Migrating the digital divide with our children

Partners Post, December 2014

By Christopher Clayton
Assistant Director of Education Services at Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA)

"I never teach my pupils; I only attempt to provide the conditions in which they can learn."
–Albert Einstein

"What century are you teaching in?"

This question was posed by Dr. Heidi Hayes Jacobs, author and internationally recognized education expert, speaking at a professional learning session I attended. She asks this question to point out that a great many of the classrooms of today look eerily similar to those of our own and even our parents' childhoods. Maybe the chalkboard has been replaced by the whiteboard, and there might be a DVD player instead of a VCR on the media cart. There may be laptops or tablets instead of huge desktop computers collecting dust. But, in general, many of the classrooms of today look pretty similar to the classrooms of yesterday. As a parent, I wonder how ideal these conditions are for my 21st century children.

In educational parlance, the students of today are often referred to as "digital natives," while those of us in our 30s and older are "digital immigrants." The idea is that the children of today are growing up in a digital world with the inherent right to know and communicate whatever they want whenever they want at the touch of a button, while us experienced (not old) analog folks must migrate to this "Brave New Digital World." Consequently, our kids might never get to experience the joy of making a call from a public pay phone, clumsily unfolding a map in the car to figure out where they are going, or thumbing through a tome-like phone book, dictionary, or encyclopedia. The world and what it means to exist, to "know," and to communicate has forever changed. And as a parent and educator, I find myself asking: Shouldn’t education be changing with it? If so, how much and how quickly? And how much digital learning do I expose my children to at home?

Minecraft kids
To illustrate this conundrum, I present my 7- year-old son, who loves Minecraft. So much so I consider myself the parent of a "Minecraft" kid. For those of you who know what Minecraft is, you probably feel my pain and perplexity. Minecraft is a game that can be played across multiple platforms. My son plays it on the iPad, the Xbox, my phone, and the computer, both PC and Mac. I am migrating to this world, while my son has natively taken to it like a fish to water.

Minecraft is, at its core, an architectural game. It is about designing and constructing worlds, buildings, and structures. Players mine for elements and then design and construct buildings and worlds for which life, in the game, exists and plays out. There is much more to it, but what is important is that I never taught my son one thing about it. Not what it is. Not how to download it on any of the aforementioned platforms. Not how to open it, start it, play it, learn about it, excel at it, etc. No one did. He did it himself with some help from a whole bunch of "teachers" he found in the digital world.

My son, completely driven by his own interest, curiosity, will, and natural technological acumen, has turned himself into a Minecraft expert by learning from others how to play the game through YouTube videos and Internet searches. We limit his time playing digital games; he has chores to do; he plays sports; and he has friends. I do not want to create a false perception that he is anti-social or disengaged from the human experience; however, in whatever free time we grant him with his own devices, he wades into the digital divide. Quite frequently, he watches a series of instructional and entertaining videos on one platform while playing on another. Lately, he has even taken to playing on one device while using his iPad mini to record himself narrating his own worlds, and then posts the videos on YouTube where other players view them and offer feedback and commentary. And did I mention he is SEVEN?

When I watch him, I marvel and think to myself: "My kid is an iPad Ninja." The truth is that he is not alone, and he is not unusual or exceptional. Almost all of his friends are engaged in the very same practices. What I most marvel at is that he is cultivating for himself "the conditions in which he can learn," and it is so different than just a few short years ago. iPads didn’t even exist in the summer of 2010. Yet, he is learning at an exponential rate because of it, and the access to networks, people, and tools that the Internet provides. Anytime he is curious about something, he "puts it in the Google" as we like to say, and he is able to sort through and find an answer that he is seeking.

Producers of knowledge
My son does homework, reads and analyzes texts, and plays games that are truly educational, such as Reflex Math, ScootPad, Storia, and BrainPop. But he is not only accessing knowledge and information but becoming a producer. He does or creates something with the information he finds that can be shared with the world via YouTube, Animoto, or Kidblog.com. This is very different from making a poster board for your fourth-period teacher or writing an essay that only your English teacher will ever read. And I find myself, in my dual identities as a parent and educator, a bit perplexed and bewildered at exactly what to do and what sort of limitations and restrictions to place on all of this. How much is too much?

I also worry about the increasing dissonance between "learning" at school compared to his "learning" at home. Generally speaking, school "learning" is teacher- and administrator-driven and is regimented by schedules, assessments, textbooks, worksheets, etc. It is an "institutionally organized education," in educational speak. His "learning" at home is fueled by his own innate curiosity and is inquiry-driven and populated by technology, the Internet, video clips, games, and lots of different people, tools, and networks that he forms himself. It is a "self-organized education." Both of these terms come from educational activist Will Richardson who argues that schools must shift from "institutionally organized" to "self-organized" education in order to keep up with the modern learners of today and to avoid become anachronistic and obsolete.

In the midst of all this confusion, I am left asking: What is a parent to do?

Navigating the digital divide
I am certain of this: There is no going back to the way it was. Our kids are not going to go back to the good ol’ days no matter how nostalgically we pine on about how things used to be. Perhaps all we can do is muddle along with them in an effort to migrate to the world to which they have been born native. Who knows, it might even be fun.

So, with an adventurous spirit of embracing the present and future for our kids, here are some tips for parents attempting to "navigate the digital divide" with their children as presented in a U.S. News & World Report article titled: "Four Tech Tips for Parents to Embrace Digital Education":

  1. Show and tell: "If your child is using a device, program, or website you aren't familiar with, have them show you how it works."
  2. Google it: "Google your child's name. Google your family name. See what's out there."
  3. Keep tech public: "Keep technology in an open space." Parents "should check the browser history so they know what sites their children are visiting."
  4. Get excited: "Parents can overcome their own digital insecurities by talking to other parents and engaging with their child's teachers. Send the teachers a quick email and ask how they use technology in their classrooms."

Christopher Clayton earned a Ph.D. in Language and Literacy Education and is a National Board Certified Teacher. A former district administrator who spent more than a decade and a half as a professional educator in the classroom and district office, he currently serves as Assistant Director of Education Services at the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA).



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