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November 18th, 2014

Kids, Computers & Wasting Time…

Okay…I’ve had about enough of this.

“This” is the frenzied pitch of an argument that computers do or don’t improve a child’s academic performance or that computers may even be detrimental to the learning process. Okay…I do have some skin in this game so it’s perfectly understandable that I might lean more toward the “do” instead of the “don’t” in this verbal fistfight.

I don’t disagree with some negative parts of this argument. There are times and instances when a computer will be more of a distraction than a study aid. Between Facebook and other social media sites, there is at least empirical evidence that kids would rather use their computers socially than academically.

cutting the cordAnd I am perfectly fine with that.

“Really Ken?” you might ask. “Doesn’t that go against everything you work for at Reglue?”

No, and here’s why.

We conduct classes for people who want to learn how to effectively use a computer. We have almost no young people attending these classes. The people who dominate the seats in my classroom are between 40 and 60 years old. A large percentage of them are scared to death of a computer. To many of them, a blinking cursor taunts them with just how incapable they are of living in the Age of Tech.

Here’s what I did last June…

I have many of our Reglue Kids come in to do community service. The school district here gives non-academic credits for verified community service. Reglue is indeed “verified” as a community asset. I chose three kids between the ages of eleven and fourteen for this experiment. Later that week, I was able to find three adults signed up for our class to come in and take part in this experiment. The adults’ ages ranged from 44 to 58. As of that time, they had not attended the first day of our computer learning classes.

The experiment consisted of a set of simple tasks to perform on computers. I gave both groups of subjects, the Reglue kids and the adults, the same tasks. They had five minutes to perform all tasks and they were not allowed to skip a task. There was no assistance given for these tasks, from me or the other test subjects. They had to figure it out for themselves.

The tasks were:

  1. Open a browser and search for the 34th President of the United States.
  2. Copy the name of that president and open a text editor (desktop link provided), then paste that copied text and save the document to the desktop.
  3. Open a browser (Firefox) and type in www.reglue.org into the URL field and navigate to that page. Click two links on that page, then navigate back to the original reglue.org page.

Every kid was able to do everything in far less than the five minutes given. None of the three adults were able to get past the first task.

So okay…let’s assume that most of the kids given a Reglue computer will dawdle their time away on Facebook. By just sitting at the computer, they have learned some of the basic functions of their machines. They know how to navigate and they know how to search. These are skills that are considered a given by most employers. Not one of the adults was prepared for that eventuality.

So, I’ll let my Reglue Kids play on Facebook and Instagram. A small percentage of them will be inspired by their computer. A small percentage of them will go on to technology-centered employment. So to the detractors who say a computer is a wasted commodity on a child…

Come work with me for a week. I’ll show you just how wrong you are.

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Ken Starks writes and publishes The Blog of Helios, a finalist in our Best FOSS or Linux Blog competition. In addition, he's the person behind the Reglue project, which refurbishes older computers and gives them to disadvantaged school kids in the Austin, Texas area. Follow him on Twitter @Reglue

4 comments to Kids, Computers & Wasting Time…

  • tracyanne

    What amazes me, is not that so many people in the age group 40 to 60 can’t perform mundane tasks on a computer, but the fact that they don’t appear to have the skills to discover how to use mundane technology.

  • Mike

    That’s because becoming proficient with a computer isn’t really about skill at all. It all comes down to curiosity and fearlessness: Barring extreme cases, all kids have both of those things. A great many adults do not have either.

    My advice to people trying to learn computing is this: Explore, try everything, and never be afraid to break anything.

  • Francisco

    I started all three of my kids using computers at 2 years old on ubuntu/linux with tuxpaint. They are all able to manipulate a computer, know how to login and all but the 5 year old is typing words and able to search for things easily. I don’t expect them to be programmers or build machines. I just want them to be comfortable interacting with a computer and its software. All of out machines are in the living room so we can interact with each other while we are on. What comes of it?

    Everyday my eldest daughter at 10 has some really amazing science facts she has learned from research at leisure about something she is interested in. She gets this information from searching on the computer as well as books (we have lots of those too!).

    My middle son, 9, is great at math and reading, partly due to with playing around on a computer and also from construction toys like Lego. He gets inspired to build things with his contruction toys from videos he searches from youtube.

    My youngest loves art and singing and is able to search the web from image galleries and thumbnails on youtube for things that inspire her to draw and create in clay as well as feed hersinging.

    Computers alone would be depriving the kids of so many other important activities, but as part of a group of activities, computers are a powerful resource.

    The potential power of a computer to hold a childs attention combined with the the ability to access information from all over the world makes them great tools if parents are willing and able to guide them.