Sunday, July 8, 2007

Who will prepare our kids for their digital futures?

I used to despise writing. My Mom knew it and volunteered me to be the scribe of my Brownie troop when I was in fourth grade. I was not pleased. What a meddling Mom! I had to write an article summarizing each weekly meeting and, worse yet, the articles were actually published in our local newspaper (Yes, I am from Small Town America). Mom would sit with me after each meeting and help me think about how to tell a story to others. Then, she would make me edit and edit and edit. I do not consider myself a stellar writer but I am convinced my writing would be even worse if it weren’t for my Mom. She knew writing was critical to academic success and eventually to success in a variety of careers.

Writing is still critical to academic and professional success but there are new skills that Moms need to ensure their children gain; the skills of using digital technologies to problem solve, communication, collaborate, network, create and multitask. That’s right, whether we like it or not if our children are living in what Dr. Henry Jenkins (MIT) refers to as a participatory culture. Being able to use a mouse, save a file and create a Word document no longer equates to computer literacy.

In fact, Jonathan Fanton (president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur ) claims that “[t]hose who have no opportunity or desire to be part of …revolutionary digital communities may be deprived of vital virtual skills that would prepare them for full participation in the real world of tomorrow” (See New Generations, New Media Challenges).

As I follow the impact of blogs, social networking communities and YouTube on the current Presidential elections I must say that I cannot disagree.

However, I do disagree with Fanton’s assertion that it is up to schools to prepare our students for this new world. In an ideal world the schools would do just this and there are great examples of students using digital technologies in powerful ways in schools across the country. As a matter of fact, meeting the teachers who facilitate these things is one of my favorite things about my job. For example, check out Kids Galore Helping Kids of Darfur, a service learning project for 3rd graders facilitated by Wendy Drexler.

However, there are many more examples of school districts that block all blogs, wikis, videos and podcasts. It is pretty hard to be part of a participatory culture when you don’t even have access to the tools. There are also plenty of examples of federally funded computer labs that can only be used for remedial reading instruction via drill and kill software applications. I could go on and one but you get my point. I am not willing to rely on schools to give my children the knowledge, skills and abilities they need to function in a culture driven by digital technologies any more than my Mom was willing to hope that the schools would eventually teach me to write.

I don’t think fostering new digital skills is a particularly difficult task for Moms to undertake as long as we follow the lead of our children. Once our children hit elementary school they will come home talking about Webkinz, Club Penguin or Doll Emporium. As they get older they will frequent MySpace, become addicted to YouTube, join Second Life and IM or Skype to their heart’s content. (Well, those things may be long gone but they’ll be on top of wherever the digital world goes.)

None of this is inherently bad as long as it is done in moderation and with common sense. Here is where we come in, Moms. Common sense is not necessarily innate (just ask my friend whose 3 year old recently tried to jump off the Empire State Building). If we follow the age-old parenting rule of keeping communication open even the biggest of digital dunces among us will learn a lot and contribute to our children developing the digital skills they need to function in a world in which we may or may not ever fully participate.

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