What you need to know
Children who are not especially wealthy face not just the inability to buy up-to-date software, but also a knowledge-barrier that prevents them from reaping the full benefits of the web. This knowledge barrier exists because they have no one around them who is knowledgeable, neither computer-educated family members nor well-informed teachers. Although the issue of material possessions is on the decline (that is, few children face a complete lack of technological possessions), the issue that still exists is the possession of knowledge. Many studies find that students in relatively poor neighborhoods learn rote skills like typing speed while those in wealthier schools use more powerful programs like graphing software and the use of word processors to not just type nonsense, but to formulate essays (Maxwell; Poole & Preciado).
If the issue of material deficit exists, schools can seek funding through the federal E-Rate program, which subsidizes a large portion of tech purchases for poor schools (“E-rate”). However, infusing schools with well-informed tech teachers is harder. This post seeks to suggest ways to increase the availability of high-quality learning material to all students; we can become teachers ourselves, write benevolent programs, or set our software free through open sourcing.
This last one is powerful, both as something we can do and as something we can benefit from: even privileged people can accomplish more without paywalls on technology. Educating all children on modern tools benefits us all: today’s recipients of discount computers, free software, and the instruction of kind teachers may be the masterminds behind the software of tomorrow.
They say that if you give a person a fish, they will have food for a day. But if you teach a person to fish, they will have food for a lifetime. The saying could go like this, too: give a student a computer, and they will be uplifted for a day. But if you teach a student to master a computer, they will be uplifted for a lifetime. I intend to use this post to spread awareness of powerful free software, open-source projects, and “playgrounds” for learning to code. This will also encourage you, I hope, to err liberal when you decide how to copyright and license your present or future work. There is no rule that can apply to all situations, and so many factors come into play that you may not have control over how your work is licensed. However, I hope that as you view this you will store in the back of your mind the value and potential of opening your creations for the use of all people.
You can also petition your school for the inclusion of an introductory computer science course for all students, if you believe that everyone needs to know the basics of 21st century tools.
Those of us who already have some computer knowledge can mentor students at less advantaged schools, although this is a challenge, because how can a teacher who doesn’t really understand computer science instruct high-school aged kids on what topics they should teach his or her students? Such is the environment; it’s not just kids who need to learn. you could petition your school to include teacher training on tech, or even give a presentation of your own (though teachers might receive it with discomfort – a student teaching teachers!) Last but not least, you yourself can learn – it’s not just impoverished young children who have a lot to discover. WE all can learn more on programming, algorithms, you name it, and we can benefit from it. That includes people who “already know a lot”. The more knowledge you have, the more change you can make – knowledge is power.
To be fully honest, this response is not highly viable. So much depends on individual willingness to act in an altruistic way. That said, each component is viable, even if the end goal is nearly impossible – the end goal being a certain level of computer capability for all people over a certain age, which we could have to examine to decide “at what age do kids need computers to succeed in the world?”
The ambiguity is unfortunate, but necessary, and concrete enough, given that many people still have zero computer knowledge. Secondarily, it requires much deliberation to decide what operating systems to use, what technology gets priority, what kids learn, why…the list is endless.
Time constraints were the strongest influence on the developed response, which is unfortunate, given that the very shadow of the “catalyst for change” conference muted the possible change. I guess that’s why we are just catalysts – little matches, maybe doomed to fizzle out, maybe fated to spark a blaze.
I envisioned gathering a survey of local schools; either time flew or I let it slip away, because that did not happen. There is still the future, free from the bounds of this project. I also considered a more comprehensive guide to open-source, free software, and code playgrounds, but WordPress is quite difficult for something requiring such flexibility. Enough doom and gloom, though – here is a link to a website not reliant on WordPress (ahem, insert pitch for why we need to learn basics like HTML, e.g., so we don’t become enraged and in tears when unnecessarily complex software like WordPress crashes.) While WordPress posts are static, meaning the version you see will most likely never get updated, this website can be updated anytime, since it is free of, well, everything!
Time was not the only factor, though, as you may think. I was inspired to further open-sourcing as a result of my reliance on it for all (100%) of programs I write, and as a result of how I despise programs like MatLab which hav a paywall of thousands of dollars just to use the language and its features. I can relate to those intimidated by “computer programming”: due to the paywall, MatLab still looms in my mind like a dark, unknown monster, never to be grasped until I pay up.
In addition, I feel motivated to help all people learn, if not how to manipulate computers through code, at least the theory of it, so that it ceases to be a mysterious cloud defying all attempts at understanding, as a result of my experience tutoring elementary school children at Achieve Academy in Oakland on basic English reading. I enjoy it highly, and I strive(d) to teach them at a level that they could actually become fluent one day. That is, it’s not just a class to me; their lives depend on it: where they live, how much money they make, the very level of violence they may face (because of where they might live) all hinge very solidly on how well they can speak English. Similarly, I want to make sure that those kids and others can have the best lives possible, and I think they need to know how to (a) communicate with computers (programming) and to communicate through computers (use of the web to convey information, as we do here through the conference). That’s why a large part of the response, I believe, needs to be voluntarism – above all, we need humans to teach these kids (and we can’t force anyone to teach), and after that we can discuss matters of open-source software.
Through falling short of my expectations, I learned that change takes time. I also learned that change needs to be voluntary. The real change will happen after these projects, with those of us who truly want to improve the situation continuing to act, and with impactful pitches taking root in people’s minds. I realized that I could write this and not really want change. To a certain extent, I don’t. I’m relatively above most of the issues that people face in regard to access to physical tech, teacher knowledge, motivated peers, and software access. However, this whole project would be a waste of time if that were my complete attitude.
Please liven up this post by starting discussions in comments. Some suggestions are:
When should we not “copyleft” and open-source?
Just as covid vaccinations cascade through age ranges, so too will distribution of computers and resources. Who is prioritized? What’s the cutoff- i.e., the parallel to vaccines’ “not approved for under 16 years”?
What software do you believe would be most conducive for mass learning?
Lastly, I restate that much of this depends on individual initiative to “be better”. Don’t hoard your creations; if you set them free someone might bring them back new and improved. If you are so inspired, run collection drives. Become a teacher or a mentor. Educate your peers and teachers (if they’re ok with it). Push for your school to adopt a standard for computer education, so that we can all shape the future together.
What you need to know