Brave new world - FamilyEducation

Brave new world

November 03,2008

As a teacher and parent, I'm hyper-aware of how much technology has impacted kids today. When I was in college, research and reading all took place in the library, or in a room, with piles of books stacked up on the desk, and note cards with citations and information stuffed into folder pockets and desk drawers. Writing papers was a long process in which you wrote first (sometimes even with a pen!), and then went back and carefully inserted sources and notes. These days, the process has become reversed--or skipped entirely. Just as certain developmental milestones are critical for a child's development, I also think the act of writing and reading is of utmost importance in a child's development. As a college teacher I see daily how almost all my students are using technological shortcuts--shortcuts that help them, but also get them into trouble. But as a parent I can also see and respect how technology can help kids: it bridges gaps, compensates for challenges, opens up new worlds, and even makes learning possible.

All this doesn't prevent me from still grouching about it on the inside. I hate how my students often cut and paste, rather then copy out information. I hate how young students today have such short-term memories, and how they sometimes insert text messaging lingo ('u' for 'you', if you can believe it) into papers, and how they think in short bursts, and need so many connections made for them. Young people have become more passive learners, accustomed more to sitting back and letting a steady flow of visual information come their way. Sometimes I think I could reach my students more effectively if I sent them a text message, a notification over Twitter, or a piece of flair on Facebook.

Even as I complain about technology and the Internet, and what it's done to learning, I'm also so glad it's out there. My son started using the computer at age three, and now at eight he's as comfortable navigating around the keyboard as he is turning the pages of a book. He's made PowerPoint presentations and slide shows. He can insert sound clips into documents and design intricate graphs and line drawings right on the computer. He will sit for hours and watch downloaded NASA podcasts, or How Stuff Works videos. But all the time children log on the Internet these days raises new issues and concerns that parents never had to deal with 10 or 20 or more years ago--namely, keeping kids safe and cautious and smart in today's brave new world of technology. Because he is naturally an overly cautious and anxious kid, L. has a healthy respect for being wary about where he goes on the Internet, and what needs to be okayed first. At least, that was the case until a couple weeks ago, when he somehow single-handedly subscribed to a six-month free trial of a flight training magazine. And the other day he casually informed us that he had entered himself into a drawing for a free iPod Touch.

We have a few rules for Internet use around Professor Mom's house. For instance, no Google searches without a parent present (I've stumbled across some pretty horrific Google search engine results by just innocently typing in a search term for a recipe; I shudder to think my own child would click on an innocently labeled link and see something unsuitable). So we've drilled it into L. that he must always have a parent looking over his shoulder before he does a search. All websites visited must be pre-approved and bookmarked first. We have a huge bookmark list, but I feel comfortable knowing that L. knows he can visit the bookmarked sites without getting an okay first. If he wants to try a new site (follow a link from another site), he has to check with us first before he can bookmark it. Also, no typing in identifiers like our names and home address for any free offers without checking with us first. There are lots of interesting and also educational offers out there, and we don't object if our enterprising L. tracks down a few. But many offers (like the 6-month "free" subscription) come with strings attached, and you never want your child's name out there unless you have checked the source for safety first. L. seems to have taken the new rule to heart, because he did double-check with me yesterday before signing his life away to get a free flight training DVD.

It's funny and amazing to me to see how comfortable and adept my son is with the computer and the Internet. He has developed a real and innate aptitude for it. T. still has no interest in it at all, except to watch Magic Schoolbus videos on YouTube over her brother's shoulder. But L. has always loved it, and it serves him well. He uses the computer at school as part of his IEP, and it's helped him tremendously with his writing and self-esteem; he soaks up more information in 30 minutes of watching a How Stuff Works video on the principles of aerodynamics than he would in two hours of science at school. And while my students may drive me nuts with their short attention spans and their constant texting from the back of the class, I admire and respect how quickly they can move back and forth between the different technologies at their fingertips today. I still think we need to hold onto the "old skills," but I'm glad the new ones are there for my kids.