How To DIY Your Way To Digital Fluency

 “We’ve all become used to thinking of Gen Z as the first truly “digital native” generation. They were born when the internet was available to everyone and don’t remember a time when it wasn’t normal to carry a smartphone wherever they go and document their lives on TikTok and Instagram. Unfortunately, it turns out that this form of digital native might not translate to being able to work with the tools and technologies that are expected to shape the 21st century.”

– Is Our Digital Future At Risk Because Of The Gen Z Skills Gap?

The digital skills gap is an ongoing concern, but in building a successful digital skilling program over the past two decades I’ve trial and errored my way to an efficient process for getting students from thinking they have digital fluency to actually having it. Here’s how:

Step 1: Start Where People Are Most Familiar (I.T.!)

Information Technology (or I.T.) is where most people have regular contact with digital technology, though many people don’t know what I.T. stands for. The devices we live our lives on in 2023 all depend on digital infrastructure and incredible engineering to do what they do. To unpack all that and make people aware of how this technology works, you build it!

RCT Ontario is the local branch of the Computers For Schools national program that takes off-lease technology and gives it to schools and others in need. They are all you need to get hands on with digital technology. I’ve found that building a desktop computer from scratch is a great way to get past the bluster of self-professed computer experts (aka: students who have been told they are digital natives) and let them show what they actually know.

All digital technology follows the same basic foundation of hardware, firmware, operating system, software. The desktop is a modular, relatively easy to assemble example of this architecture, but everything from laptops to smartphones to ATMs to Teslas uses the same stuff in the same way.

By building their own PCs from scratch, students who have some experience fill in gaps and students with no tech background find that they have a clear understanding based on hands-on familiarity. This also does a lot to clear away misconceptions and myths around digital tech (like that digital native one).

Another good resource is PC Part Picker that lets students theorize their perfect PC. Once they have an understanding of the hardware and how it goes together, suddenly customization becomes a possibility and the generic tech that most people live with isn’t enough. Many of my grade 9s have built their own PC at home by the time I see them again in grade 10.

Cisco’s I.T. Essentials course is available for free on Netacademy and offers media rich, current online learning support for this hands on I.T. exploration. It also makes students aware of the world of industry certifications out there in information technology. Students starting in I.T. Essentials can work towards their CompTIA A+ computer technician certification which is the first step towards moving in many directions in the industry.

Once everyone has their hardware worked out, it’s time to get into operating systems. Like I.T. hardware, people have experience with OSes but seldom get under the hood. A good way to expand familiarity and get students interested in OS options is to have them build a multi-boot system on their DIYed PCs.

Our record OS stacks in grade 9 had many operating systems ranging from various versions of Windows (XP, 7, 8, 10, server, etc) along with multiple Linux distributions (an OS most students haven’t touched but one that runs behind a lot of the tech we use) all bootable off one desktop. Familiarity with many different operating systems is a powerful step forward from the ‘we just use Chromebooks’ approach many schools have adopted (Chrome OS is actually a version of Linux).

We can usually do the PC builds and OS stacks in a week of classes (about 6 hours of instructional time). In an intensive course you could get everyone hands-on and familiar with the architecture of computers and operating systems in a day (6-7 hours).

Step 2: Use Your DIY TechTo Scale Down and Explore Electronics & Coding With Arduino

The Arduino micro-controller is a simple digital device that does a great job of showing the basics of how computer code performs with hardware. It also introduces students to circuits and the electronics fundamentals that drive all digital technology.

Arduino is open-source (like Linux) and doesn’t usually come in a pre-fabricated activity/kit from your friendly neighborhood edtech for-profit with pre-set lessons and learning outcomes (a sure way to fail at developing real digital fluency).
With relatively small outlay you can collect together Arduino microcontrollers and basic electronics like LEDs and resistors and facilitate a hands-on understanding of the electronics that make the modern world work. Kits with many parts cost less than $80 and if you’re crafty, far less). We always used Abra Electronics in Montreal to keep it Canadian.
There are piles of Arduino projects that students can try, but we always worked through the ARDX Arduino circuits to get everyone familiar with how breadboards and circuits work first. The Arduino plugs into the student-built desktops with a USB cable and then runs software that lets students explore both coding and circuit building in a very real way.

This is another area where the bluster gets cleared away by demonstrated mastery. If a
student tells me they already know all about electronics, I tell them that they only have to do circuit number five and then can go right into designing their own project. A few can show what they claim to know, but many struggle and then I gently redirect them to doing the circuits as a ‘refresher’. By the end of the Arduino unit everyone has tactile knowledge of the basics in circuit building and  coding.

Introducing Arduino and running through the basic circuits typically takes about a week of high school classes, so it would be another day (6-7 hours) if students were in focused training to quickly develop these real digital fluencies.

Step 3: Using Your DIY Tech to Scale Up And Explore Connectivity & Networking

To get students the Arduino software and access to circuits on their desktops, you would have to connect them to the internet. After Arduino, students are more comfortable with their PCs and how they work, so it’s time to go upstream and tackle networking!

This is another intimate aspect of people’s lives that is often misunderstood. By having students build local networks with each other’s machines and pass data across, they again benefit from direct, tactile, experiential learning.

We then connect these local networks together into a class-wide network and watch data travel across it in real time, but the favourite part is stress testing the network to see how much data it can handle. Tools like LOIC (low orbit ion canon!) can be used to DDOS machines off the network by overloading them with data. At this point complex, multi-disciplinary specialities in digital technologies (like cybersecurity) start to glimmer in the distance. Anyone trying to teacher cyber from a place with none of these foundational understandings in place is going to have trouble.

Another good stress test is to set up an older LAN based game which requires inputting IP addresses and other details. It’s not often students have playing a multi-player game as a classroom learning target. You can guess how popular that is.

Tools wise, Cisco offers their Packet Tracer network simulator for free (you can become a Cisco Network Academy at no cost, which makes dozens of introductory ICT, networking and coding courses available). Packet Tracer lets students build complex theoretical networks and then push data through them to see if and how they work.

The networking unit typically takes another week of high school classes, so could be managed in a single 6-7 hour day. By the end of it students are experimenting with their DIY desktops on their DIY networks. The learning doesn’t get any more genuine than this and the result is students who are tangibly developing real digital fluency.

Step 4: Using Your DIY Tech to Explore Data Management and Programming Through an Introduction to HTML and How the Web Works

In the high school junior grades we focus on Javascript and HTML (both common web-focused coding languages). HTML works well as it allows students to quickly understand how the webpages they spend so much time on are displayed. Javascript is helpful because it allows webpages to run executable scripts and hints at the complexity modern webpages are capable of. LIke the other steps, the point here is to get behind the curtain an begin to make students aware of how the technology they are codependent on works.

Students can create and share simple HTML webpages on their network giving them a hands-on introduction to internet architecture. W3 Schools does a great intro to HTML and Javascript (and CSS and HTML5). The point isn’t to create a web developer in a day, but to (once again) develop tactile familiarity with digital technologies that have always been hidden from them.

Coding takes time to develop, but an introduction to web design typically takes about a week to get students to the point where they know enough syntax to build a simple webpage. What’s nice about HTML is that there is an immediacy to it. You put in a command and immediately see the result.

Step 5: PLAY!

When you’ve got foundational digital fluency,
you can chase down NASA complex projects!
Here CyberTitans Vlad & Wyatt (also a 2x
Skills Ontario medalist in IT & Networking)
are building a Beowulf supercomputer!.. out
of ewaste!

I’d run this in adult up-skilling as an intensive week of digital fluency training. The final day would be a student directed mini-project. For those who dug PC building, they can build something to a specific purpose. For those who dug the Arduino and electronics, opportunities to explore await, and for those intrepid few who enjoyed networking and data management/programming, they can chase down more complex connectivity or web development.

When I did my A+ training way back during Y2K it was an intensive week which gave me enough context to chase down my certification in a few months of practice and study. I’ve had a few students manage to get A+ certified as a computer technician while still in high school, but it’s a challenge due to the breadth of material. I.T. techs need to be familiar with older tech and newer tech as well as what’s current. That experience takes time, which is why my seniors do in-school I.T. support. Being dropped into real world technology complications helps they hone the skills they need to be an effective technicians.

Why Do this?

This level of hands-on technical familiarity could be established in 35 instructional hours. When I see Ontario dedicating more time to mandatory courses like ‘Career Studies’ I shake my head. This kind of digital fluency would actually lead to a career, but instead we have grade 10s, most of whom have no idea what they want to do for a living, spinning in circles for half a semester (it’s also one of the most failed courses in the curriculum). We could be delivering digitally competent students and close the digital skills gap, but instead we mandate mandatory eLearning, then we’ll wonder why that didn’t work either. 

For those tackling adult re-skilling, I see a lot of cybersecurity ‘bootcamps’ that assume much of this digital fluency (much like K12 does) and then wonder why their dropout rates are so high. Cybersecurity is a multi-disciplinary specialization within ICT and you can’t get to it directly any more than you can expect an illiterate adult to tackle romantic poetry; you need foundations skills before you take on that kind of complexity. It isn’t an impossible ask, but it is one that needs to recognize the need to start from where people are at, which is further back than we think they are.

Resolving the digital skills gap and providing everyone with the fluency they need to operate effectively in digital spaces isn’t an option in 2023, yet we still treat it like one. Here’s the fix.

Follow Up Links

The Digital Divide is Deep and Wide (2017):

How to Pivot Ontario Education to Prepare for The Next Wave (we didn’t):

Exceptional Times: Using a Pandemic to Close the Digital Divide (any day now):

Why Canadian Education is so Reluctant to Move on Digital Literacy (hard to teach it when you don’t have it either):

from Blogger

Past Another Cold, Dark Winter

 I’m getting back out with regularity now that the worst of the winter is past. Both of the regular road bikes are fit and took to the road effortlessly. I had a bit of a breakthrough with the Concours14 last year and we’re understanding each other a bit more. It’s a big old bus but it’s remarkably agile for how big it is and we’ve come to a kind of mutual kinesthesis, but I still took the Tiger out first because it’s like putting on an old shoe….

… and we picked up right where we stopped. The goal is still to get to 100k this year in the bike’s 20th year on the road, and I think we’re good to get there.

I took the Tiger out again for some exercise in the gaps between snow and ice at the end of March….

But when I took both bikes out between the ice storms of April (isn’t Canada magical?)…

I enjoyed the Connie so much that in another break in this never ending winter last week the C14 got pulled out in front of the Tiger (which enjoys pride of place in the garage).

I took the bigger road home and passing cars was like being on an arrow loosed from a bow; what a monster that bike is! …And yet so versatile with piles of luggage space, no chain maintenance and (now that I’ve got the tires and shocks worked out), exceptional handling for its size. All of that and the adjustable windshield makes it feel a bit like flying an F14 Tomcat.

The Bonneville project is still not getting the time it deserves, but I’m in a new phase of work and I’m enjoying pouring my time and energy into that. In the meantime, both road-ready bikes are facing a promising riding season.

from Blogger