CHICAGO -- As America moves toward closing the digital divide by helping equip even the most impoverished schools with laptops, PCs, tablet computers and iPods, let us ponder the dawning of a new kind of gulf that's not based on lack of technology but the inability to use it meaningfully.
I thought this as my 13-year-old son asked me for permission to install a client "mod" -- that's "modification" to you and me -- on our family computer in order to optimize a popular Web-based video game.
As he was explaining to me how simple it would be for him to open up our computer's registry, do a few drag-and-drop installations, modify executable files, etc, etc., etc., it occurred to me that this is the same child who has to be walked though formatting a homework assignment in word-processing software and does not understand why he needs to save his files.
Like so many other public school students across the country, my son is an expert at installing video games on computers and applications on smartphones, learning the very best "cheat" codes for his favorite Xbox games and downloading music and video files onto his laptop.
But important tasks such as how to do an Internet search to learn and verify facts, how to use a word-processing program to write and edit research papers, how to sort and filter data on a spreadsheet, how to create a filing system for documents or how to attach items in email are complete unknowns. Sure, he's a bright kid, but these are the sorts of skills that are rarely directly taught in schools -- generally not in middle school, even though most middle-school teachers I know accept typed homework and require typed papers. And, depending on your local high school, classes in word processing and spreadsheets might be available or accessible only as electives, if at all.
So what we have is an overabundance of policy wonks and school officials who believe that technology will save education plying students with gadgetry and educational software designed to entertain kids into learning. Yet the education system is doing far too little to instill in students the sorts of basic computer skills and electronic work concepts that are the likeliest to help them succeed in college or semi-skilled jobs.
It might seem like today's kids are tech-savvy, but conversations with my teacher friends and family paint a stark picture of students who cannot tell the difference between an opinion blog and a reputable news source, students who don't know how to type proficiently on standard keyboards, and those who consistently lose their work because they don't know how to properly save files on their school's network or aren't in the habit of doing so.
According to a November 2011 survey by the Higher Education Research Institute of 204,000 full-time students entering four-year colleges and universities, only 38 percent rated themselves as being above average in computer skills compared with the average person of their age, but in 2005 when the question was first asked, 50 percent rated themselves above average. Meanwhile, the number of students who reported spending more than three hours a week on social network sites as high school seniors has increased from 42 percent in 2007, when the question was first asked, to 53 percent in 2011.
Unfortunately, people generally tend to equate participation in online or technology-enabled activities with actual technical knowledge or skills even though most social media networks, consumer technology and consumer interfaces are designed to be as simple as possible to use. This misconception leads well-meaning people to erroneously believe that game-based learning and whiz-bang digital teaching materials will prepare students to meet the needs of our burgeoning technology economy.
The reality is far more boring -- and judging by the level of rancor that Common Core standards for English and math have engendered, probably politically intractable: We need a set of national curriculum standards to guide schools so they can offer even the youngest students direct instruction in the basics of Internet searching and the email, word-processing, spreadsheet and presentation software that have become the norm of white-collar work.
This is not as exciting as the prospect of video game skill-and-drill math programs, but far more important to ensure that our students realize the full potential of all the fancy technology appearing in their classrooms.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.