Monday, November 24, 2008

2b mployble or not 2b mployble thats ?

Just caught this on BBC News about a 3-year research project in California:
The researchers also wrote a book based on their study: Hanging Out, Messing Around, Geeking Out: Living and Learning with New Media.

The authors conclude that adults should help children engage with digital media, thereby spending more time online since they are learning the skills needed to be successful in society. As a person who earns a living via the Internet, I strongly disagree, as explained below.

The project's 3 main objectives can be summarized as
  1. Describe kids as active innovators using digital media, not as passive consumers of popular culture
  2. Think about the implications of kids' innovative cultures for education and talk to educators about it
  3. Advise software designers about how to use kids' innovative approaches when building software
The authors provide 4 implications of their study:
1. Adults should facilitate young people’s engagement with digital media
"Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technical skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society."
Translation: Help kids to spend more time on the Internet (and by implication, less time interacting face-to-face with people) - it's good for them.

2. Given the diversity of digital media, it is problematic to develop a standardized set of benchmarks against which to measure young people’s technical and new media literacy.
Translation: It's impossible to measure kids' media skills so we can claim anything without the risk of being contradicted.
3. In interest-driven participation, adults have an important role to play.
Translation: Adults - Stay out of a child's social space but it's okay to offer guidance if it's only their hobbies.
4. To stay relevant in the 21st century, education institutions need to keep pace with the rapid changes introduced by digital media.
Translation: Schools better get with the Internet and one way to do that is buy our book. Okay, this is a joke but the "sky is falling in" warning is still there.

To me, the major finding can be summed up in this sentence:
Contrary to adult perceptions, while hanging out online, youth are picking up basic social and technical skills they need to fully participate in contemporary society.
The findings are not surprising given the research objectives, particularly the first:
Describe kids as active innovators using digital media.
If you set out to describe Drug A as an effective and useful treatment, chances are you will end up concluding that it is effective and useful.

But against what comparison? This study was observational and had no controls. In medical research the standard for comparing drugs is to have a control group as similar as possible to the test group (and chosen randomly). The control group is given what seems like the same treatment but is a placebo.

Where drugs are not involved, the same outcomes are measured in control groups who do not participate in the activity being investigated, e.g.,
  • students who took a course using the standard existing teaching method
  • people who lived at the same time in the same place as people who smoked or had junk food diets, etc.
Applied to the Digital Youth Research project, this would require a control group who did not use digital media nearly as much as the test group. Researchers would have had to measure in both groups a wide range of basic social and technical skills that were deemed as needed to participate in contemporary society and in real world situations, e.g., oral communication skills and interpersonal skills that are required when people interact face-to-face in society and on the job.

For doctors and other health professionals, this can include taking patient histories, discussing the risks and benefits of treatment options, counselling patients with depression, drug dependencies, and histories of sexual or physical abuse, etc.

For people who work in everything from hospitals to business offices to fast food outlets to oil rigs to garbage disposal firms to hair salons, this can include skills such as
  • bargaining with suppliers
  • supervising diverse staff
  • dealing with personality conflicts
  • resolving disputes
  • motivating people to excel
  • disciplining staff
  • dealing with customers
  • delivering speeches at meetings
  • writing business plans, memos, reports
Digital environments are not the real world.
  • Creating a web page using site-specific templates is not a good measure of creativity.
  • Interacting on Facebook by "poking" friends and writing chitchat or drivel on their "walls" is not real world interaction.
  • Using text messaging shortcuts to chat up a friend will not cut it in a real world job.
Boss to employee:
“WTF.. hm wut to say? l8 again? iono lol/well i left a note 4 u... ur so not a gr8 wrkr...u sud not giv me ne guff l8r @4 k?"
Children do learn some computer skills online but not necessarily what's needed in today's workplace.

As a university instructor with 22 years experience and an "early adopter" of computers in the 80s and Internet technology in 1994, I saw that students who grew up in the digital age have all the trappings of being IT savvy but their actual skills are pretty shallow:
  • Most do not know how to use applications like Word and Powerpoint effectively (yes, they can type and save the file but that's not really having expertise).
  • None could use, let alone be proficient with, spreadsheets and databases.
  • Surf the Web, sure, but know how to evaluate website information critically, no.
  • Know how to be efficient with their web searches, no.
  • Create websites, maybe, using prefabricated templates, but truly develop web content, no.
  • Use a mailing list, yes, but know how to create one or to use one effectively, no.
  • Multi-task, absolutely, which means having the attention span of a flea.
  • Reflectively think about what they have seen and heard and read, absolutely not.
  • Use text messaging, yes, but write effective memos and reports, no.
Almost all recent surveys of employers find that graduates lack many soft skills such as communication as well as more measurable skills such as verbal and numerical reasoning. Examples of what employers want and are not getting:

UK - Graduates lacking soft skills, employers warn

"The world of work is very much based on relationships and we all have to deal with other people working in teams. That means they have to be able to communicate in different ways. You have to be able to negotiate and be able to interpret and listen, some people working in teams will have to take leadership roles."
Australia: Graduate opportunities

Skills that employers want:
  • Literacy and numeracy
  • Time management and organisation
  • Oral and written communication
  • Team work
  • Creative problem-solving
  • Initiative and enterprise
  • Critical and analytical thinking
  • Ability to apply discipline knowledge and concepts
  • Information gathering, evaluation and synthesis
  • Emotional intelligence; interpersonal skills
  • Adaptability
Honestly now, is more time spent in front of a computer interacting on social networks like Facebook or chatting online or text messaging friends or building an online personality going to develop these skills?

The researchers, all experts in their field, did an extensive 3-year study and identified valuable aspects of how children use digital media. But to conclude that adults should facilitate children engaging with digital media, and by implication,
spending more time online, seems a stretch. Such a finding is not justified by their data, given their research design, and a multitude of employer surveys.

Just for fun, here's a text message version of the Lord's prayer from the BBC website:
"dad@hvn, ur spshl. we want wot u want &urth2b like hvn. giv us food & 4giv r sins lyk we 4giv uvaz. don't test us! save us! bcos we kno ur boss, ur tuf & ur cool 4 eva! ok?"
Other websites I maintain:

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