enhancement even — of their own information processing capabilities. Yet the flipside of this 'solution' is perhaps a whole new set of problems, when one considers that the very same tools may actually be hindering a whole subset of children in education today from acquiring these capabilities in the first place.

*I'm reminded of my photographer cousin's gripes that somewhere between XP and 7, the dominant visual metaphor for Windows became that of a kiddies' playground.

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