Thursday, February 28, 2013

Computer Science and The Digital Native Myth

From the Washington Post this morning: Survey finds gap in Internet access between rich, poor students
So the basic summary - half of students from upper income families have Internet access at home, only 3% of students from poor families have Internet access.

No surprise there. I have students that do not have electricity or running water at home. Food is an issue. It is hard to imagine that Internet is a possibility.

So what does that mean for us in Computer Science education?

As educators we have to challenge the assumptions about digital natives with the push for 21st century learning. We've have several readings in our professional development recently about digital natives and how they are different from us "digital immigrant" educators.

All true, as far as it goes. Some of my students have had access to technological devices since they were toddlers. They are comfortable with using technology to solve problems. They live in a world with constant access to humanity's  largest storehouse of information. They have never lacked for a fact or access to information. They also do not naturally question a lot of the information they receive.

But that is only some of my students. A real wall has grown over the past five years between the students with access and without.

And that is not to say that project based learning is only good for some students. It is a natural way to teach in computer science classes. I have been doing some version of it since the mid 90's when I started teaching computer science. It has been sort of funny that it now has a name.

But what other assumptions about digital natives are we carrying into our classrooms? As technology has shifted from something we visit to something embedded in the lives of many of our students it is too easy to assume every student in instantly comfortable in our labs.

The access issue needs to inform everything from how we recruit to the examples we use in class. I know I am guilty of using smart phones often as an example of something in the "real world". A real world that only exists for a section of my students. It is probably about like trying to explain English grammar by comparing it to Japanese.

And the question then becomes, is computer science really for everyone?

I say yes, and it is something we may need to fight for. It is easy to attract the kids with access. Really, how hard is it to convince a kid that spent last summer at  robotics camp that computer science might be interesting?

For the rest of the kids computer science classes are the one chance they have of really climbing over that wall. We offer an Ellis Island opportunity for the "digital immigrants" in our classes.

So do we do the easy thing, or the right thing?

Of course I am crazy enough to think that computer science should replace the traditional geometry class for all students. But we can debate that one another day.

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