Kids Today


You know that William Gibson quote, “The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed”? That’s my house. When I go into my room, I flip a switch on the wall to turn my lights on. My nod to modernity is a wireless speaker that I control from my phone to stream music from my NAS. Really, though, my work/life situation is synchronizing my calendars by writing stuff on sticky notes and carrying them from home to office and back. Which means I mostly have no idea what I’m supposed to be doing at any given time.

Amazon Echo, image from Wikipedia
Amazon Echo, image from Wikipedia

My son’s room is the future. When he wants to turn the lights on, he says “Turn on light.” When he wants to listen to music, he says “Alexa, play [whatever]” and it streams from our cloud storage. His lights automatically turn off at 10 pm and Alexa switches over to white noise at a low volume. On weekdays they turn on at 7:00 am. If it’s raining or cold, Alexa reminds him to dress appropriately. (I do too, but he listens to her.) He comes home from school and says “Alexa, add ‘ work on science project on Google Docs with Sydney’ to my list” and the reminder appears on his computer and tablet as well as on mine. If there’s a set time involved, she’ll remind him. If he or his friends have a question about something, they ask the air first (“Alexa, what is this song?” or “Alexa, does a leatherback turtle have a shell?”)  Some of them play in band or strings, and practice with each other fro their homes via XBox Live Chat. When they have a new piece they may ask Alexa to play an example of it so that they can hear what it should sound like.

Most amusingly to other parents, he has occasionally fought back in family arguments with “ALEXA? Play “The Final Countdown,” volume TEN.” We call this The Noriega Gambit.

A fair number of blogs talk about the cultural divide between college students and our workplace of today. But what about the generation after them? We do 25-year plans for our capabilities, but what will our workforce in 25 years be like?

Far from the “every screen is touchable” stories (because duh, of course), school age kids are well past being digital natives are lack only brain-machine interfaces to be digital symbionts. They live in a cloud computing world of pervasive personal assistants and co-location.

My son is in fifth grade. Ever since second grade, his classes have included an online component, meaning all students were expected to have a computer and access the restricted school sites to work collaboratively with classmates. It makes sense: in second and third grade we lived in a country plagued by awful traffic on good days and social unrest and riots on bad days. With one of the highest murder rates in the world and frequent carjackings and kidnapping of foreigners, the school had to be prepared for days when the students and teachers wouldn’t be able to get to the school. Options included MOOCs put together by the teachers for just that school’s students, but as a result my son is comfortable with MOOCs, making him part of the 13% who actually complete one. Most online options were gamified – the students would select a book to read, then demonstrate they’d read it by taking a test. Correct questions earned them virtual money. The money could be used to buy virtual items to decorate their online room, viewable by the other students in the class.

A survey of my son’s friends now (public and private schools) indicates that most classes maintains a wiki page. Two students each week are in charge of keeping the page updated so that the parents and absent students can keep up with the class. It’s a job just like hall monitor or line leader. How many of you are comfortable with wiki markup? Your kids are. How many of you ensure that knowledge is transferred to absent coworkers or retained for future teams? How many of you would use a wiki to do that, comfortable in the knowledge that even though others can alter the correct content, they won’t? My son and I had a question about a game recently and found the answer on a wiki dedicated to the game. The answer was correct but the way it was written was very confusing. Without hesitation, he logged in and fixed the grammar and usage and clarity (I’m so proud) to help future readers. We should all be doing this at our workplaces.

My son operates a SmartBoard like a pro. Those of you who have SmartBoards, do you use them? Are you a little bit scared of using them? He thinks “VTC” is a governmental way to say “Skype” or “Facetime” and assumes that video chat is just something I do at work from my desk with people all day. And that it works. He assumes I get pop-up notifications or that Google alerts me when a document is ready for my review at work.He assumes multiple people at work edit documents at the same time and share files without emailing them. He is used to his teacher seeing his work as he prepares it and sometimes helping, even when both he and she are at home in the evening. I’ve watched him writing an essay in Google Classroom with her icon following along and offering suggestions for improvement.

When he needs to learn how to do something, his first instinct is to find a YouTube video. When he wants to learn a new skill, he looks for online training. He wants to learn German, but his school only offers Spanish and Chinese and I won’t drive him to the Goethe Institute…so he’s using Duolingo on his computer and tablet. When we returned from overseas he was ahead of his class in language arts but behind in math, so he hit Khan Academy and brought his skills up so much that he’s now working a year ahead.

That was a fight at first – while he’s completely addicted to screen time, he’d obviously rather be playing Halo than doing math. The gamification helps, as does the user interface (which is better designed than many of the worksheets from school). The two things that really made it work for him were the results, and us banning him from electronics unless he was doing something productive on them. But this is how you build habits.

What do you do for training? Is it “just in time” and on demand? Or is it a big production to get into a training course, where you have to get your boss to approve the expense and you have to drop your actual job and physically attend? If you just want to know how to do something work specific, can you pull up a video walkthrough?

He and I both get our news from custom feeds online, although I hit Twitter first (no longer, when they implement the AlsoTimeline) and he has a deep disdain for social media. I set up Feedly and Flipboard for him, using many of the sites suggested by The Connected Classroom, and he added some science and gaming sites himself. Not a lot of news sites for kids have RSS feeds, which is just dumb, but I’m okay with him following WTF Evolution and IFL Science.

You may just be adjusting to a world without email and phone numbers – heck, you may just be adjusting to a world with email and to a world in which your phone number goes to you, not to a location. Younger kids see social media and thumb-texting as something “dumb teenagers” do. The younger kids expect speech recognition, smart cars and other devices, and in general are unaware of how much technology and connectivity are in their life.

This disconnect is a rich vein of irony: the other night at dinner my son opined that humanity shouldn’t do anything with Artificial Intelligence, because any AI will become SkyNet and kill us all. I pointed out that as we’d be the ones creating the AI, we could build in controls.

Me: Have you heard of the Three Laws of Robotics?

Him: No. ALEXA? What are the three laws of robotics?

Yes, he asked an AI for help with his argument against AI.

From xkcd, used under Creative Commons.
From xkcd, used under Creative Commons.

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