Tag Archives: Technology as a Second Language℠

Flipping the Curriculum

When I realized I was a technology immigrant trying to learn Technology As A Second Language℠ (see previous blog TSL℠: Do You Speak It?), I hadn’t yet read Marc Prensky’s two amazing articles,  Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants and Do They Really Think Differently? Part II.

Turns out we are on the same wavelength. In 2001, Prensky had already defined digital natives as those who have grown up with technology and digital immigrants as those who did not. While my focus has been on how to educate digital immigrants, his focus has been on how to educate digital natives.

According to Prensky, what makes this digital immigrants/digital natives situation unique is that while traditional immigrants learn the prevailing culture from natives, in education the situation is reversed. Digital immigrants are trying to teach digital natives how to succeed in an increasingly digital world, one that students have a better grasp of than teachers.  Prensky believes that this is “the single biggest problem facing education today.”

There is only a slim, slow chance of solving this problem if digital immigrants continue to obsess about “negative” effects of technology.  Steven Pinker describes the hysteria:

Media critics write as if the brain takes on the qualities of whatever it consumes, the informational equivalent of “you are what you eat.” As with primitive peoples who believe that eating fierce animals will make them fierce, they assume that watching quick cuts in rock videos turns your mental life into quick cuts or that reading bullet points and Twitter postings turns your thoughts into bullet points and Twitter postings.

Even if this were true, we would still have to deal with it. If we are going to help next generations, we need to stop wasting time lamenting basic truths:

  1. Technology has changed everything and will continue to do so.
  2. Using technology rewires the brain and changes the way people think just as driving cars and working in offices changed the brains and thinking of people who rode in buggies and farmed.
  3. Technology means we don’t have to remember as much information as we used to.

Prensky accepts these premises. In his 2014 article, The World Needs a New Curriculum, he explains that the core subjects, math, science, language arts, and history are just “proxies” for teaching what most agree is needed to succeed such as informed thinking, acting, and communicating. We expect students to learn the latter even though they are rarely taught directly.

According to Prensky, modern times require flipping the curriculum to teach what we value most upfront, using subject matter where it fits. He proposes four basic subjects: Effective Thinking such as critical thinking, mathematical thinking, design thinking, and problem solving. Effective Actions such as mindset, grit, and entrepreneurship. Effective Relationships such as communication, collaboration, ethics, and politics. And, Effective Accomplishment which requires students to work on real-world projects. Technology is included as digital natives include it–integrated into whatever is happening.

Prensky doesn’t have all the answers, but his proposals change the focus of the reforming education conversation from how to use technology to teach to how to teach the meaningful thinking that will help students navigate the challenges of a technology world. I think he’s on the right track.

Should Older Adults Learn to Code?

Should older adults learn to code? No, but should they have a familiarity with what code is, does, and how it does it? Yes.

Coding education discussions are mainly about teaching code in K-12. Those who support including coding say that the aim is not to make everyone into a program developer (although that’s a great career).  Rather, for most, learning what makes a program or computer work is part of becoming a knowledgeable and contributing citizen in the technology world.

I believe that’s also true for adults learning Technology As A Second Language℠. If you use any form of technology such as emailing, talking on a cell phone, texting, or paying bills online, then understanding the basics of what makes it run will make it less intimidating and might even make it enjoyable to use.

Knowing something about coding is like knowing something about how the machines and systems you have been interacting with for years work. You probably know that your car has a mechanical engine with an alternator, pistons, oil filter… your stove is connected to a gas line lit by a pilot light…you put your money in the bank, you can withdraw but it’s not the same money, it’s invested…

Learning about how technology runs, is the same thing. If we didn’t know how things work, then we would be like much earlier generations who believed in magic and superstition. So, if magic doesn’t make it possible for you to write and send emails, what does?

In one of Khan Academy’s programming courses, they compare coding or programming to giving commands to your dog. You say “sit” and the dog sits. What the dog does looks nothing like the word “sit” just like a computer command usually has little resemblance to what it engenders.

Of course, code is not as simple as dog commands. When educators talk about code they mean any language of letters and symbols that can be written as program commands to cause action in a digital format such as games and software. There are many code languages including Java, Python, and Go.

Learning “some” coding means that there is no prescibed time you need to spend or material you need learn in order to make yourself more comfortable with technology. Just do what works for you. Here are a few of the many free resources:

  • What is Code? by Paul Ford  This is a tongue-in-cheek explanation of everything about computers including coding and intergenerational work issues. It doesn’t give you practical experience. Still, it provides in-depth explanations and a great read.
  • Khan Academy Click on Subjects, then Computing. You will find interactive courses in Computing that are geared towards children, but that can be advantageous for beginners.
  • Codecademy Interactive full or brief courses will take you through coding step-by-step.
  • Code.org  has great short lessons. They are also student-oriented but appealing to many adults who are curious about coding.

Learning about code will make you more confident and less reluctant to learn new applications. It may also turn you into an active participant in conversations with the technology generation.

Is Multitasking the End?

There’s an epidemic that’s hard to miss: People texting, watching videos, working, checking their messages, listening to music, walking, driving, talking on cell phones all in the same timeframe. They’re multitasking, doing different things simultaneously or moving back and forth between activities that overlap or interrupt each other.

The most dangerous technology multitasking is driving and talking or texting on your cell phone. Cell phone activity slows reaction times more than alcohol. Then multitasking while walking. Forty per cent of over a thousand teens surveyed by Safekids reported they were hit or almost hit by a moving vehicle while walking and listening to music, talking or texting on their phones.

Still, the epidemic continues to spread. We can try to contain it, but it may be more useful to find ways to save us from ourselves. People are working on solutions such as inventing cars that can stop on their own or drive themselves so distractions such as texting won’t cause accidents.

For walking and texting or “wexting,” one city is wrapping soft materials around light poles to cause less harm when people walk into them. Another has a pop-up ad interrupt texting when you approach intersections to get you to pay attention. To raise awareness and change behavior Utah Valley University designed a staircase with lanes marked walk, run, and text.

Still, the outlook is grim. Articles appear daily with headlines such as “Why the Modern World is Bad for Your Brain”   “The High Cost of Multitasking”  “Multitasking Damages Your Brain And Career, Studies Show” These articles highlight research showing that technology multitasking can make you less productive, lower your IQ, and damage your brain.

These are all important issues, but how do we continue to adapt to the future with this kind of ominous news?

Looking for good news I found two small studies. showing that the effects of technology multitasking aren’t all bad. One study of children who were instant messaging (IMing) while reading a passage found that although they took longer to read the passage, they tested as well as those who just focused on reading. In another study, Dr. Zheng Wang found that college students who used media while studying were happier than those who did not, despite not completing their school work.

Then I thought I found real optimism in the New Yorker article “Multitask Masters.” When psychologist David Strayer found the more you multitask, the worse your performance, he also found one person who was a highly effective multitasker.  Instead of treating her as a statistical irrelevancy, he decided to learn from her and other “supertaskers.” But, it turns out supertaskers only comprise about 2% of the population and genetics basically determines their ability—their brains are wired differently.

How do we keep hope alive? I have to think that in the thousands of years of human life, our brains have adapted even though we have no MRIs or psychology studies to prove it. Take the telephone, invented in the 1870’s, for example. The sound of a phone ring is so familiar to us now that coma patients will answer phones, speak into them, and then return to their comas! That’s gotta count for something.

Let’s continue to do the studies, analyze the problems, and work on solutions. And, let’s hope that we don’t become idiots or accidentally kill each other before experience with technology turns humanity into better multitaskers.

No More Excuses

When presented with learning technology as an older adult, I often responded that I had a finite number of neurons left to absorb new information, so I had to think carefully about how I wanted to use them. It turns out that recent research has proven me wrong. Neurons do regenerate into old age.

More importantly, new pathways between neurons can be created throughout the lifespan. This is called brain plasticity  We see this clearly with stroke patients who have lost speech or movement. Many of them can “re-learn” by building new pathways between neurons often in parts of the brain where those connections did not originally exist.

A neuron without ways to communicate with other cells is useless. Electrical impulses and chemical substances called neurotransmitters stimulate the neuron. It in turn fires across pathways to create mental activities such as memory, thinking, and feeling. It is particularly encouraging that new pathways have been found in the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved with memory. (For a detailed description of neurons, go to HowStuffWorks.)

Based on these findings, it’s clear that I don’t have to be so parsimonious about my neurons.  And, I no longer have an easy excuse for avoiding learning about technology. Neither do you. The amount we can learn may not be infinite, but it’s reasonably large enough so that we don’t have to worry about squandering brain matter. So how do we begin? Here are a few questions to ask yourself before you start:

  1. What is it about technology that interests you? Even if your immediate answer to this question is “Nothing,” think again about what would enhance your use of technology. Is it learning to text or email better? Is it understanding how technology is changing the world? Is it being able to Skype with your grandchildren?
  2. How much time do you want to spend learning? Be realistic. Do you want to sign on for a multi-segment course? Or, would you rather have one-shot experiences such as seminars or videos?
  3. How would you like to learn? If you like to figure things out in private, there are many opportunities that can be accessed easily. Googling the subject matter can get you simple up-to-date information. Senior Planet has great tech tips and videos. Go on YouTube to see videos created to teach technology.

If you would rather learn with others, check out your local library, community center, or adult school for workshops. Join Meetups on technology in your area.

For a more structured class experience, contact a community college near you or browse Coursera, edX, or General Assembly for online courses.

Don’t forget the stores where you purchased your cell phone or computer. They have trained personnel to help you. Or just ask a person near you who is working on an electronic device to teach you a particular application. Most people are very helpful.

Learning technology may not be easy, but it will be worthwhile. It will give you better access to information and communication, and lessen the frustration you may be feeling in a world that is becoming more and more technology centered.