DO vs. DO NOT: The new Digital Divide

crossroadsWe are at a crossroads. We’ve been here for years, and just seem to be parked here, not moving or at best… going in circles. Other cars are zooming by honking at us from all sides, but we just keep our blinders on and look straight ahead. We seem lost (but do not admit or accept it), and if we would just look left or right or up or down (or any direction other than “the status quo road ahead”) we would see the sign that has the directions to anywhere all around us. And all are places we want and need to go.

What is the issue?

So during the “first digital wave”, the Digital Divide was between those that had access to technology and those that did not. Some of this digital divide was by choice, some by economics, some by lack of understanding, and some by luck. It was a recognition that not only was it a good idea to use some of the digital tools available, it was crucial. And so we saw that first wave jettison us into the 21st Century.

So, here we are in the beginning of the second digital wave.

And it is here and now that we see two types of people. Both are crucial to success in an economy. The first: USERS of technology. These are the people that are tech savvy and use their digital devices commandingly to help solve the problems in their job or industry. They understand how the software and hardware work and can use it as it was supposed to be used. They are excellent at what they do and effective at using what digital solutions are available to manage business, promote ideas, and address problems. This group of people is also becoming the sought after norm, that if you are not part of this group today, you are probably not able to succeed in business and school. This group of people is very important.

However, this group is also completely dependent upon a new type of person.

Now we introduce the nuts and bolts of new Digital Divide: Those that DO, and those that DO not. Those that GET IT and those that DO NOT get it. Those that CREATE, and those that DO NOT create.

This new second type of person is a CREATOR of technology. They are the ones who create new devices, new software, new apps, new technologies, new ways to program or reprogram existing devices to do more, new solutions, even new tools. They are the ones who take their own ideas, needs, and wants and turn them into something real that be used to solve some problem. There was a time where this group of people was only highly specialized and trained PhD research scientists who took years to develop something, engineers who spent months in the back of a lab tweaking and tinkering until it was ready. And yes, this traditional style of CREATOR still exists in some industries and in some technologies where extreme breakthroughs require that type of commitment. Actually, I might argue the today’s CREATORS are even dependent upon this traditional CREATOR for what they do. But, for many industries, that is not the case. Today’s CREATORS are simply good people, who GET IT, and who are in command of today’s technology. They are the ones who are not afraid to open up a device to troubleshoot, upgrade, replace, reprogram, or fix. There are not afraid to explore “inside” to make something do more than it was intended. They are not afraid of failure because in Computer Science, failure is actually crucial for success. They are not afraid to say “what if…” and “how can I…” and “let’s try this…” They are people in industries and jobs that were chosen because of their passions, but they had the additional forethought to let Computer Science be part of their world as well. They are the real estate agents who are not satisfied with the software that is available to them. They want to do things differently—better– and so they write some software that gives them the tools to do things better than their competition. carbon analysis appThey are the biologists who are studying dolphin DNA, but cannot get the software analysis tools to access the data like they want it. They have new ways of looking at the data, so they make an app on their tablet that does allow them to access that data in those new ways, thus distinguishing themselves in their industry, and perhaps making new discoveries. They are the small business owners who don’t have tens of thousands of dollars to invest in branding and marketing for their website. They design their own webpages, transaction databases, inventory slide shows, product demonstrations, and online payment buttons. They are ones who look at their smartphone, which they carry everywhere (and so do their customers), and decide to make an app that addresses the needs of their customers. They are a local bow-tie business who designs an app that lets their customers “try on” a bow-tie to see how it looks, without being in their store. The CREATORS are a new breed of student, parents, business owner, leader. They are not saying “we cannot”, they are saying “I just did”. They are not giving reasons why not, they are saying “how do I get started”. They are not saying “it is not possible”, they are saying “look at what is possible.”

So, the new Digital Divide is about schools developing CREATORS vs. USERS, and unfortunately in far too many schools…ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh….neither.


Few schools are developing CREATORS. We are barely developing USERS. We are still asking ridiculous questions like, “should we use technology in the classroom?” Our internet filters still block more than they do not block. Think of how that looks and sounds to our students. They have always had smartphones, laptops, tablets, digital toys, and access to information right at their fingertips. To NOT have those is almost funny to them. When we way things like, “this new technology….”, they are looking at us with cock-eyed stares because this technology is NOT new. We are past the days where we adults can still use that excuse. Digital technology like we know it today has been around for 10-20 years. We have got to stop looking at it like it is new. It’s like us saying to our kids in the morning, “I am still deciding whether or not to use this new “car” device to help take us to school and work.” Or, “…these new time pieces that fit around our wrist which automatically tell us the time during the day without using the sun, may be distracting in the classroom with kids always looking down instead of at the teacher…students will not be able to learn to manage their own time…” “This idea that electricity can flow into my house and automatically power some of our devices is something I think will take advantage of, but it may affect the way we live…” When we say things like we are not sure how to integrate technology into the classroom, our students and parents lose faith in our educational system. They are looking to the schools for leadership in WHAT should be taught, and HOW it should be taught. And they are not looking for outdated and thoughtless ideas and solutions. They are not looking for schools to work like they did when they were kids. They assume our schools are keeping up, and even leading, with the world around them.

When we do not lead in regards to technology….for them it is no different than hearing that we’re not sure how to integrate pencil and paper into the curriculum.

Enter Computer Science. This is how we give our students the tools to be CREATORS.

This discipline has a terrible image problem. And a vocabulary problem. Most people do not know what it is, and is not. Yet, we use the term as if we do.

We have schools who are still teaching (ouch……it hurts me to write this) keyboarding, in name of Computer Science, to middle schoolers. We have schools which still teach word processing to high schoolers—in the Computer Science class! Computer Science is NOT word processing, spreadsheets, photo editing, desktop publishing, video editing, and internet searching. So many schools interpret those skills as the ones that should be taught.

And…….give me a second to explain…they should—but NOT in the Computer Science classroom.

No problem if the Foreign Language teacher is having the students make newsletter travel brochures in the native language as a tool to help teach their content. No problem for the math teacher to use spreadsheets to do budgets, statistics, and graphing. In fact, that is exactly what they SHOULD be doing already. Those are both excellent uses of technology to learn and enhance a lesson with real world application. No problem for the art teacher to edit photos in class to study different types of visual art styles. No problem for the Physical Education department to use video editing to studying throwing and jumping mechanics of their kids.

All of those examples excellent uses of USING technology.

But, those projects should NOT be considered Computer Science, and they should NOT be done in the Computer Science classroom. Applications are excellent tools of all subject areas. In those areas, set the expectations of the faculty that technology will be one of the integral components of their educational experience. Students and parents not only want it, they expect it. And when we don’t ever use it as part of the classroom learning experience, THAT gets noticed. Why would we not use it? How could we not use it? As teachers we lose credibility with an inability, or worse a resistance to , the commanding use of technology in the classroom. For so many reasons, this is crucial. Teachers in all subject areas, at all grade levels, must use technology in a variety of ways, in transparent ways, throughout the day, throughout the year.

When this happens, it finally allows us to provide time and place for Computer Science education. What has traditionally been a Computer Science “responsibility” is finally handled elsewhere (and hence enhancing the development of USERS)—and that allows us to direct our efforts on building CREATORS.

Ahhh…..yes…..then we can commit to offering Computer Science as a required course as important in your curriculum as a math or science or language course. Define what Computer Science looks like at your school. Offer it. Require it. Encourage it.

But do not have students choose to do this in place of something else.

In fact, that is opposite of what we need. We need those students who love history to also think like Computer Scientists, so they can go into the world with a passion for History, but also with a new set of tools which let them develop new tools. So, yes, it is time we add a CORE discipline to the standard set of CORE classes that have defined our educational system for decades. Yes, we will have to make room for it. Yes, education is going to have to change. Yes it is also time to look at the daily schedule. Yes, it is also time to look at graduation requirements. Yes, it is time to look at what we are teaching. Yes, it is also time to look at 2 ½ month summer breaks. Yes, it is also time to look at the standard 8:00-3:00 schedule. Yes, it is time to look at what we are evaluating. Yes, it is time to look at how we are evaluating. Yes, it is time to look at how/why we use standardized tests.

Yes, it is time. Yes, it is time. Yes, it is time.

And perhaps those same technologies which have been at the center of so many issues can also be the tools through which we can solve these problems. Maybe there is even a Computer Science solution to how we do this? I imagine there is. Perhaps students who have been through a new type of school will be the one who help use change our educational world.

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Computer Science, as a tool of CREATION, is crucial to society, to economy, to innovation, and to business. But, it is different than other disciplines. Much like math is fundamental to other disciplines and language is part the backbone of other disciplines, so is Computer Science. Recognize that. What industry is not overwhelmingly dependent upon digital hardware and software?! Just as nails and hammers and wood are fundamental building blocks for construction, Computer Science is a building block for “digital construction”. But the Computer Science discipline differs from others in that it is constantly changing. New technologies, even completely new breakthroughs, develop frequently which force us to reconsider how we approach our thinking in this area. Whereas a French class has only 1 language to teach and those constructs and grammar are relatively constant, Computer Science has literally hundreds of languages and development environments that are all important in different scenarios. Some languages will appeal to a specific industry or type of problem or project because of the nature of the language itself. There is no way to say that one language or environment is “better” than another, in same way that we cannot say that one novel is “better” than another. But, just as in English class we study many novel s and types of writing to give students a broad exposure to the type of writing that is possible, Computer Science does the same thing. For the school that is inspired to bring Computer Science into their curriculum, that is encouraging because it allows the passions of your faculty to lead the way. If game design is what you want to focus on, excellent. Love robots? Lots of choices there are well. Love the engineering approach? Arduino is there for you! Need something small and cheap? Raspberry Pi to the rescue. Love iPhones and iPads? Develop software and apps. Love to tinker? Taking apart and rebuilding old computers is a blast and a great way to learn about “under the hood”. Android users can develop apps for their tablets and phones. Even Blackberry phones users can develop apps. Web surfer? Lots of tools to develop for websites and web apps.

I have not even given you the coup d’état……
most of the tools for Computer Science are FREE, tons of free tutorials online, tons of resources, tons of groups to join for collaboration. Almost seems like it does not make sense, huh?! A discipline which is direly needed in our schools. Materials, resources, people, software, even some hardware—all free. And people wanting to help. Companies like Microsoft and Google even offer their employees to come into schools to help get them started. Why are we not doing this?

But, I’ll also add a twist to this way of thinking….I suggest that the world is better suited if we develop a new breed of graduate: students who have a broad range of educational experiences in a variety of subjects, who do specialize in an area of their passion, but who have a Computer Science minor behind it. That gives them access to a set of tools, a way of thinking, that allow them to develop new types of solutions, new design ideas, new types of solutions in whatever industry they choose.

Colleges and Universities can require minors, or emphasis tracks that gives those students an experience in a variety of technologies, languages, and with a variety of hardware devices , so that they can know what is possible. It is crucial that they have a variety of experiences in programming in a variety of languages, taking apart different types of devices, creating apps, developing desktop software, writing web-based scripts, and programming device specific software, such as a robot or Arduino or Raspberry-Pi.

High schools can prepare students to know what Computer Science really is. And instead of giving it an elective status (communicating that is not required), let it be one of the requirements for graduation. And I do not mean one class during the spring of their senior year. I mean in the 9th grade, Computer Science is required. Then follow that up in the next 3 years with more Computer Science. This can be done on the shoulders of a Computer Science education starting in elementary school and continuing through the middle school.

The new Digital Divide is something which is starting to get the attention of leaders across the United States. This year’s Hour of Code was embraced by millions of people across the country, and was even endorsed by our president. Organizations such as are bringing Computer Science(or rather lack of Computer Science) to the forefront of the educational discussion. The traditional Digital Divide was focused on having vs. not having technology; the new Digital Divide boils down to whether we know Computer Science or not.

It’s an important question and an even better discussion. One that we cannot wait to have. Other countries are having the discussion and changing the way they do business. Did you ever stop to think why some companies have to go overseas for customer support ? We all assume it is to save money….but perhaps it is in part because they cannot find enough qualified people in our own country. What is at stake for any country that does not embrace Computer Science is losing the edge in innovation, research, and business………..and ultimately respect.

There are new ways forward in education. If something I said resonates with you, we should connect.

About Doug Bergman

Head of Computer Science at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, SC
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