Our Flawed Approach to Technology Education

Technology in education is now standard. Notice I did not say technology education.

In nearly every school you will find some modern computing device — iPads, laptops, interactive whiteboards. These devices allow students to consume educational material more efficiently than ever before. Instant access to any fact? Check. Ability to recall and experience historical events? Check. These improvements have nothing to do with technology education.

Growing up in the early 90s, I found myself amidst the first wave of mass-market personal computer adoption. Like many families, our first computer was emblazoned with the Packard Bell nameplate. A mystery to most, this magical box could do incredible things, like connect to Prodigy and play games. Sometimes, however, the magic box didn’t want to behave.

Now, I know what you’re thinking — reboot and pray. Incredibly, this often worked and is a staple of (awful) help desks everywhere. Other times, it simply didn’t. In most households, drastic measures were on tap — yell at the screen, yank the power cord, type random things into the command line.

My house was different. When my games didn’t work, we picked up the phone and called a doctor. This wasn’t your ordinary knee-tapping, vaccine-giving doctor, this — this was Dr. DOS.

To be clear, Dr. DOS wasn’t an actual doctor. He was my granddad. The nickname was given to him by his employer for reasons I need not explain. When Dr. DOS was called in, the world of computing changed. He literally told the magic box what to do via the CLI (command line interface). While others chanted and prayed to their favorite deity, Dr. DOS popped open a black box and issued orders. This level of control was the real magic.

Dr. DOS passed away when I was quite young and my memory of him is limited. Never will I forget those times when he came to the rescue and commanded our computer to order. It changed how I viewed technology. It shaped how I interacted with software that was deemed “voodoo” by many. Without those few, fleeting experiences it is unlikely I would have ended up tinkering with hardware and software for years. It is certain that I would not have ended up in Silicon Valley.

That was tech education.

As someone now working in the tech education field and having three young children of my own, I often wonder how we can recreate and teach the same lessons I learned as a child. Thus far I’ve had two observations —

  1. We need to clearly define “tech education”. Does proficiency in Microsoft Word qualify? Do we draw the line at Python? In my experience, I’ve learned that the specific technology being learned shouldn’t be part of the definition. The goal of technology education should be about clearly defining a problem to solve or gap to close (I need to produce box plots for this project), having the breadth of knowledge to identify possible solutions (Excel doesn’t support box plots, maybe I should use R) and then finally the grit to research and implement the detailed solution (find something like this and leverage it). It’s a mindset.
  2. Technology cannot be learned through osmosis. Simply handing a child a tablet or a robotics kit isn’t enough. My kids have a multitude of technology toys that get used once before being relegated to shelf duty. The reason isn’t that the toys are inherently bad, rather that they aren’t being used in an environment where making the robot turn left using a color is particularly exciting. Sparking an interest in technology requires repetition of the process outlined in the definition above using problems that are meaningful to the student. It requires them to break things, not just follow directions.

Why does this matter?

Our labor force faces a major skills gap. We throw high level abstraction layers (any device running a modern operating system) at our students in hopes that they’ll pick up on technology. We expose them to none of the underlying “magic” nor do we put them in grit-building situations where something might actually break. This might be because it seems difficult, is hard and they may not understand, or, possibly because we can’t easily grade it.

We are woefully bad at teaching technology and can’t seem to help ourselves (Florida tried). It is time for us to start teaching technology, not simply using it to teach traditional subjects more efficiently.

Finally, the goal of properly teaching technology isn’t to create a homogenous future of computer scientists. The goal is to arm our future labor force with the tools needed to compete on a global scale. To enable every member of the labor force to issue computational orders in the name of efficiency.

HR specialist that can query a database? Yes. Marketers that can automatically process and analyze customer feedback sentiment? Absolutely.

It’s time to invest in teaching our children to issue the orders.

Dr. DOS with my sister, Shea.

A big thanks to Nick Stabile for providing feedback on this post.