We Still Need to Teach Basic Computer Skills in the Age of Chromebooks and Peak Smartphone

I was lucky that both my high school and college were well equipped to train an aspiring engineer. From the time I was a 13 year old freshman I had exposure to all sorts of equipment that most people don’t, from welding to lathes to CNC machines and a wide array of computers and electrical components. My classmates and I could apply the theory that we learned in the classroom, and we graduated as better engineers because of it. But, this technology wasn’t available to the masses, so to become an engineer you really only had one choice: an expensive, traditional education.

Compare that to computers around the same time (early to mid-2000’s). Just about everyone had one. You could learn the basics at almost any high school or college. Components were cheap enough to tinker with. You could absolutely teach yourself how to be a developer or software engineer or graphic designer without a formal education. It was entirely possible to create products and services for the masses by being self-taught, which is effectively what I and many others did.

We only had that opportunity because almost everyone had a basic understanding of computers and computing. Almost everyone could type, install software, set up internet service, install peripherals, and have a basic understanding of the file system. This was in large part because we were using the same computers in our daily lives that could also be used to create.

I hope that’s not lost on the current generation of students whose only exposure to computers in school is Google Docs on Chromebooks, and whose only internet access at home is on a tablet or smartphone. It is amazing that most people can now get by with just a phone, and maybe a Chromebook if they occasionally need to write an email or create a document. But when an entire generation is exposed to nothing but that, they lose the ability to create. Creation still happens on good ole PC’s running Windows, macOS, or Linux, something that might become increasingly foreign to our youth. If the tools used to create are stripped away from our education system, software creation will be about as foreign to those kids as my formal engineering education is.

4 comments on We Still Need to Teach Basic Computer Skills in the Age of Chromebooks and Peak Smartphone

  1. Rob says:

    Hear, hear.

    I’ve said this for a long time. The majority of time most people spend online is now on consumption type devices, like phones and tablets. Sure you can create videos and pictures on them, but there’s plenty you can’t do. Most would certainly struggle to tinker in the same way (particularly with Apple devices).

    At school from about age 10 we had an Acorn Archimedes in every classroom as well as a few Roamer robots we could program, at home we seemed to have a constant stream of computers, including a BBC Micro B, some Amstrads, various macs, a Newton, and numerous PCs, starting with one that I think a 33mhz processor and ran DOS. Later we got Windows.

    Because of the variety of systems, there was never a question of only knowing how to do things the Microsoft way, or the Apple way. Dad brought a computer home from work, sometimes with a manual and sometimes without and we’d just figure it out, sometimes following instructions we found at the library or in a magazine.

    It’s a real shame to think the coming generations won’t have that experience. Everything is a bit too polished now, even with an raspberry pi I think it’s not quote the same experience as firing up BASIC

    One thing that just struck me while writing this is that most of my early experiences with computes were with British computers. Did you have Roamers there, or BBCs, or Acorns? I heard a very interesting piece on the radio a few months back about why computing failed in the UK and silicon valley took over – listen to the middle article from this if you can: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08wmk5l

    • Adam McFarland says:

      Great comment Rob. As I was reading, I Googled “Acorn Archimedes”, so no we did not have those brands in the US 🙂

      I’ll give that segment a listen, the book they mentioned sounds good too Programmed Inequality: How Britain Discarded Women Technologists and Lost Its Edge in Computing

      • Rob says:

        Yes, the book does look good. It’s somewhere on my endless reading list!

        What sort of computers did you grow up with? I know commodore 64s and Ataris were quite popular here (I think we had a borrowed Atari one summer) and I think they were American, another popular one was the ZX 81 and Spectrum, which were Scottish.

        Now you’ve got a family are you thinking forward to how you’ll expose them to technology? Whether limiting screen time or going out of your way to introduce programmable systems. There are some quite good programmable building blocks and robots available now, I guess that’s a few years away for you yet though.

        I see videos online of kids that can barely walk trying to swipe on everything from gameboys to magazines, it’s quite disturbing…

        • Adam McFarland says:

          The brand that I remember having first were Tandy computers, which were IBM compatible PC’s from Radio Shack. After that I remember having a Compaq with Windows 3.0ish, and Mike had an HP that we tinkered with a lot. DEC was also popular. I think the Commodore 64 and Atari crowd was a few years older than us, my uncle who is not much older than me had them and used to let me play with them.

          Now you’ve got a family are you thinking forward to how you’ll expose them to technology? Whether limiting screen time or going out of your way to introduce programmable systems. There are some quite good programmable building blocks and robots available now, I guess that’s a few years away for you yet though.

          Yes, I cannot wait to introduce the programmable building blocks like littleBits!

          It is much harder in the meantime to keep her away from screens, particularly phones because we’re on them so much and taking photos of her so much. But for now we’re not letting her play with them at all, and if she does grab them we take them away immediately. At some point in a year or two maybe we’ll introduce some short structured screen time on a tablet with a few specific kids games. I feel like the physical world is enough of a challenge for them the first few years!

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