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The Kids are Alright: Technology is a Larger Part of Our Kids Lives Now More Than Ever. But Is Technology Making Our Kids Smarter? Part 2 of 2

By Michael Dillon

Part Two: The Case for Technology. It is making our Kids Smarter.

According to Don Tapscott, the author of Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation (McGraw-Hill), the idea that technology and the Internet are hurting our children is just plain wrong. In fact, he reverently believes in the opposite.

"The Internet and new technology is the most powerful tool for learning ever. Children who have access to this new communications medium will learn more effectively than those who don't," he says. "When kids are online, they're reading, analyzing, evaluating, comparing their thoughts, and telling their stories, collaborating, innovating. The Web is becoming the repository of all recorded knowledge."

According to Tapscott, audiences who believe that computers are hurting their children's intellectual development are blaming the wrong machine.

"My research shows that within the home, the main victim of time online is not playing soccer or doing homework--it's TV," he reports. "Television took away 24 hours a week for baby-boomers, and these kids are taking it back. And the cognitive activity involved in spending time online is very different from the passive viewing of television. Rather than being viewers or listeners, kids on the Net become actors, initiators, seekers, learners, debaters."

Indeed, Tapscott's analysis of the research to date is overwhelmingly positive. "The overall conclusion of hundreds of studies is that if you do this right in the schools, it enhances learning performance, analytical skills, motivation, and communication skills," he says. "This is true across all grades, starting at about age 6; across all disciplines and independent of most other variables."

These enhanced learning performances might not just be a nice skill for the kids to develop, but a necessary skill in today's technology-driven society.

"A computer is increasingly the tool that gets you to information and research," says Linda Roberts, director of the Office of Educational Technology at the U.S. Department of Education. "If students don't have information-age skills, they're not going to be very prepared, and therefore not very 'smart'--and they're not going to be able to find opportunities to work."

A January 2001 editorial in the New York Times, which urged President Bush to keep good on his promise to improve education in our schools, echo the sentiment that technology may very well be the tool needed for this improvement.

"Today's workplaces and communities - and tomorrow's - have tougher requirements than ever before. They need citizens who can think critically and strategically to solve problems. These individuals must learn in a rapidly changing environment, and build knowledge taken from numerous sources and different perspectives. They must understand systems in diverse contexts, and collaborate locally and around the globe. "

"These attributes contrast sharply with the discrete, low-level skills, content, and assessment methods that traditional ways of learning favor. The new workplace requirements for learning are incompatible with instruction that assumes the teacher is the information giver and the student a passive recipient. The new requirements are at odds with testing programs that assess skills that are useful only in school. "

Parents seem to agree with this way of thinking: technology as helped and not harmed our children.

In a Family PC online poll of 615 families conducted by Digital Research, an independent research firm and run last November on the FamilyPC web site (www.familypc.com), the survey found that 68 percent of the parents who responded believe that computer usage has helped their children to become smarter. Those parents think the computer has helped their children master motor skills and a wide range of tasks, including problem-solving, reading, math, language/communication, spelling, research, and vocabulary. And a substantial majority of the parents surveyed--61 percent--say the computer has made their kids more creative.

Specifically, parents were happy about children's ability to do research on the Internet. "It opens whole new worlds to them. They can talk to people and experts about different topics," says Denise Friel, who has three children. "As they search for information, they find answers to other questions. It has made them more inquisitive," says Michael Welch, father of four. "My children have been able to explore subjects that weren't offered at school," says Kimberly Gelinas, mother of two. "They may not be 'smarter,' but having access to more sources of information and differing opinions makes them more rounded," adds Diane Poremsky, who has four daughters.

In a study conducted by Microsoft and The Children's Television Workshop, they claim that not only will technology and the Internet make children better researchers, but better readers as well.

"85 percent of parents whose children use the Internet said their kids spend more or the same amount of time reading books and less time watching TV. In fact, once they start using the Internet, many children spend less time watching television; increased time reading newspapers, magazines and books; increased time playing outdoors; and increased time doing arts and crafts," the study said.

The findings contrast highly publicized reports, like Jane Healy's, that concluded that the more time people spent online, the less time they spent with other people. "Children (and parents) use e-mail, chat rooms and instant messaging, for example, to connect with other people, not avoid them," the report says.

John Cradler, Technology Director for the Chief State School Officers of California last year published a study last year entitled Summary of Current Research and Evaluation Findings on Technology in Education for the Far West Laboratory, an education think-tank. His findings indicate that increased technology in our schools will be good for both students and educators. For students, his report stated that children who had a prolonged exposure to technology reaped the following benefits:

  • Increases performance when interactivity is prominent.

  • Increased opportunities for interactivity with instructional programs.

  • Is more effective with multiple technologies (video, computer, telecommunications,).

  • Improves attitude and confidence-especially for "at risk" students.

  • Provides instructional opportunities otherwise not available.

  • Can increase opportunities for student-constructed learning.

  • Increases student collaboration on projects.

  • Increase mastery of vocational and work force skills.

  • Help prepare students for work when emphasized as a problem solving tool.

  • Significantly improves problem-solving skills of learning handicap students.

  • Improves writing skills and attitudes about writing for urban LEP students.

  • Improves writing skills as a result of using telecommunications.

For educators, the following benefits were found:

  • Less directive and more student-centered teaching.

  • Increased emphasis on individualized instruction.

  • More time engaged by teachers advising students.

  • Increased interest in teaching.

  • Interest in experimenting with emerging technology.

  • Teacher preferences for multiple technology utilization.

  • Increases administrator and teacher productivity.

  • Increased planning and collaboration with colleagues.

  • Rethinking and revision of curriculum and instructional strategies.

  • Greater participation in school and district restructuring efforts.

  • Business partnerships with schools to support technology.

  • Increased education involvement with community agencies.

  • Increases in teacher and administrator communication with parents.

A huge investment in technology by the Canadian government is beginning to show benefits, according to a study conducted by Intel Corporation and the Angus Reid group. The study, which is published on the Intel web site (www.intel.com), shows that technology and the Internet are becoming an inseparable part of homework and tools for their students.

The study details that of the six hours each week students with computers spend on homework, more than one-third of that time is spent on a computer. The trend is likely to grow, as more than 80 percent of Canadians polled said computers and technology have had a positive effect on children's education.

The Intel study used a two-pronged approach to gain insight into computer habits. A special Internet panel polled more than 1,000 Canadian parents and their children to gauge the status of homework habits in Canada. The Internet panel results were supported and verified by a broader nationwide general population survey of 1,500 Canadians. Both surveys were conducted between March and April 1998.

Twice as many of the children polled (56 percent) rank the computer as their most important homework tool above the nearest competitor, the calculator (28 percent). The dictionary and encyclopedia trailed well behind (seven percent each.)

"School kids are finding a range of new uses for computers thanks to the increasing speed and power of computers," says Doug Cooper, marketing manager, Canada, Intel Canada Ltd. "Educational Web sites, CD-ROM encyclopedias and presentation programs are enhancing the child's ability to communicate and use ideas, while making homework a lot more fun."

"A computer has enhanced my son's ability to become task oriented, to work independently, to peer tutor and to research independently," says Helen Simpson, a resident of Penetanguishene Ontario, in responding through the Internet panel.

Janet Dickson from Westville, Nova Scotia, adds, "I feel the use of the computer has been the most beneficial element in my child's education. He has been using the computer for school assignments since grade two. - I only wish the computer had been available for his two older brothers at such an early age."

Conclusion: What is Smarter Anyway?

The question that seems to remain answered in this debate also seems to be the most obvious: What is a "smarter child anyway?

You might define "smartness" as the ability to solve problems. Or is it the ability to type faster, or find out an answer to a question, like "How much does a humpback whale weigh? Also, measuring degrees of "smartness" can be problematic. Standardized test scores or skill-specific tests are often used, but these generally measure lower level rather than more complex thinking skills. Indeed, many universities around the country are discarding the SAT as a requirement for admission because they feel it does not reflect an accurate picture of what a student is capable of on an academic level.

In regard to whether or not technology provides our kids with the proper "skills needed to thrive in our modern society, this makes a broad assumption that all kids will not only apply their technical skills they picked up, or that they will even apply them all in the same way. One needs to only look at the business leaders of today to know that having sharp computer skills and being able to surf the Web is a perquisite to success.

Today's business leaders, men like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Paul Allen, Larry Ellison and Marc Andersen were not only all college drop-outs, but also did not have the benefit of modern technology to establish the companies that now rule the technology world. They took their knowledge and applied it to the technical world and that is how they became successful. There is simply no computer program in the world that will teach you that.

Yet, technology is also not going away. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, it is becoming a growing part of our lives. With this fact in mind, does it not make sense that we provide our children with the best tools technology has to offer them rather than denying it to them? In many cases it seems more like it is the adults who are not ready to embrace the technology and not the kids.

The debate over the efficacy of technology in education is guilty of what education at large is guilty of: not having a clear focus. No resolution on how we can use technology to better our kids will be resolved until the educators themselves decide how they want it applied. If past history is any indicator, this debate will likely rage on until the current generation of students get old enough to raise their voices instead of their hands to be heard. By the time this happens, the issue will already be out of our hands.

About The Author

Michael Dillon is the owner of a web development company, The DMC Company http://www.dmccompany.com. He lives in McKinney, Texas.

michael@dmccompany.com


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