How would you transform this high school IT class?
July 31, 2015 10:36 AM   Subscribe

I may be inheriting a high school class that, for the past couple of years, has consisted of students obtaining certifications in Microsoft Office (see here for the framework). I'd like to transform this class, either a little at a time or in giant steps. Halp.

I don't want to go on about why I want to transform this class (I don't take steps to hide my online identity), but I think this is a kind of dismal approach and the student response has been tepid.

Help me think about a more general Digital Skills curriculum. The target audience is mostly 9th graders, not necessarily tech-oriented students.

What would you teach in this class? How would you teach it? What do you wish 9th graders would learn and learn to do with tech? I want to be useful to these kids and make them excited and self-powered about technology. Imagine all resources are possible (because they mostly are).

Bonus points: At the state level, our school system has jumbo enthusiasm about partnering with Microsoft, which has done the heavy lifting of a nicely sequenced curriculum, at the small price of all of it being tied to Microsoft™ Solutions. Clever ways to been seen complying with these directives while actually thinking of a larger context are much appreciated..
posted by argybarg to Education (16 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I'd make it focused on web products & content.
Units on:
UX research and design
Front-end visual design
Front-end development
Back-end development
Product management
Web & performance analytics
posted by amaire at 10:44 AM on July 31, 2015

technical competencies - using MS Office well is actually a nifty skill. When I taught Office applications, I always had students do a resume in Word, so I could talk to them about keeping track of where they worked, dates, and keeping copies of written references, and how to do a basic resume. In Excel, I build a payroll spreadsheet to teach concepts, but also to show how a small increase makes a difference. Then I do one that shows the long-term power of interest. Bring in an old pc, show how easy it is to upgrade RAM and hard drive, and even to build one yourself. The school may use images, and you might be able to teach students how to install Linux and use it for some tasks without making an enemy of the IT folks. Or they might let you use some old machines that are scheduled for disposal. Download rescue cds/ USBs, and teach them how to use interesting tools to recover from malware. Teach them how to really use google's power, and how to detect bullshit <- this is extremely useful. I'll bet there are IT professionals who would be happy to visit and talk about career paths in IT. Talk about privacy and bullying.
posted by theora55 at 10:50 AM on July 31, 2015 [6 favorites]

Before you go ripping up the framework, are you sure you're allowed to walk away from MS Office Certification as part of the stated goal? Be careful, there may be agreements in place, stated or otherwise.

That aside, just look at the market around you. If you can teach someone pivot tables and vlookups, you've given them actual salary benefits. Ditto Facebook Pages. Teach them how the cloud works, and where all that music they don't own lives.
posted by mkultra at 11:11 AM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

At the very least, some introduction to coding or computer science. The kids who find they're interested in it can pursue it further earlier, and gain access to career options they might otherwise have had to re-train or significantly re-educate themselves for in their twenties (or later) when they realise that their brains work in a developer kind of way.
posted by terretu at 11:15 AM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

When I was a highschool student, it was in the Apple ][+ era and we had Basic programming classes and eventually Pascal. I quiz my highschool interns about what their schools are teaching, and unless they are in a specific computer science track, the classes largely seem to be something like typing classes with Microsoft Word replacing typewriters.

Skill areas I work on with interns:
Editing MediaWiki
Updating content on WordPress websites (haven't gotten into WordPress design)
Editing audio files using Audacity
Editing video using various tools
Using Photoshop
posted by larrybob at 11:40 AM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Writing a real mobile app would be very educational and motivating, although it runs into the Android/iOS divide. Then with iOS you have to decide between Swift and Obj C. And you would have to know how to do it yourself in order to teach it. Getting a custom app running on the kid's own phone though is a big thing.

Making a web page from scratch in basic HTML.

Photoshop with fun tasks like face-swapping, altering a movie poster, etc.

Basic Excel use is very useful. Most people don't need anything beyond formatting, SUM with a range, and simple formulae like "=A2*A3".
posted by w0mbat at 11:58 AM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Bonus points: At the state level, our school system has jumbo enthusiasm about partnering with Microsoft, which has done the heavy lifting of a nicely sequenced curriculum, at the small price of all of it being tied to Microsoft™ Solutions. Clever ways to been seen complying with these directives while actually thinking of a larger context are much appreciated..

The Microsoft of today is actually getting a lot better about supporting hobbyist/independent software developers, a group that would (and should!) include students. If it matters at all for the politics/optics of the situation, you can probably do most of what you need to without leaving the MS ecosystem - they've got lightweight code editors, actually-pretty-good IDEs, etc.

I'd suggest dropping a line to MS's dev evangelism team and ask about options/tools. I've had contact lately with their east coast group and found them to be sensible and smart, freely griping about shortcomings in Windows while eagerly distributing free software keys and discussing, yes, iOS and Android development, in addition to tons of work in languages that aren't C# or VB.

I know you're not literally just looking at development, but my point is that this is a group that will probably Get What You're Talking About and, recognizing that you may have a politically-driven desire to have MICROSOFT all over everything, it can go a long way to providing 'cover' for revamping the curriculum in a less Office-specific direction.
posted by Tomorrowful at 12:04 PM on July 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I'd include some basic literacy about privacy and security, including but not limited to private party bullying concerns. Let them know who is collecting their personal information and how it is being used. Have them install some ad trackers and stuff so they can see how it works. That's one thing that most corporate sponsored curricula gloss over, for obvious reasons. In your situation, you could probably focus on non-Microsoft properties like Google and such.

And definitely some troubleshooting, maintenance stuff, and a basic introduction to coding. That kind of thing can save someone a lot of time and money in the long run.

Instilling just a little mistrust and skepticism about corporate marketing and such can go a very long way, especially for adolescents, who are often questioning the system already.
posted by ernielundquist at 12:11 PM on July 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

For a 9th grader, that cert might actually mean a better summer or post-graduation job than they otherwise might get. I wouldn't overlook the value of that.

I think the wins might be in expanding the curriculum a bit. You write "not necessarily tech-oriented students", which says to me some of the goals might be around de-mystifying technology and broadening their comfort zone.

Can the kids take a computer fresh out of the box and get it set up and online? Can they get a wireless network set up? Knowing they don't have to rely on the cable guy or geek squad for a lot of things could be really useful.

If you want to expand into light programming, using VB with Excel is really easy and relatively not scary.

But in terms of general "digital skills", I think the biggest skill is the confidence to try something and see what it does, knowing that the worst thing that can happen isn't that bad. I don't know how you teach that, but because they're so feature-rich, MS products are a really good place for assignments like "poke a round and find some surprising feature that does something neat you can show off to the class."

"Digital Skills" to me means feeling like this is a playground, and not a baking competition where one little screw up ruins everything.

And I'm not saying all this as a pro-Microsoft person. My day to day life is all linux all the time, and I never want to work in an MS environment ever a gain. But for "not necessarily technical" students, and with the infrastructure already there, what you've got from MS sounds like a strong asset.
posted by colin_l at 12:13 PM on July 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

My middle son just finished grade 9. He is fairly active online in a variety of ways. My husband and I are both fairly tech savvy (albeit in different ways - one of us is a sysadmin and the other is very active on social media, blogging, etc.) We have tried to explain things to our son from our various perspectives but, coming from parents, it sounds a bit overprotective. His eyes glaze over...

I love all of ernielundquist's suggestions.

A general digital skills curriculum for 9th graders would (in my dream world) include a solid introduction to online privacy and security. Who's tracking you and why? How do you create, and remember, a strong password? How does 2-step verification work and should you use it? I'd love to see him learning information about the laws that pertain to content published online and various activities online - including the gaps in the existing laws. The benefits/drawbacks of "free" accounts/services versus those you pay for with money. How can you control your 'brand' (godhelpme) online? A discussion about Microsoft products vs open source products.

And can you please teach them how to determine if a link is safe to click? What files are safe to run? How to determine if email is spam or contains a virus?
posted by VioletU at 1:29 PM on July 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

I should have said that my experience has been that software, apps, and even the popular sites people use, all change very quickly over time which is why I'd love an emphasis on the skills to make exploring those sites/software/apps safer. Critical thinking for the digital world, so to speak.
posted by VioletU at 1:36 PM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Well, since it is labelled as a "IT" class, I would say you might think about doing something fundamentally different about your approach. While I think that the MS Cert for whatever that is currently being offered is really kinda annoying, you might think about offering the kids a basic overview of what "IT" actually means.

I work with a non-profit that teaches digital literacy. Before I got directly involved with the program, most of the classes consisted of trying to explain to people how to do things by rote learning; i.e. click on this icon, click on this button, type in this window, etc. What ended up happening was that people would write down those rote instructions, and then if ANYTHING changed or wasn't where they expected it to be, they would be utterly lost, frustrated, angry, upset and feel like they were not understanding or learning anything and give up. We also had huge problems with trying to teach basic things like file management and the difference between something on a web page versus a file local to the computer.

So what I noticed was that a lot of times, the reason people were giving up or frustrated was that they had no basis to understand what they were looking at. Many of the people taking these classes are from marginalized communities, often immigrants or people who dropped out of school. However, that really made this apparent was talking to middle class (or higher) people who use computers every day, yet constantly have something blocking them from understanding what they were doing, or even looking at.

The first thing I noticed about this problem was that no one seemed to bother to explain to them some of the most basic things about how computers are designed, how they work, or even what most of the things on the screen represented. Again, sometimes this was due to cultural differences, or other factors, but when you see the same phenomena in people who work in a white collar job (or even worse, when that someone is a programmer, which yes, I have seen), you know there is definitely something missing.

So we now have a curriculum where the first thing we do is assume that even if the person owns a computer, has lived with computers their entire life, or even works with them on a daily basis, there is an extremely high likelihood that they have never been given the cultural background and narrative of a) how a computer works and b) how a computer was designed, based upon a particular set of assumed cultural assumptions (often referred to as assumed knowledge, meaning that there is an assumption, either by the educator, or society in general, that there is some knowledge that is just known by everyone. Given our society often punishes people based upon not knowing something, or how there is an odd cultural thing where people will make fun of someone for expressing that they do not know something that is categorized as assumed knowledge, this leads to many, many, many problems, especially regarding technology. I like to refer to this xkcd comic a lot, as a way of illustrating that there are alternatives to dismissing someone for not knowing something but wanting to learn. Extremely helpful for getting past people who have tried to learn about computers but run into stumbling blocks in the past, where their education was from someone who assumed they knew something. The other main issue with assumed knowledge is that a lot of times the person who needs to learn something doesn't even know there is something they need to learn, let alone how to ask about it. Apparently I have strong feelings and thoughts on this subject).

We now start off everything with a quick explanation of the history of the modern user interface, and how it relates to The Desktop Metaphor. What is surprising is that when we teach this to older adults, even people who are not immigrants or from mainstream society, their eyes light up immediately. And here's the thing. Kids may have NEVER seen an office desk used in the manner in which the Desktop Metaphor uses it. To some degree, they may have never seen a filing cabinet full of manilla folders, organized to make searching for things functionally easier. Without these cultural icons and hallmarks associated to the metaphorical operation of a computer desktop UI, they end up making their own stories and associations for how things work. Sometimes, those replacement associations work well enough to get by, but many, many, many, many times they end up making the later metaphors and models of modern computer applications much more difficult, due to how their understanding of the way it is intended to work, versus how they expect it to work.

But back to your original question. If you are constrained to having to get the kids through the original material for the MS certifications or whatever, this would be the perfect additional information to teach them about the Paper Paradigm, which is the core function of pretty much every OS in existence. Because the MS Office Suite's original design was to replace pretty much every function within most offices, it is amazingly suitable for linking the real world things that each application is designed to replace. Word = typewriters and typesetting. Excel = spreadsheets and ledgers. Powerpoint = overhead projectors with transparent "slides" for presentations. You get the idea. If you can teach them to associate the function of an application with a real world (or even virtual world) thing that it is meant to emulate, you will be able to give them a jump start on being able to see the computer much more as a tool (or really, an amazing multi-tool) for all kinds of real world applications that they will go on to do every day.

As for expanding it beyond that curriculum, you can get try and get into the who client / server model of computing, which also has it's roots in computer history with mainframes and the like. It might be really good to have a short little presentation which gives the history of computers from the Eniac up through the invention of the desktop computer, and then into the modern networked age. Once you have that basis, it is much easier to start talking about things like privacy (as many others have mentioned) and how to understand the ways in which the modern internet is being molded to be much more like historic broadcasting mediums (like television, radio, and print). Again, it doesn't entirely replace those things (there are still typewriters and filing cabinets, after all), but it makes the function that those things have much more widely available (being able to make your own videos and post them to youtube, podcasting, making your own website, etc, etc). Of course, the main difference being that instead of advertisers having to rely on Neilson ratings to target their ads, every (commercial) website now tries to gather that information from you. Of course, that might be a little difficult to explain without going way into critical media theory, but it's never too early to start teaching that, in my opinion.
posted by daq at 2:15 PM on July 31, 2015 [8 favorites]

My partner and I teach a class called Desktop Publishing that is essentially what you describe. We start with digital identity and having them understand why "digital footprint" is much more a "digital tattoo." We also cover advertising (print, digital, video), and look at ways that ads can manipulate and persuade. We have them make their own ads. We have them learn a number of free online programs (pixlr, sumopaint, etc.) to make their own images. We have them learn basic movie-making and learn the different kinds of shots. Then they learn coding (using Code Academy and and make their own games. Finally, they create a digital portfolio and website.

The final part of the class is bidding on real-life projects and then doing project management/hiring team members from the rest of the class. It REALLY teaches them time management and how to collaborate and lead teams. We've had them design logos, produce newsletters, run and design websites, make digital journals, etc. All for real-world clients.

It's like the greatest hits of using technology responsibly and creatively, and producing digital media. And it's ALL about functionality and helping them build skills that will help them in their education and career.

If you want our course map, send me a memail!
posted by guster4lovers at 2:19 PM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

What do you wish 9th graders would learn and learn to do with tech?

Microsoft Office. Specifically, how to create a decent looking document and a presentation that doesn't hurt the eyes. Teenagers who think doing a presentation for class means paragraphs of dense, grey on grey text become adults who think doing a presentation for work means paragraphs of dense, grey on grey text.

My experience with teenagers has been that in a class of 20, 15 will not know how to do anything outside instagram/whatsapp/line/secret teenage apps , 2 will know how to make gifs and post them to tumblr, 2 will know how to make gifs and post them to 4chan or secret teenage places, and 1 will know how to code and is building a robot army in her bedroom. Many teenagers don't touch computers outside school - everything is on their phones.
posted by betweenthebars at 4:02 PM on July 31, 2015 [4 favorites]

You might find a few useful ideas here. Browse the tags. Some good stuff on visual literacy to augment the nuts and bolts of Word / PowerPoint.
posted by Gotanda at 4:28 PM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

I think PowerShell is awesome and can be very useful. Just even enough to loop through a folder of files and copy them into a new folder. Or set up a scheduled task that runs a script that cleans out a folder on a regular basis.

It is a fun way to learn a bit about automation - and that is a literacy gap I run across frequently - people doing repetitive tasks that would be easy to automate.
posted by hilaryjade at 6:44 PM on July 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

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