Tag Archives: Education

The Myth of the Digital Native

There’s a term flying around that really gets my goat, to put it like a Nancy Drew character. “Digital native” purports to describe a young person who has grown up surrounded by digital technology. It is a dangerous, grossly misleading term that needs to be nuked from orbit if we ever hope to move forward into a healthy relationship with The Future. Here’s why.

There Is No Fork

i remember a quote making the rounds during a conference on kids and technology. i’m not sure if it was borrowed from somewhere, but the gist of it was this: we’re not excited about using forks, because we’ve grown up with forks all our lives. Kids today have the same relationship with the Internet.

It’s true: there now exists a generation of people who have never known a life without the Internet, smart phones, VOIP, video conferencing and game consoles. So it must follow, some people reason, that these new technologies are as commonplace to them as are eating utensils.

Ageism

To compare something as earth-shattering and civilization-changing as the Internet with something as mundane as a fork already betrays a lack of appreciation of the capability and complexity of the current Age … and i capitalize “Age” because i have no doubt that the networked computers have ushered in a capital-A Age of human technological development: as in Stone > Bronze > Iron > Internet. An astoundingly myopic focus sees only Pinterest and cat pictures; what’s happened in the past few decades is nothing short of epochal.

The Internet has been compared to the printing press, but that invention was not made available at a very low cost to millions of people enabling the unfettered transmission of type, sound, AND images – both moving and still – WITH automated language translation and free duplication and instant WORLDWIDE distribution. Take a much more macro view of human existence, and the printing press won’t even rank.

But more importantly, the term “digital native” subtly implies that because young people are surrounded by networked technology, they intuitively know how to use that technology. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. It doesn’t matter what sort of technology you’re surrounded by: no one comes out of the womb knowing how to type a search engine query, pilot a spaceship, or even use a fork.

Priorities

The crucial difference, continuing with our fork/computer comparison, is that today’s parents know how to use a fork, they know the importance of using a fork, and they consequently teach their children how to use a fork. In contrast, today’s parents do not know how to use computers, they do not know the importance of using computers, and they therefore do not and cannot teach their children to use computers.

Father may know best, but he definitely doesn’t know how or why to defrag a hard drive.

Calling kids “digital natives” seems to leave technology education up to forces of nature, as if kids are somehow going to learn how to properly use a computer by osmosis – much like we’ve done with sex education, and look at how that’s turned out. i’ve seen the resulting ignorance that a tack like that produces; when i taught a group of first year college students a few years ago, i required them to zip their midterm test file and email it to me as an attachment. The class erupted with protests. They did not know how to zip computer files. They did not know how to attach files to emails. They did not know how to send emails. And in which program were they enrolled? Video game design.

So in this computer course, you want me to … USE … a computer?

But why should they know how to send emails? Email is a very recent advancement. It’s really only seen widespread use for the past fifteen years. i didn’t really begin to use email heavily until i was working full-time in an office setting. And how were these kids supposed to know how to archive a collection of files? It’s an easy thing to do, but you don’t know what you don’t know. Archiving has only been a recent addition to operating systems; prior to its inclusion in Windows XP (i believe?), you had to download a shareware program like WinZip or gZip or WinRar to archive files. It’s not really something you’d naturally know how to do until you’ve been required to do it.

Tying your shoes: not incredibly difficult, but definitely a learned skill.

Wickedpedia

i found that the students i’ve taught and the young graduates i’ve mentored – “digital natives”, all – have been completely hopeless at using search engines, a skill i call “Google-Fu”. They’ve been taught by their high school teachers never to use Wikipedia as a source because it’s “unreliable”, due to the fact that “anyone can edit it”. (Teachers, if you think that just anyone is on Wikipedia writing extensive entries on complex mathematical theorems, ancient Jewish mysticism, and common practices in the manufacture of thumbtacks, kindly retire. The Future will take it from here.)

Lately, this admonishment has softened to become “fine – use Wikipedia, but it can’t be your only source”, which is equally ridiculous, because many well-written Wikipedia articles are already cross-referenced to the nines with links to all of the material that would turn up through diligent independent research anyway [citation needed]. And often, articles that are further off the beaten path all have Talk pages which feature ongoing discussions on how those articles are being written and refined. Talk pages are excellent resources to help young researchers identify authorial biases and to develop media criticism skills.

And again, the fact that so many young people i meet have been told not to use Wikipedia as a source suggests an education system that, itself, does not understand the current Age and has been teaching neither adequately nor accurately.

If someone vandalizes a Wikipedia article to make Magellan a contemporary of Cap’n Crunch, and a student cites that passage verbatim, the problem is not Wikipedia.

Forgotten Knowledge from the Mists of Time

i attended college on the cusp of the changeover between a period in personal computing where it was a niche interest of hobbyists, and the explosion of networked machines into the lives of everyone on the planet. And being involved during the changing of the guard, i was very fortunate to attend a class at my school that unravelled some of the crucial mysteries of computing for me, and to this day, i am immensely thankful that i have this knowledge.

The course taught me what a disk is, and explained the actual physical process involved in storing data inside a computer. i learned what RAM was, what a ROM was, and why waving a magnet around near your computer was a bad idea. i came to understand how digital displays worked, and the difference between our increasingly old-fashioned cathode ray tube monitors, and these newfangled flat LCD monitors. i learned what a bus was, how a microprocessor worked, why we talked about “BOOTing” computers, and where the term “spam” came from. i learned how search engines indexed web pages on the Internet, and that knowledge alone has made me particularly adept at Google fu. i was taught about viruses, what they were and how to avoid them.

To this day, i understand how disk drives and CDs store digital information. This should be common knowledge.

All of this amazing and wonderful arcane knowledge is stuff that we no longer teach, because we have a generation populated by “digital natives”. Our kids know how to thumb around on tablet and smart phone devices that have one button. They can communicate with each other as long as it’s nothing too complicated, and as long as it all boils down to one gigantic shiny graphic element that says “SEND”. Some know it all boils down to 1′s and 0′s somewhere down the line, but they have no idea how or why, or why they should care. As long as it all just works, they’re fine. They can’t swap the battery out of their devices, but pretty soon they won’t need to: companies like Apple are leading the charge with perfectly impenetrable little boxes that we must return to them to service. The days of tinkering are disappearing. Our future – The Future – belongs to the companies who build the devices, who hold the keys, and who alone understand how things work.

Making Us Go

IANASTF (i am not a Star Trek fan), but one Trek episode introduces an alien race called the Pakleds:



The Pakleds appear to be very simple-minded, yet somehow they’re flying around in spaceships. That’s because they steal as much technology as they can get their hands on – “things to make us go“, without ever putting in the effort to develop their own technology, or to understand how their stolen technology works. They desire only the power that this technology brings, and they don’t care about the ramifications or consequences of using it.

The poisonous term “digital natives” excuses us from effectively teaching our children how to properly use, appreciate, and understand the incredible networked computer technology that now permeates our lives. We don’t want to learn how to program – we just want programs that work. We want things to make us go. We have become, and we are raising, a generation of Pakleds – a devolution of humankind which, instead of standing on the shoulders of giants, is dandruff on the shoulders of giants. To wit: we’re flaky. It’s time that we do away with the term “digital natives” altogether, accept our responsibility, and recognize the importance of teaching our young people how to effectively navigate and steer the incredible future they will soon inherit.

Teaching Your Foetus How to Code

i wrote an article earlier this week about a 9-year-old app developer from Brampton. Now, my friend Jason has writen an article about teaching logic concepts to babies, presumably just to link-bait me. :)

Okay … now maybe some newly-educated can teach it to ME?

In the TEDx talk i gave with my daughter Cassandra, i prescribed programming and tech classes for kids as young as 4 in junior kindergarten. Jason’s one-upped me here by suggesting we print logic symbols on baby blocks. i think the next step beyond that is to read C++ classes to our kids in the womb.

A friend of mine, Thomas Henshell from Mirthwerx, is developing A is for App, a “daddytime storybook” where instead of the usual inane “Z is for Zebra” nonsense, we get “F is for FTP” and “P is for Programming”. i’m kicking myself for not thinking of this first, which is the true hallmark of a brilliant idea!

Step 4: profit.

Everybody Codes

It was exciting to see this video rocket to four million views in the course of a couple of days, but it earned every single view it got:



The video echoed the sentiment i expressed in the TEDx talk i did with my daughter last fall, a sentiment which i in turn borrowed from a number of different (and infinitely more wise) visionaries, all of whom are chanting the same refrain: LEARN. TO. CODE.

In the climax of the video, Gabe Newell says that coders of today are wizards of the future. Confirmed: after i had spent 3 years on the job as a video game developer and really had a solid handle on Actionscript 2 programming in Flash, i literally felt like i had magic powers. It felt like the world was mine, and an entire, previously hidden dimension of possibility had opened up before me. It’s a lot like what my daughter Cassandra is currently experiencing as she learns to read. Imagine that incredible jump, from a world filled with complex runes in all different sizes and colours and styles, to a world where it all comes into focus and you can finally make sense of it all … and do powerful things with your newfound knowledge. That is what learning to code felt like for me.

The Contagion Spreads

An excellent companion piece to the video is the story of Tanmay Bakshi, a Canadian kid who – at NINE years old (NINE!!) – had his first app approved by Apple. The amazing thing about the article is that it casually mentions Tanmay had also written his own operating system at one point. Despite all my experience with computers, i barely understand what an operating system even is. The fact that a 9-year-old wrote one boggles my mind.

If i was Tanmay, i’d be smiling too.

This is my favourite tidbit from the article:

His teacher says another boy in the class is now into code because of Tanmay.

Attaboy! Like a virus. The good kind.

Now, please feel free to leave a comment below and smugly explain operating systems to me.

Indie Game Dev Goes Down in a Blaze of Glory

For some people in the video game industry, this is where the debate about games-as-art will be tried in the court of public opinion.

Until today, indie game developer David S. Gallant was a part-time customer service rep in a Canada Revenue Agency call centre. David did not enjoy his job, and wanted to make games instead. Desperately. So he committed to spending one day a week at the Untold Entertainment offices to learn whatever he could about the industry and our craft. After leaving Untold, David made a few games on his own, including I Get This Call Every Day, a game he used to express his frustrations about his job.



Today, after an incendiary Toronto Star article in which the reporter appears to have tipped off the office of the Canadian Minister of Revenue Gail Shea (David was always guarded about where he actually worked), David was fired from his job.

Never Again the Burning Times

The claim by TOJam co-founder Jim McGinley and others, who are seeing red, is that the Star article (and the Minister’s reaction) reveal a distinct bias against video games as an art form. Jim asserts that if David had expressed his frustrations through any other artistic medium – writing, painting, stand-up comedy, film, interpretive dance – he would not have provoked the same reaction.

As someone who has been fired from his job for being critical of his employer, i’m not so quick to call this an anti-games witch hunt. A few years ago, i remember being so aghast at the incapability and apathy of the students at the HervĂ© Velasquez School For the Digitally Inclined (my nickname for George Brown College), that i wrote a pair of articles called What’s Wrong with Ontario Colleges (Parts 1 and 2) expressing my frustration. In those articles, i went much further than David did in his game, by actually naming my employer (among other schools), and by being a general dick about it. The Dean at GBC sniffed out my articles in a Google vanity search, and i was fired from my teaching position shortly thereafter.

i regret to inform you that your employment is hereby terminated immediately! (How’s THAT for a catchphrase?)

Sidenote: i regret nothing. When you’re so unhappy with a job that it oozes – achingly – into your art, getting fired is an absolutely blessing … a fact i truly hope David will come to realize in time.

Gag Reflex

The best consolation i received from anyone about being fired from George Brown was that in this new age of digital media, old institutions like schools (and governments, in David’s case) need to control the message. And thanks to blogs like this one, where i can freely criticize George Brown College, these institutions’ inability to control the message drives them completely bonkers, and they feel that their only recourse is to aggressively dig out the cancerous cells with a spoon. Bleeding be damned.

There. We’ve burned this relatively-unknown novel “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”. That’s the last we’ll be hearing about THAT.

Of course, as we’ve seen so many times, these institutions don’t stop to consider the backlash their knee-jerk reactions cause. In my case, after my firing was widely publicized, i was able to single-handedly dismantle all heartless Ontario college diploma mills and replace them with tightly-focussed, effective programs that produced skilled and educated students (and uh … and then i woke up.)

In David’s case, the video game community is rallying to his cause with Twitter hashtags like #saveGallant (David is currently trending on Twitter in Canada), and organizations everywhere are encouraging people to buy and upvote his game. (PROTIP: By paying more than the $2 minimum donation suggestion, you can help float David for the next little while until he finds a new job. Give generously!)

So does the Star’s article betray a bias against video games? i’m not sure it does. Plain and simple, you can’t bite the hand that feeds you, even if that hand is also strangling you and periodically feeding you shit. Did i do something wrong for slagging off George Brown College? Yes. Am i thrilled that i’m no longer working there? You betcha. Did David do something wrong by criticizing his call centre job? Most likely. Will he one day be thrilled that he’s no longer working there?

You betcha.

Reeling From It – Part 3

This is the final collection of anecdotes about my trying times between graduating from a completely useless accelerated animation program at a community college, and trying to find work with a crummy demo reel.

Flew the Co-Op

The first tip i give to many students is that if your school offers a co-op placement, be very careful where you place, because you’ll likely end up there for the next few years. This was true for me and many of my classmates. The girl who placed at her uncle’s trucking company is probably still working there to this day. My own three-month placement at an elementary school led to a job at a technology summer camp with the same board of education, which led to a year-long position as a technology tutor at another school within the board, which was probably followed up with another board summer camp, for all i can remember.

The last thing i wanted to do after spending sixteen years of my life in school was to end up back there.

Throughout this time, i really felt like i was stuck at these elementary schools, and i felt that teaching computer skills to kindergarten-to-eighth-grade kids was degrading. (In retrospect, i’m thankful for my teaching years. What, at the time, felt like a completely disconnected diversion from my chosen profession has turned out to be a complement to the work i currently do creating software for young children).

Do the Hustle

So during my stint at the schools, i was constantly out hustling and putting my demo reel into as many hands as possible. This was when there were actual hard costs to duping a VHS tape, and every time i parted with a reel, i heard that cash register “ca-CHING” sound.

Here’s four dollars for you to throw in the garbage. Enjoy.

One of the aspects of being a grad that i try not to forget is that unless your school did their job (and i guarantee you, they didn’t), you’re completely clueless about the local companies that could potentially hire you. You’ve heard of Disney and Dreamworks and Digital Domain, and once you’ve exhausted those choice leads, you’re in the dark. It’s very difficult to apply to places when you don’t know they exist. (This is why today, i try to help grads out by creating things like the Ontario Interactive directory.)

i clearly remember three crummy experiences from my life as a recent grad – three indignities, each suffered at the hand of a different villain: The Doubter, The Liar, and The Cheapskate.

The Doubter

When you apply for jobs out of school, nobody replies. That’s why i try to reply to everyone who applies to work at Untold Entertainment, even if it’s just to say ‘no thanks’, which it often is. Sometimes i’ll get applications that are so misguided or terrible that i’ll respond with (hopefully gentle) advice on how the applicant can improve the offering, because i hate to think of that applicant continually wasting everyone’s time (and his own). If an application has bad grammar and spelling errors (especially if the applicant is a programmer), i’ll usually speak up. If it’s a 3D artist applying to our 2D shop, another common error, i’ll say something. If someone applies with a form letter saying “i love your studio’s work”, i’ll call bullshit and ask the applicant to name something we’ve done.

But i try, through all of this, not to be a giant dick about it. Because one Wednesday afternoon many many years ago, i found myself in the Hudsucker Proxy-esque office of The Doubter, and i don’t wish to inflict his treatment of me onto others.

The Doubter was a high-ranking guy at CBC. He needed someone to develop props for the Canadian “comedy” series Royal Canadian Air Farce. In case you’re unfamiliar with it, Air Farce is to comedy as a plate of steaming corn-speckled dog turds are to food. And here, for once, i do not exaggerate.

Air Farce cast members pose in front of the chicken cannon. Stop, stop! My face is hurting from laughing!

The job was this: let’s say the wacky Air Farce cast wanted to shoot their Gallagher-style chicken cannon at the target of the week – say, rude drivers or the Ontario Premier. They need a prop image to put on the chicken cannon easel. CBC was hiring a prop artist to create that image. Or if the cast needs a prop newspaper or a set needs window signage, the prop artist creates it. On a computer. Using Adobe Illustrator.

Adobe Illustrator.

i’d used Illustrator in school, a whole lot. i was the top of my class at using the software, and was regularly praised by the Illustrator teacher. My demo reel did not showcase any Illustrator work (except for a few textures here and there), because why would it? It was an animation reel. i popped the tape into The Doubter’s VCR and showed him the reel.

After it had finished playing, The Doubter tented his fingers and looked apprehensive. “Hmmm … yeah. This job is for someone who knows how to use Illustrator,” he said. “i know how to use Illustrator,” i said. “i used it throughout my program. i’m very good with it.”

“Your tape doesn’t show any Illustrator work.” “Yes, that’s true, but i DO know how to use the software. The job posting wasn’t very specific – otherwise, i would have brought more Illustrator work to show you.”

And then he paused, looked at me skeptically, and said “Hmmmmyeahhh. Even though you say you know how to use Illustrator, i don’t think you know how to use Illustrator.”

Then, he twisted the knife: “Your portfolio makes it seem as though you’d like to become an animator. Have you considered taking animation at Sheridan?”

“i … ” i stammered a little. “i just came from school. i did attend Sheriden, and Seneca College after that. i just completed an entire animation program. i’m OUT of school. i’m looking for a JOB.”

“Hmmmm….well,” he purred. “Good luck in your search.”

Of course, hindsight it 20/20 – if i could go back, as people later suggested, i would have said “i don’t know how to use Illustrator, eh? Put me on a machine NOW, bitch. i’m about to ROCK this.”

Lessons learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. Find out as much as you can about a position before showing up for an interview. If the posting is vague, a phone call is not out of line. 3. It’s okay to suggest that someone improve the quality of their portfolio, but suggesting the applicant go back to school is insulting.

The Liar

The most audacious interviewer i met was named The Liar. He actually liked my work and brought me back for a second interview. During that interview, he marched me around his studio and introduced me to everyone, saying “This is Ryan – we’re bringing him on as our newest animator.” Then he SHOWED ME where i would be sitting, and said “This is where you’ll be sitting.” i went home after that interview, and despite frequent follow-ups, i never heard back from him.

You dick!

Lessons learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. Don’t listen to a word anyone says until there is INK on PAPER, and even then, be wary.

The Cheapskate

The Cheapskate worked in the interactive department at Much Music, which was Canada’s answer to MTV before MTV Canada, which is Canada’s answer to TLC. The Cheapskate wanted me to do some interface design for some sort of music player. i worked remotely, having never been in a client/freelancer relationship before. i also had no idea what proper UI design was all about – this was years before it was a subject Ontario colleges would think to teach. i didn’t do a very good job, and i worked for a few weeks on it before The Cheapskate said that it was all going in the wrong direction and he needed to “cash out”. i felt absolutely sick making out my invoice for my work that he obviously wasn’t going to use.

The bottom line on that invoice? $120.

Lessons Learned: 1. Don’t be that guy. 2. What seems like a lot of money to a recent grad usually isn’t a lot of money to someone at a large media shop. 3. If freelancers need a little hand-holding due to inexperience and because their schools didn’t do their bloody jobs training them, be gentle. That’s why you’re paying ten bucks an hour instead of forty.

The caveat to this is if the current year is greater than 2000, don’t hand-hold for NOTHIN’. i recently had a graduate working with me on a game and she didn’t know how to write an invoice, so she asked me instead of doing a Google search. This, dear friends, is a no-no. Don’t embarrass yourself. Type the phrase “how to write an invoice” in the Google search field and save us all some embarrassment.

She was far from being the first graduate from a particular Ontario college who didn’t know how to use Flash or write an invoice. i actually wound up writing to the school and requesting they get their shit together and properly train their students in this.

Righting Wrongs at $0/hr

During this tricky time in my life, i would have killed for an opportunity like the one i currently provide to students and grads. i don’t pay grads, because they usually suck, and i don’t end up using most of what they produce. i mostly put them on make-work projects, like populating the Ontario Interactive site that i mentioned above. But they get to sit in a studio and see me struggle through client feedback and revision requests. i show them the financial realities of running a studio. i show them my invoicing process. i talk to them about my strategies for keeping the lights on at Untold, both short term and long term. It’s a very valuable opportunity (despite what certain people have to say about it). When i was a recent graduate, that’s all i ever needed – just to be able to sit in a studio and get a feel for what was expected of me if i was going to contribute value to the industry.

And i halped!

Much of how i conduct myself these days, from the way i act at industry mixers to the internships and mentoring i provide through Untold Entertainment, are due to the lousy treatment i received after i graduated. It’s a tough time, especially as Ontario’s lacklustre college system continues to churn out a gross number of poorly-trained graduates well beyond what the local (or even national or international) video game industry can bear. i only hope that i’m able to ease the passage a little bit for students and recent grads, and that in return, i am simply able to enjoy the bounty of their sweet virgin bumcakes.

Further reading: TENure.