When we relocated from Oklahoma City to Abilene, Texas, my kids were unhappy to leave their friends and teachers. My daughter, for instance, loved the lessons given by her violin teacher Dr. Hong Zhu. We decided to use Skype to continue the lessons, which seemed a wild idea for music lessons. We just wanted to give it a try and see what would happen. One and a half years later, the lessons continue, and my daughter has become one of the top players among her peers in the city, the “queen of violin” as nicknamed by some of her classmates. You see, Skype is not simply for showing dogs dancing on carpets. It creates a classroom in the air. The same is true for many other types of consumer technologies.
We are the kind of parents that people sometimes frown upon for our laissez faire approach to children’s use of technology. It’s all for a good cause, we say. Being an educational technologist myself, I see technology as neutral, bringing wonders or wounds depending on how it is used. I have a strong conviction that it is wrong to alienate children from technology. Doing so robs them of the opportunity to get ready for the future. As one needs to train to compete in any games, digital citizenship is a cluster of skills which take practice to develop. It is not a certificate automatically issued to a person when he or she turns 18. Knowledge and skills related to digital etiquette, security, rights and responsibilities are all acquired through guided use and incremental improvement.
Besides, some applications are tremendously useful for learning, liberating teachers and parents for more in-depth involvement in children’s development. My kids use an iPad game to study states and capitals. My daughter finds songs on Youtube before she practices some songs. Both of my kids make uses of Khan Academy to study difficult subjects in math and sciences. When was the last time you saw kids finding excuses to study something? They are starting do so now because some really awesome guys turn science lectures into interesting shows through Scishow. With such rich resources available, we have reasons to be excited.
Technology alone, unfortunately, does not do its trick in learning. Expensive educational softwares, if not properly used, create distraction and disruption. Technological tools and the science of learning should go hand in hand. Recently my son was participating in a spelling bee contest in his school. I asked him to use Quizlet to prepare. Quizlet alone will cycle through all 450 words all the time when he practiced. This long cycle creates boredom and fatigue. There are many words among them that he already knew. Therefore I asked him to build a set of cards with words he spelled wrong the first time. I also asked him to space out his practice sessions. Instead of studying for one hour at a stretch, for instance, I asked him to practice three 20-minute sessions using Quizlet. One of them is before he goes to sleep as sleep can help some learning to sink in. All such practices really helped with his performance, and he easily aced the contest in his school. I gave some of these suggestions to him based on books and articles I have read about learning effectiveness. However that probably ought to stay unknown to them. I have found that words such as “pedagogy” or even “education”, are somehow counterproductive in teaching kids. Just do it. Don’t wear these phrases on your sleeves.
I also found how children can be taught to become “produsumers” (consumers as well as producers) when using technology. My friend Matt’s son, Aidan Boisvert, uses MIT’s Scratch, a programming site for children, to program study applications for his class. Another educational technology friend of mine, Dr. Jim Dvorak, got his children to develop a site called the FAQs, to offer technical tips on frequently used technologies. Technology empowers children to do something good for the world around them. It is their milieu. Let them thrive in it.
Surely there are ups and downs on the path of technology integration in parenting. Once in a while I wish I could take a hammer and smash their devices to tiny pieces when they get lost in their parallel universe, completely deaf to our requests for them to get up, have dinner, take a shower or go to sleep. We struggle as much as any parents of mobile natives — children who grow up after smart handheld devices became widely used. Yet the benefits far outweigh the cost. I firmly believe that we have past the stage of asking the “whether” questions about technology. Parents should be more interested in asking when, where and how to use technology to develop healthy habits in the digital world, and to empower children to accomplish something good for themselves and others. If you do not lead children to use technology, someone else would, pushing you to the sidelines where you wish you had known better or acted sooner.