Are kids all that techno-smart? Maybe not mastery of devices doesn’t translate into understanding

NOTE: The following article was written for a wire service and was published in multiple newspapers and websites across the country. The included The Sacramento Bee, newsobserver.com, and Raleigh News & Observer.

By BRENDA MAGUIRE
Millennial Youth

The Millennial Generation was born and raised in the digital world. Whether they are checking their Facebook status or running a business on the go, this constantly connected generation has earned the reputation of being the most tech savvy ever.

But are they really?

“What we are seeing today is a certain amount of familiarity for the millennial generation around using technology. Whether it is a mobile phone, a tablet or computer, or also doing things with television, video recordings, gaming, there is a particular set of skills that they have developed,” says Akhtar Badshah, senior director of Global Community Affairs at Microsoft Corporation. “However, we also know that just because you’ve had familiarity with the use of a device, it may not necessarily lead to proficiency in the use of technology where youth are effectively using technology to better their lives through a job, start something or undertake further studies.”

Being connected

Whether it is texting, Facebook or Skype, millennials, like most people, mainly use technology as a tool for communication.

Gabe Griffith, a junior at Penn State, remembers playing games on the computer at age 3. He has had technology available to him throughout his education. In addition to using his computer, cellphone, iPod and video game system almost daily, he uses the Internet every day for communication and schoolwork.

Despite all this, he says, “My definition of tech savvy is someone who is really good with computers. I would say I’m not very tech savvy.”

Griffith learned about databases and basic web page design in high school. He also learned how to type proficiently in elementary school.

“I’m not a computer major, so I don’t really need a lot more,” he says. If anything, Griffith says he would have liked to learn more about programming, adding that most of what he has learned about computers, such as troubleshooting, he learned from his father or through YouTube videos.

Becoming proficient in the use of technology requires an intermediary, whether it comes from home or the classroom, says Badshah, but although many American schools have technology in the classroom, he adds that it is not being adequately incorporated into instruction.

“For example, the ability to run science experiments through technology or to think about how (to do) complex math formulas using technology,” he says, ought to be emphasized more.

Clearly there is a role for tech in improving education, says Badshah, and there are many who are using tech to open the minds of kids.

For example, an educational program designed for Kinect, a gaming device that sits on top of Microsoft’s popular Xbox, allows kindergarten students to use it for math applications.

Young people in college have come up with the most innovative solutions with Kinect, including creating applications for the blind, educational games and a way to run a small robot under buildings in an earthquake, Badshah says.

MIT graduate Salman Khan also uses technology to help students. He created The Khan Academy in 2006 to provide education to anyone, anywhere.

“He started doing that because his family members across the country were having trouble with their homework. He was an MIT kid working on Wall Street and knew some of these things, so he created simple videos for them,” Badshah says. “Others saw it and wanted it, and now it’s become a sensation.”

The Khan Academy website now has over 2,000 videos to help teach any subject ranging from history to physics.

But students aren’t the only group who can benefit from additional technology skills.

Microsoft has created a program called Partners in Learning, which trains teachers to effectively use technology for teaching – not for the sake of technology.

“Technology develops a classroom across countries and borders. Teachers are able to connect with other teachers and get kids to learn from each other,” Badshah says. “History, geography, cultural classes – technology is now bringing the classroom global.”

Wasting time

Although the Internet has been able to help millennials in their schooling, it has also become a way for the age group to waste time on websites, such as Facebook or Tumblr.

A study on “The internet as a diversion and destination” by Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 53 percent of people from the age of 18 to 29 go online to pass time every day. Additionally, 81 percent of the same age group admits to occasionally going online to kill time.

For some, the constant Internet connection has hurt social skills.

Ian Watson, a senior at Temple University, recalled a girlfriend who would just sit on her computer talking to others when he visited.

“I know some people who are on the computer all the time, and they only interact with it,” he says.

While young people feel right at home with high-tech devices, it doesn’t mean they know how they work or how they can use them to improve their prospects.

Badshah recognizes that millennials are online more and wondered how, if kids are Internet savvy, can we motivate them to get the resources available online, process the information and utilize the knowledge to go where they want to go?

Accentuate the positive

While some millennials are wasting their time on the Internet, others are using it in innovative ways to enhance their lives. Most of this work is being done outside of the classroom, especially in non-profit programs.

A recent digital arts competition completed with the Boys & Girls Club allowed kids to use tech to do art and movies. Programs like this focus on building the tech skills of young people rather than simply teaching them to be savvy about the use of one or a few devices.

“It’s just an amazing way to transform individuals to use tech to become competent and creative,” says Badshah.

Daniel Brusilovsky, a 19-year-old who attends the College of San Mateo in San Mateo, Calif., is the founder and CEO of Teens in Tech, a group that works with entrepreneurs ages 13 to 19 who are interested in technology.

Finding few people in his age group who were interested in technology and entrepreneurship, Brusilovsky created an outlet to connect with like-minded individuals.

The group hosts multiple programs for interested young people. This includes the incubator program, which gathers six teenagers to work together over a span of eight weeks to build a product over the summer. Products that have come out of this program include My School Help, a site that helps students share notes for classes, and CM Studios, a mobile gaming startup.

“To me, being tech savvy means understanding technology and the industry, and being knowledgeable about the gadgets that we use on a daily basis,” Brusilovsky said.

He says he does not believe a 14-year-old would be able to create something like Facebook but thinks that when people get older and gain more skills, they will benefit from what they have learned.

Technology has “given me everything I have right now,” Brusilovsky adds. “My entire career has been technology-focused, and I have been very fortunate to (A) live in Silicon Valley and be in the center of where innovation is happening and (B) be surrounded by so many smart people and be able to learn from them.”

Sean Casto, a senior at Northeastern University, says he does not use Facebook or Twitter because they distract him from productive work.

“I have been able to use technology to find innovative ways to make life easier and provide useful and fun information to others.”

Casto has developed multiple websites under the name Top Played, including TopPlayedGames.com, TopPlayedVideos.com and TopPlayedSongs.com.

Additionally, Casto has developed two iPhone applications. His more recent app was created specifically for Northeastern students and provides menus for each of the dining halls on campus.

Reaching out

Still, Badshah says, there are many kids – more than 9 million in this country – who still have no access to technology.

Failure to address that disparity, he says, may cause those who have no access or less access to be completely shut out of the global economy.

“We are still not fully garnering the opportunity that is there to bridge that divide and provide these young people all the tools that they need to succeed in the 21st century economy.”

Programs like Microsoft’s Imagine Cup grants program, which challenges kids worldwide to solve problems with technology, are meant to further the company’s stated goal of ensuring that everyone can realize their potential.

In a similar effort, Microsoft recently hosted an ongoing series of events around the world called Innovate 4 Good, to discuss how youth are using technology and how Microsoft can innovate with them. Badshah admits that technology is not the only solution to reach that potential, but it is an increasingly important part.

“I travel around the world and go to the remotest of locations. The fact that people get access to technology in itself becomes a huge impact for the community for a whole,” says Badshah. “It is, in some ways, turning on the light.”

He notes that relatively few kids go into computer science in America, but he emphasizes that gaining knowledge in technology is important in obtaining jobs – as well as creating businesses in almost all fields, not just computer science.

“We see this tremendous amount of energy in young people to innovate using technology,” he says. “We want to continue to ensure that this group of people is not just sitting on a pyramid. That kind of energy needs to continue to transcend as far down to the bottom of the pyramid as possible, so that everybody can use that technology in the most inspiring way.”

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