I'm closing out the last week of winter break by teaching computer skills to older elementary and middle school kids. It has been a very energizing experience, and one I'm seriously considering pursuing further. If there's one thing that I'm taking away from the teaching experience, it is that kids really love computer classes. It really shouldn't come as too big of a surprise, however. After all, there is a lot of personal gain from each of these lessons.
For the first two weeks, I took on classes of mostly fourth graders. For these kids, there just isn't enough computer time and being in front of a dedicated laptop was almost reward enough. The modules we went through covered a vector drawing program, a word processor and finally, slideshow presentation software. (For the record, we used LibreOffice for all of these lessons)
After day one, I tossed the lesson script. I had each activity planned, but the kids got so excited they went off on their own clicking and discovering. What was invigorating for me was seeing that nothing related to computer work was burdensome to the kids. Word processing was admittedly more dry than drawing or slideshow presentation, but kids did just fine.
I'm now on the second week of classes, and the kids are older. Although I brought out the script again, it again was put to the side. From a personal perspective, I think I like working with the older kids: they seem to know why they are working with this software. That is, they can see the utility of the lessons in conjunction with projects they may have in school. We still have a few more lessons to cover, but I think we are already getting a lot out of the computer lessons.
As far as the software itself, sometimes that's just incidental. I like to describe teaching computer literacy as analogous to teaching cooking. If you learn how to cook, even if you're in a different kitchen, you'll still know what to do. You may have to look in different drawers for the whisk, but you know it's there and you know what to do with it once you find it.
I did a little data mining to find the educational attainment level in the State of Hawaii, in the City and County of Honolulu and in Hawaii Kai. As it turns out, 30.1 percent of Hawaii residents 25 years and older have a bachelor's degree or higher. Amazingly however, 9.6 percent of Hawaii residents have less than a high school diploma. The percentage of statewide residents with less than a high school degree seemed a bit high to me, but it also coincides with a 9.7 percent rate for Oahu.
Here's where it gets interesting. In Hawaii Kai, 51.8 percent of residents have a bachelor's degree or higher, and 43.0 percent of these college graduates have either a graduate or professional degree. High school dropouts number 777 and comprise just 3.5 percent of Hawaii Kai residents.
I make this point as a reference to future ruminations on education in general in Hawaii. There are a number of factors that weigh heavily upon how far children will pursue their formal studies. Key among them is a parent's educational level. While our public schools are deeply concerned about insuring that no child who wants an education is denied one (and this is indeed a noble and necessary goal in any democratic society), parents are more concerned about their own children. It is for this reason that while the Department of Education's Strive HI index may work for its purposes, it does not permit parents to make educated decisions on which public school path is most likely to produce a college-bound senior.
Geek Note: A five year average ending with 2013 (the most recent year for which data are available) was used in order to reduce the margin of error. I'm also attaching a detailed table [pdf] below and reminding readers that there are wonderful sources of local information available free of charge. Visit census.gov. Did you know that there's a tool that lets you start small, with just a street address, and build tables around that location? You can find the link [here].
Who can forget the classic YouTube video, "A magazine is an iPad that doesn't work?"
Many children today only know a world with computers and tablets. Still, there are skills that don't simply manifest themselves by being available. On these, students must make a concerted effort to navigate various types of software.
At the California school my older child attended, third graders took keyboarding. In Hawaii, they don't. My Hawaii-educated 2nd grader mastered typing by using typingweb.com, a free online resource. I'm happy to report she types as well as most adults. Growing up, we didn't need typing skills until middle school and higher. With technology, that's changed.
Here is mom's wish list of skills for elementary and middle school.
- Keyboarding / Typing
- Word processing text basics, editing
- File basics, saving files, backing up and storing data
- Setting a naming convention for files
- Establishing password rules and a password convention
- Word processing with added images and clip art
- Cutting and pasting objects and text
- Formatting documents
- Introduction to spreadsheets and cells
- Basic table and graph production using a spreadsheet
- Using databases, online portals and search modifiers
- Becoming familiar with and using online resources from the local library
- File management 2 - distinguishing between working files and the final product; archiving files
- Email etiquette - Using the subject line effectively
- Email etiquette - Acknowledging communication receipt when necessary
- Presentations and presentation software, transferring information from document to slides
- Physical resizing of images (not just compression with a software suite)
- Working with PDF files and forms
This is just my short list. There are many other important functions that I haven't yet figured out. For instance, what is the right age for an email account? When, if at all, should children be allowed to access the web without restrictions? If restrictions are set, what should they be?
Formally teaching my kids computer basics will add clarity, and that is something I'm planning to do this winter break. Thankfully, the kids are absolutely excited about the idea. Like all works in progress, other educational tech skills will be added to this list.
Resource: Long Beach guide to technology
Do you have old hardware and software the kids won't use? Did you buy them a new computer knowing that you'd be repeating this again next year? Stop. You can end that cycle, make them even more technology literate and save yourself money all at the same time.
Today, the leading database, MySQL, is open source. The overwhelming majority of web server platforms are open source as well. I have every reason to believe that front-end software will follow suit.
If you haven't made the switch, here's a list of reasons why you should:
- LibreOffice, a fork of Open Office, is completely compatible with Microsoft Office (it can be formatted as .doc or .xls, etc) and includes additional features like a database program comparable to Microsoft Access.
- LibreOffice is free: No subscriptions, no outlay for upgrades.
- GIMP does almost everything the overly pricey Adobe Photoshop does.
- GIMP is also free, just add talent.
- Tired of bad Windows upgrades? Consider Linux an upgrade for your hardware. Everything runs faster on Linux.
- Can't choose? You can make your PC both Windows and Linux.
That's just the start of the list. There's much more. As I've had time to contemplate what the real issue with education and technology is, I came to the conclusion that the real issue is training. Truthfully, armed with just an old PC and free software, I could run circles around those that have spent considerably more. Ask my kids. They love geek mom -- especially on the day before their big presentation is due.
If you need more proof it's the user and not the lack of expensive tools, take a look at this image in GIMP Magazine by Luciano Freitas. It's one of many amazing graphics produced with open source.
If you're wondering where to get started, here are a few links to front-end software and training for it.
I installed Linux Mint on our PCs to extend equipment life and to give our keiki additional resources to do their homework with. What I didn't expect was how happy the kids are with the new operating system. For one, it runs flawlessly and rapidly. Web surfing has never been faster or more secure than it is now.
Just to test it out, I also installed the Minecraft executable. It's also fast. The kids have now asked for Linux to be installed on all the laptops.
For those adventurous parents wading into the Linux arena, here's how to do the install. First, go to the Minecraft download page at https://minecraft.net/download. Select the Linux version. The .jar file will download to your downloads folder. Move the .jar file to your desktop using drag and drop.
At this point, the executable won't run when clicked. To get it to run, right-click on the icon and select properties. From the properties submenu, click the permissions tab and click the box marked "allow executing file as program." Click the open with tab and pick the Java runtime program. Make sure you select "set as default" before closing. That's it. From now on, when the icon is clicked, the Minecraft executable will run.
Chances are that April 2014 came and went without your alarm. Sadly however, that is the date Microsoft stopped supporting its 12-year operating system, XP. The biggest issue for me, was simply that the lack of security upgrades could put the rest of the household technology at risk.
I had a laptop that just wasn't good enough to make the cut to an upgrade. The newer Windows 8 operating system cost more than the PC alone was worth. I finally resolved, seven months later, to do something with it. I reconfigured it with a Linux operating system. I must say that I'm simply impressed by how well it runs now.
One of the nicest aspects of running Linux is that you can test it out before you make a more permanent decision. The system is compact enough to run from a small flash drive. Additionally, if you use a program like Yumi, you can boot multiple distributions of Linux from the same drive.
Linux comes in multiple distributions, or in tech jargon, distros. Each one has its own benefits. From a popularity standpoint, Ubuntu tops the list. For my project, I chose two. One is called Tails, and recently came into the spotlight because Edward Snowden touted its security and anonymity. The other is called Linux Mint, and it's a fork of Ubuntu (the program updates come from Ubuntu) with the added benefit of default music and video apps. I found both to be exceptional.
Linux distributions come preloaded with apps. Both Tails and Linux Mint had LibreOffice, an office suite compatible with Microsoft Office, preinstalled. Linux Mint has GIMP and VLC along with other well-regarded open source programs. Frankly, I don't know that there was much missing that I would need for a student PC. Oh, and did I mention that the system is fast? I don't know when I recall feeling this unbloated. I guess it would have to harken back to the days of command line DOS.
Linux is not DOS. Thankfully. Rather, it's a fully mature operating system running on a graphical interface, just like Windows and Mac OS. My computer looks just like anyone else's these days. Here's the thing. I liked the new Linux OS so much, I also installed it on another older PC -- and I did it with a dual system menu. It runs both Windows 7 and Linux, albeit not at the same time.
If you have an older PC, save our environment and recycle it right in your own home. The Linux distros are open source and free. You may even be like me and find it so good that it belongs on your post-XP computers as well.