High Tech Skills in Schools and the Economy

With no end in sight of spending dollars on creating wireless schools, buying laptops, netbooks, and iPads, it is time to ask whether the hype over high-tech skills in children and youth is hyperbole or accurate assessments of labor needs. While there are many reasons given for the river of technology money flowing into schools, business and civic leaders have said repeatedly that the prime purpose of schooling is to produce graduates who can enter an information-based economy and contribute productively to U.S. global competitiveness.

For the past decade we have heard from the pundit corps about too few skilled workers to compete against the likes of India and China. The lesson drummed into U.S. students’ heads since they began kindergarten is: You want to get a high-paying job, get high-tech skills.” Of course, if you believe the recent data from the Kaiser Foundation study of children and youth (8 to 18 years of age), they are not only facile in using cell phones, laptops, and other devices they are electronic devotees to the tune of seven-plus hours a day. Yet if you listen to those urging “21st Century Skills,” schools have to do far more to build “information and media literacy and technological skills.”

All of this inflated policy talk about schools, technology, and jobs masks three unadvertised facts. First, few employers of non-technical staff demand that applicants be equipped with high-tech skills. A quick scan of “Craigslist” and want-ads reveals that while some employers do, indeed, ask for specific expertise in computer applications the overwhelming majority do not.

Also listen to what employers ask of educators and parents in new hires for entry-level jobs. They say, again and again, that they want high school and college graduates who can be trusted, care about the work that they do, finish tasks, are self-starters, show initiative, can define problems, write and think clearly, and work cooperatively in teams (see Pdf 2009_EmployerSurvey). Not a word about how to use databases, manage spreadsheets, or do PowerPoint presentations.

A second unadvertised fact is that most well-paying jobs are now white-collar or in the office economy. Engineers, managers, marketing personnel, health professionals, sales representatives, teachers, police officers, realtors, accountants and other similar positions now dominate the U.S. economy. Such jobs employ nearly half of all workers, pay reasonably good salaries and are growing the fastest. These jobs employ over one-half of all college graduates and pay a healthy chunk of all earnings. Jobs in the office economy now earn almost half more than non-office workers. What gets graduates a crack at these jobs is not experience with Windows or Microsoft Office but a college degree. High school graduates need less time on spread sheets or “killer apps” and another degree at a community college or university. It is the credential that has cash value, not technological expertise. The college degree signal employers that job seekers have minimum broad-based skills and attitudes necessary to do the work.

The third hidden fact known to employers is that anyone who wants to learn how to operate computers and the most recent business applications–I do not refer to programming or similar advanced specialties–can acquire those skills on the job or in a week. Many employers run their own in-house courses for employees to gain essential and advanced expertise. Many companies offer daylong sessions to teach software applications. So what parents and educators have to provide children is the wherewithal to acquire the necessary credentials. These are the tickets that need to be punched for well-paying jobs.

If employers really want positive attitudes and generic skills, if most software application skills can be quickly picked up by adults, and if most youth already have cellphones, computers, and are thoroughly familiar with social media applications, why spend so much money on wiring schools, buying hardware and software? The question should pinch those cheerleading executives, civic leaders, and parents because there is little evidence that major expenditures for hardware and networking have paid off in higher test scores, better teaching or faster learning. The pinch triggers a cry of ouch! when it is also painfully evident that the high tech stuff that schools currently use is already obsolete in companies.

Perhaps a better question to ask is: What will help students gain the necessary skills and knowledge to earn those highly important credentials? When this question is asked, some policymakers and parents have a list of ready answers. Major investments must be made over a sustained period of time on expanding preschool, reducing class size, having clear academic standards, and securing effective, well-paid teachers. Not only do these investments have strong evidence that they produce more high school graduates who continue their education, they also help those children vulnerable to academic failure.

Spending billions of dollars to equip children with obsolete high tech devices may be popular with anxious voters and eager vendors but has precious little to do with helping children get that highly desired edge in future job markets or the U.S.’s global competitiveness.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “High Tech Skills in Schools and the Economy

  1. Julie Mueller

    How timely was your blog Dr. Cuban! I was taking a break from preparing a talk I am presenting tomorrow on “Teaching and learning in the digital age.” I was taking a break because I was starting to feel a bit like a high pressure sales person for the digital reform movement. I was reviewing YouTube videos and noticed the preponderance of clips with children proposing their demands and 21st century needs. It started to feel a little like we are moving even further into the consumer market of education where a teacher’s job becomes more about supply and demand than preparing contributing citizens. Those “demands” are skewed in the direction of children who do indeed have every “social networking and video gaming device” at their fingertips but weak communication skills and limited patience or propensity for delayed gratification (also a necessary job skill). Thank you for your thoughts and provocative questions. I’ll be addressing these issues with the audience tomorrow night!

  2. David B. Cohen

    Always good to keep things in perspective, and actually look at the want ads!

    So I would agree that teaching the technology for its own sake is probably not our top priority. However, do you see technology as a useful tool for engaging students, promoting creativity, teamwork, and problem solving?

    • larrycuban

      Dear David,
      Yep, high-tech tools can be super learning tools. I have been fortunate to see teachers integrate devices into their lessons giving both depth and breadth to the content and skills they taught. Not the majority, however. High tech devices can surely engage students, motivating them to learn even after the novelty has worn off. But so much depends upon how the teacher conceptualizes the purposes of the lesson and figures out how best to have students use software in laptops, iPods, cell phones, and IWBs to enhance and extend the lesson. Yeah, I know, it is a cliche to point to the teacher but, hey, cliches have kernels of truth that cannot be denied.

  3. What a great post – I have always thought that the high tech tools could be used to enhance and compliment what kids are learning, but not replace the other vital parts – teachers, class size, quality of curriculum, family support….You can put all the tech tools in place but if you don’t have a strong foundation to use them, why bother.

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