Teach your kids to embrace – not fear – the power of the internet

Yesterday I participated in a Twitter party hosted by @TheOnlineMom * to discuss the questions:

How much do we trust our kids online?
Can we monitor them closely and build trust?

The focus of the discussion was, as the topic questions hint at, how do we keep our kids safe? How do we protect them from all of the evils lurking out there waiting to swoop in and take advantage of them? Perhaps the biggest question, though, was: How do we protect our kids from themselves online?

It was a great discussion (you can see it at #TheOnlineMom), but it reminded me a lot of a not so pleasant PTO meeting about kids online that I attended a couple of years ago, when my kids had just started high school.  I’m not sure what I was expecting from the meeting, but you can probably imagine my horror when I realized that the basic point of the meeting was for internet safety experts to tell us how evil the internet is and that unless we did something our kids would end up dead in a ditch somewhere at the hands of a sexual predator.

OK, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. The focus of the meeting was indeed the evils that lie in wait for our kids, and what we as parents should – MUST – do to protect them. You can see much of what they talked about on the district’s Internet Safety Resources for Parents page.

I had a hard time sitting still through this and not speaking up as they brought out negative after negative (after negative). I waited until the Q&A and then asked what I thought was a reasonable question: Do you (the school district or the presenters) have any related presentations that describe the positive opportunities the internet provides to our kids?

It wasn’t the first time – I’m sure it won’t be the last – that people looked at me like I had two (or seven) heads.

A big part of the problem, as I saw it then, was that so few of the parents in the meeting actually used the internet themselves. A case of ignorance breeding a deep fear of the unknown. Amazingly, I saw some of the same thing last night in the discussion, comments like “I hope my kids never hear about Facebook” (from parents of very young kids) to the question, “Many parents ask whether there is any learning value in social networks for teens, what do you think?”

Here’s how I responded to that last question:

Social networks – virtual or real life – are the primary way that everyone learns, teens included.

Unlike that PTO meeting all those years ago, the discussion last night also included quite a few voices of (what I would call) reason, parents who see more than just the potential dangers. But even so, there was very little discussion of the power of the internet in the hands of our kids, especially teenagers arguably going through the most potentially creative time of their lives.

What if, instead of simply warning our kids about the dangers of the internet, monitoring (or trying to) their every keystroke, and telling them they can’t do this or that, we start by showing them what they CAN do online, how they CAN use all of the incredible tools available to accomplish what they want to accomplish. All of the incredible places they can go online, all the things they can learn, and everything they can share with the world (besides those racy photos or gossipy rants)?

As I shared with the group last night, my job as a parent is not to protect my kids from the world, it is to teach them how to protect themselves. Not just in a “defensive” way, but by taking the offensive, understanding the world so they can go out and make their own mark.

Fear, and caution, have their place. But you can’t let them rule your life. This is what we should be teaching our kids.

* If you are a parent of pre-college kids and are looking for a great resource for dealing with technology as it relates to your kids, you should make The Online Mom one of your regular stops on the web.

Safe? No. Awesome? YES! My review of Strange Loop 2010

When I first learned about the Strange Loop developers conference here in St. Louis, I had a strong – you might say strange – urge to attend. Strange because I am not a software developer; it’s been a long time since I’ve done any serious coding. What caught my eye was how conference organizer Alex Miller (@puredanger) tied the ideas of one of my favorite books of recent years, Douglas Hofstadter’s I Am a Strange Loop, to The Loop here in St. Louis and the idea of building an identity for St. Louis based developers.

More importantly, at least for me, it was not a conference focused on any one topic or language, but was like a survey course of the latest and greatest in many areas of development theory and practice. Here’s a quick summary of some of the sessions I attended at Strange Loop 2010:

Semantic Web

The first non-keynote talk I attended, Brian Sletten’s (@bsletten) talk Semantic Web: Hot or Not? looked at big-S Semantic Web, providing a bit of history about how it has failed to catch on in the past and why he thinks that its time has come. In case you are wondering, Brian voted for “hot”.

Towards the end of the second day, Scott Davis (@scottdavis99) presented Hidden Web Services: Microformats and the Semantic Web, a look at what I would call small-s semantic web. Using some (not always cooperative) live examples along with his presentation slides, Scott showed RDFa and microformats in action.

Of all the talks, these two provided me the most practical information that I can make use of. As soon as I finish this review (and catch up on a couple of other things I need to blog), I will be diving into RDFa and microformats and seeing how I can put them to use on this blog and a couple of other sites with which I’m involved.

Complexity Theory

Readers of this blog know that complexity is an idea that is never very far back in my thoughts, so I obviously made the time to attend Tim Berglund’s (@tlberglund) talk Complexity Theory and Software Development. He covered a lot of ground that I’m familiar with, but also gave me many new things to think about. And a couple of new ways to look at things.

Not taking anything away from any of the other presenters, Tim was one of the best presenters I had the pleasure of seeing. He was in one of the “small” rooms, but the quality of both the content and the presentation would have made this talk well suited to the main room at the Pageant.


When I saw the NoSQL track on the Strange Loop schedule, I assumed that this was a specific database implementation, along the lines of mySQL. (I told you it’s been a while….). Over the course of the two days, I came to understand the concepts of NoSQL and how these concepts can be, and are, being used.

Eben Hewitt’s (@ebenhewitt) talk Adopting Apache Cassandra provided me with a nice theoretical understanding that would serve me well through later talks, and Kevin Weil’s (@kevinweil) provided some lessons in implementation in his talk NoSQL at Twitter. The engineer in me really enjoyed Kevin’s frank discussion of the challenges and solutions – some successful and some not – as Twitter addressed the challenges presented by huge data sets.


Next to the semantic web discussions, Ted Neward’s (@tedneward) talk Busy Java Developer’s Guide to Android: Basics provided me the most practical value. My Droid gives me a reason – and opportunity – to use Android as a platform to get back into some development (however small scale it may be), and this talk gave me enough to get started. A quick overview of the SDK, some talk about the NDK, and then some runthroughs of ideas were great. Ted also had a wealth of knowledge which he freely shared during the extended Q&A that the session eventually turned into.

It’s tough to say which talk was my favorite, but if you pushed me to choose I would have to go with Android Squared from Bob Lee (@crazybob) and Eric Burke (@burke_eric) from Square.  The talk focused on the engineering and software challenges related to using the Square in the mic port of an Android phone, including some detailed waveform and signal analysis and some tricks to deal with the wide variety of Android implementations out there. (It didn’t hurt that they handed out some hardware at the end of their talk.)

Bob and Eric took turns talking about specific aspects of the challenges and the solutions. Like Kevin Weil, they held no punches in terms of talking about successes and failures along the way. They not only showed the final product, but provided some great insights into the process of figuring things out.

There are a couple of talks I attended but haven’t mentioned, and then their are the keynotes and the panel discussions that were worth the price of admission (a low $190) all on their own. I’ll try to get back to those, and maybe even the above talks, in more detail over the coming weeks.

Summary (of my already too long summary)

At the top of Alex Miller’s favorites list on Twitter is this tweet from Jeff Atwood (@codinghorror):

“it’s better to be safe than sorry” is such crap. You know what’s better than being safe? Being AWESOME.

Alex most definitely didn’t take a “safe” path when he put together Strange Loop. The venue was spread across three venues, including a club typically used for concerts, the hotel next door, and a couple of rooms from the Regional Arts Commission across the street. Some of the rooms got overcrowded, and there was a general dissatisfaction with the wi-fi availability. And then there is the cross-discipline (cross-language?) nature of the conference, which may not have provided the depth that some wanted but made up for it with breadth.

I can’t speak for Alex and whether or not he is sorry about any of it, but I can say that he – and his cadre of assistants and volunteers – definitely hit awesome.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

The opportunity cost of “easy”

In his book Mastery, George Leonard talks about the “war on mastery”. This could just as easily be called a “war on hard”. Watch TV for just a couple of minutes and you will be bombarded with ads or talk shows or news stories that show you how do something in just a couple (if that many) steps. You never see something that promises to be hard.

And yet, nearly anything worth doing – that results in growth or learning – is hard. The best you can really hope for from “easy” is to maintain what you’ve already got. At worse, you will lose something.

Does Google – or technology in general – make us stupid? No. But by being “easy”, it removes the need, and possibly the ability, to learn. Which some might say is the same thing.

Tools do not a master – or failure – make

I’m working on a new post to address the question “Is modern technology ‘dumbing down’ America’s youth?“, as posed in the most recent edition (22 July 09) of the local news weekly – West News Magazine. (The html version of the article isn’t available as of my writing this, but you can read it here.)

This question seems to come around every year about this time as everyone is preparing for the annual back-to-school ritual and teachers, parents, and others lament the sad state of our children at the hands of modern technology. Going all the way back to when I heard this discussion about allowing calculators in math class, I’ve never quite understood how a tool, especially one as broad as “modern technology”, could be given the blame or credit for anything that an individual or group achieves (or fails to achieve).

Along that train of thought, here is a reprint of something I wrote back in August 2006 that looks at another much maligned tool – Microsoft PowerPoint – while I work up a “long answer” to the question.

= = == === =====
Tools do not a master make

No tool of modern technology is as universally used, and almost as universally reviled, in the world of business and government as is Microsoft PowerPoint. Perhaps most famous of the PowerPoint bashers is Edward Tufte, writer of several books and essays on information design. (I was fortunate enough to attend one of his courses in the late ’90s, his poster of Napoleon’s March to Moscow still hangs on the wall in my office.)

Tufte has described his issues with PowerPoint in magazine articles (such as PowerPoint is Evil in Wired magazine), in a self-published essay entitled The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint, and in a chapter in his latest book Beautiful Evidence. In the past week or so a few others have also lambasted PowerPoint, including Dave Snowden of Cognitive Edge in a couple of posts (Festival of Bureaucratic Hyper-Rationalism and Tufte and PowerPoint) and Scott Adams (via Dilbert).

Don Norman, of the Nielsen Norman Group, has a different take on PowerPoint. In his essay In Defense of PowerPoint, Norman places the blame not on PowerPoint but on those who use it improperly. “Don’t blame the problem on the tool.” Or, put another way – PowerPoint doesn’t bore people, people bore people. Cliff Atkinson is another who believes that PowerPoint can be used effectively. For some great ideas check out the Beyond Bullets blog or Atkinson’s book Beyond Bullet Points.

Of course, this problem is not limited to the world of business. One of the big promises of ever faster and more powerful consumer technology (if we are to believe marketing campaigns) is that everyone will be able to perform like an expert. Take, for example, the following pitch for Apple’s GarageBand software (emphasis is mine):

The new video track in GarageBand makes it easy to add an original music score to your movies. And don’t worry about your musical talent — or lack thereof. Just use GarageBand’s included loops, or try a combination of loops, software instruments, or any previous audio recordings you created.
Apple – iLife – Garageband

Don’t get me wrong, I love GarageBand (and the whole iLife suite for that matter, I use it almost every day). It is very easy to create a ’song’ using loops, like my First Song. Once I got comfortable with the GarageBand interface, it only took me a couple of hours to browse through the loops, pull some together so it sounded good, and export it to iTunes. The ’song’ is listenable, but doesn’t reflect any real musical skill on my part. I didn’t apply any knowledge of time signatures, keys, tempo, or anything. I just dragged-and-dropped.

I guess my point is don’t get pulled into a false belief that a tool, any tool, can make you an expert at something or give you expert results. Remember, good tools are nice to have, but in the hands of a master even the simplest of tools can create wonders.

===== === == = =

As I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, my  “short answer” to the question is an emphatic “No, modern technology is not ‘dumbing down’ America’s youth.” More to come.

20th-century teachers using 19th-century methods to reach 21st-century students

As someone who loves technology and gadgets, and loves figuring out how to make them useful, I’ve had a long interest in how the technology of the information age could change the way people – especially children – learn.  This interest is compounded by the fact that I have two teenage sons, now in high school.  Born at the dawn of the information age (1991 and 1993), they are right in the middle of it all.  Sadly, though, my personal experience has been one akin to the quote used for the title of this post.

The quote is actually something overheard by Marc Aronson in his School Library Journal article We’ve Got the Technology: But our (sic) today’s schools ready for a radical transformation?, but is reminiscent to me of a main point of Seymour Papert‘s 1992 (yep, 1992!!) book The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School in the Age of the Computer.  The following is paraphrased from the opening chapter of that book:

Imagine a party of time traveling teachers from an earlier century, eager see how much things have changed in their profession a hundred or more years in the future.  They might be puzzled by a few strange objects.  They might notice that some standard techniques had changed, but they would fully see the point of most of what was being attempted and could quite easily take over the class.

In his article, Aronson gives us a quick dose of reality, reminding us:

The fact that technology makes new kinds of educational opportunities possible doesn’t imply that teachers, administrators, school boards, and college admittance personnel—not to mention students and parents—want, or even need, those new methods.

The process, Aronson says, should be one of evolution, not revolution.

I’ll leave the pronouncements about 21st-century skills and radical reform to education analysts and other columnists. For those of us who write for, teach, or work with young people in schools and libraries, the old and the new are likely to overlap and blend, not suddenly displace each other. Doesn’t that make sense? Doesn’t that sound more realistic than a vision of a completely transformed educational system? It does to me.

As much as I’d like to see an overnight change, I have to agree with Aronson that it is better to grow, over time, the educational system we want instead of trying to simply build it.  The system is much too complex to think we can figure it all out at once.