Wednesday, March 21, 2007

What kind of American workers does business really want?

I happened across a news story today:
Article entitled $100 laptop project launches 2007. In this article, Negroponte, the leader of this project, had the following to say about schools in AFRICA (not the U.S.):

"In fact, one of the saddest but most common conditions in elementary school computer labs (when they exist in the developing world), is the children are being trained to use Word, Excel and PowerPoint," Mr Negroponte said.
"I consider that criminal, because children should be making things, communicating, exploring, sharing, not running office automation tools."
If "running office automation tools" is inappropriate learning for elementary school children in developing nations in Africa, should it not be inappropriate for college students in American community and technical colleges -- if what we really want to do is prepare our students to compete in a "flat world"?

I teach (sociology and statistics) for Southeast Kentucky Community and Technical College, part of the statewide Kentucky Community and Technical Colleges System (KCTCS). At Southeast, and I suspect at all the KCTCS schools, only a very tiny number of students who take programming courses learn the kinds of skills Negroponte is talking about. Those who learn to use the computer at all learn to use Microsoft Office.

[Since I teach in a severely economically depressed area, the students don't come into college with much more than the ability to use a browser and instant messaging. What they primarily seem to use the browser for is shopping. They also are quite adept at using Google to hunt up websites to plagiarize in place of doing their own rudimentary thinking about reading assignments. I ask students to read a short essay or article, then to summarize its main points and reflect upon them in relationship to some of the sociological terminology they are supposedly learning. Not an especially demanding intellectual exercise. But many of them immediately rush to Google, and turn in mindlessly cut and pasted papers. ]

No one has ever seriously contemplated the idea that the majority of students that pass through our doors should be computer competent enough to be Linux users and able to do some programming of their own. Yet this is exactly what is needed if our students are to have any chance at competing for jobs in Friedman's "flat world."

By the way, I quite agree that the world is getting flatter, but, I highly skeptical of the degree to which that is empowering individuals as Friedman so optimistically claims. I strongly suspect that what the "flat world" has done has made is easier for larger multinational corporations to run-rough shod over more people faster at less cost!

Given the insistent focus that our community colleges have on students learning to use the latest Microsoft product, it makes me wonder whether the business community (and hence the community colleges which bow down to the business community) really wants the kind of creative, innovative, self-directed, wired worker that all the flat world rhetoric extols.

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