Are today’s youth Digital Da Vincis of the future?

  • They may be empowered in their tech use, but are also disempowered in other ways
  • More worrying is the inability of this generation to view tech in a discerning manner

Are today’s youth Digital Da Vincis of the future?

THE genius Leonardo Da Vinci was an icon of the Renaissance period. Not only was he an artist known for works like The Last Supper and Mona Lisa, he was also a sculptor, architect, inventor, military engineer and draftsman.

Fast forward to 500 years later, and today, the world is a totally different place. Children and youth are born into a world where technology like laptops, tablets, smartphones, touchscreens and the Internet is the norm.

Rather than letters, we write emails. Rather than physical books, we read e-books, and schools are gradually evolving to learning on screens instead of chalk or white boards. Communicating on social media is the norm, and snap-happy youngsters record the story of their lives on apps like Instagram and Snapchat.

Society has given these youngsters a name – digital natives. In his article Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants (2001, PDF), US author Marc Prensky defined ‘digital natives’ as young people who grow up surrounded by tools of the digital age, such as cellphones and computers. Anyone born after 1980 is considered a digital native.

The people of this new generation are natural users of technology. Just look at how they expertly and intuitively figure out how to use personal technology gadgets. It is a common sight to see young toddlers swiping on tablets, playing their favourite games or YouTube videos.

It is amusing, to say the least, to see preschoolers reaching out to swipe a screen whenever they see one, thinking that it is a touchscreen. My kids are no different, and I actually have to remind them that ‘it is not a touchscreen.’

This is exactly the world that our kids are growing up in. Why write, or even type, when tapping on a screen is more convenient?

And why meet up face-to-face when one can connect and collaborate across the Internet on online applications like Google Docs, social media and chat apps like WhatsApp? You can not only connect with local contemporaries, but also global peers.

As an educator, I have seen schooling youth prefer to work behind the screen to access information and knowledge globally, with just a click and a few taps on the keyboard.

Such easy access is good – it expands youth’s knowledge of the world like never before, from the comfort of home or school.

Precisely because youth today can connect to such a wealth of information, there is a general belief that they are in a better position to question and critique this information.

And that’s a misconception.

The disempowered Google generation?

Are today’s youth Digital Da Vincis of the future?

While this generation may be empowered in their use of technology, they are also disempowered in several ways.

Firstly, their preference to communicate in front of the screen hampers them in terms of developing critical face-to-face social skills. Young people today do not meet up face-to-face to have discussions for their school projects.

I usually find it heartening to hear my learners talk about meeting to do a project together, only to find out that this meeting is actually going to be conducted online, at ungodly hours.

While using online collaborative tools means easy accessibility at anytime, anywhere, doing projects online robs youth of opportunities to interact face-to-face, learn communication skills like reading body language and voice intonation, and relate to people on a personal level.

This worrying trend could pose challenges for them in future.

Even more worrying is the inability of this generation to view technology in a discerning manner, so much so that they have to be constantly reminded to question the authenticity of whatever they read online, and not take search engine results as the ‘truth.’

I have also met youth who have no qualms about copying and pasting something taken off the Internet and making it their own. They do not understand that even though they have put the URL at the end of their article, seemingly attributing it to the original writer, copying and pasting without any changes is still considered a form of plagiarism, because it is not their own work.

Such activities by the ‘Google generation’ has led me, and many others of my generation, to ask: This generation may be able to use digital technology, but are they equipped to harness technology and its benefits to their advantage in the future?

Like what Tara Brabazon mentioned in her book The University of Google, is today’s digital generation one where ‘clicking replaces thinking’ and where individuals rely on ‘wiki-ing’ or ‘Googling their way’ through life?

It may seem so, with the rate they are consuming technology passively rather than actively, believing rather than critiquing.

Digital immigrants as enablers

Are today’s youth Digital Da Vincis of the future?However, it does not have to be so. I think that this generation does have the power to challenge current ways of using technology.

They will be able to bring technology as we know it to greater heights. They have the potential to be active manipulators and creators of technology, if only they have the right guidance and exposure.

The key lies with the ‘digital immigrants’ – the parents of ‘digital natives’ who were born before technology use was so widespread, and so had to adapt to it.

These parents, including myself, play extremely important roles in the shaping of the new generation’s experiences of technology – not just in terms of using it, but also comprehending the structures, concepts, usage and meanings behind these technologies.

We ‘digital immigrants’ have to be enablers so our children can create and innovate beyond what is available.

One way to do so is to expose our children to Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) concepts such as coding and computer programming, with links to real-world applications.

Whether it is building a robot, designing and printing in 3D, creating a computer game, or even doing 3D animation, exposing young people to such courses allows them to learn the basic building blocks of technology and expand their horizons.

They will also be able to learn important logic and problem-solving skills, for example when building a Lego robot. These are values they can apply in their daily lives as well, along with values like determination and perseverance.

Already, we are seeing courses on programming, coding and robotics being offered to children in primary level onwards.

However, more younger children are being exposed to such curricula. My six-year-old child had her first robotics workshop just this year, part of her preschool’s holiday programme, and something that many other preschools and childcare centres are starting to offer.

And it will probably not be the last. During the recent December holidays, while searching for holiday activities for my children, I noticed more robotics and programming workshops being held for younger children.

I found that Bricks 4 Kidz held Lego robotics camps for preschoolers as young as three years old. First Code Academy held courses on programming and animation for children from the age of six years onwards.

My search for such holiday activities for my children stems from my willingness to expose them to different forms of enrichment, so that they can learn more, know more, and be better prepared for the future.

I am not alone in this quest. Other ‘digital immigrants’ like myself are also supporters of such early exposure, hence fuelling the demand.

This trend is reflected in a Straits Times article Enrichment centres stoke children’s interest in STEM, which noted that more parents are now recognising the benefits of sending their children to afterschool programmes and holiday workshops on coding, programming and robotics.

It also reflects our willingness to offer new experiences for our children, whatever the cost, although actually signing up for the courses depends on the parents’ financial capability.

After all, such computer science enrichment courses do not come cheap. A four-day robotics course at Bricks 4 Kidz cost S$400 (US$285), while a five-day programming and robotics workshop at First Code Academy cost S$600 (US$430).

This is in contrast to 10 years ago, when such courses were extremely expensive, or non-existent at all. It is also a reflection of Singapore’s progression towards innovation where parents play a crucial role.

Global recognition of STEM’s importance

Are today’s youth Digital Da Vincis of the future?

The push to empower our children with technology as a life skill to live and work in a tech-enriched world is not isolated to Singapore, where companies like Microsoft have teamed up with government agencies to bring STEM-related courses to more youth.

In Malaysia, Google has run the Made with Code workshop for girls to learn coding, in partnership with iTrain Kids (pic above), which also runs coding camps regularly.

Globally too, online courses for preschoolers and youth are gaining popularity. In the beginning of December, the week-long Hour of Code was held. It is an international programme to give children from the age of four a one-hour online introduction to computer science, and attracted over 180 million participants., which organises Hour of Code, has online tutorials for children from the age of four and lesson plans that teachers, and even parents, can use.

Youth Digital, on the other hand, has online courses for those aged between eight and 14 to learn 3D character animation, Java programming using Minecraft, game design and mobile app creation. Some of these courses are free.

These pocket-friendly courses are good news for all digital immigrants everywhere. We parents can now be even better enablers, without being restricted by financial capability.

These online courses make it more accessible for all children and youth everywhere and anywhere to learn. As long as there is access to a computer and Internet connection, the world of such STEM courses is at their fingertips.

Digital Da Vincis of the future?

While parents can be enablers and ensure that children get the necessary exposure, taking it to the next stage and beyond will depend on the individual’s ability to make use of the knowledge to innovate and create, and bring an idea to life.

Creativity, apart from crayons and paint, and the ability to think differently can be stretched once one learns the algorithms of technology.

Like how Da Vinci made use of his knowledge of concepts such as aeronautics and hydraulics to come up with inventions unthinkable in his time, the digital natives of the 21st century can make use of their knowledge of the foundations of computer science to order to help them innovate and be the Digital Da Vincis of the future.

And I hope that, as a parent in this already challenging world, what I am doing to expose my children will help prepare them to tackle an even more challenging future.

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