The digital age

If you’ve ever watched kids play video games, you’ve probably been amazed — and maybe horrified — by the ease with which they manipulate the controls. The flying fingers. The intent “death stare” as they zero in on the target. It’s enough to terrify a slow-moving, book-loving grown-up.

Despite the vague sense of alarm some of us may feel, though, there’s no question in most adults’ minds that young people must become adept at using computers — and for more than just playing Quake. From the checkout counter at the grocery store to the ubiquitous office PC, virtually every aspect of modern life requires not merely experience with computers but total competence.

Both the Buncombe County and Asheville school systems have responded to the need to foster a tech-literate society by putting kids in front of computers as early as kindergarten and keeping them there — at least for part of every day — through their senior year in high school. Students still learn their three R’s; computer training hasn’t necessarily usurped time from more traditional subjects. Instead, the local schools have integrated computer use into the everyday curriculum.

“Every teacher in the Buncombe County schools has a computer in the classroom. Every school has a computer lab, and each student is mandated to spend a certain amount of time in a lab or on a computer per week,” explains Director of Technology Monty Fuchs.

No monopolizing these young minds, Mr. Gates

And unlike many adults, who don’t have much choice when it comes to choosing a computer platform at work (which often dictates what we use at home, as well), Buncombe County students have access to both Macintosh and PC platforms throughout the system, from kindergarten through 12th grade. The decision to maintain both platforms is a long-standing one, says Fuchs. “We do it because it’s been done in Buncombe County schools for a long time, and people have their staffs well-trained and integrated in certain platforms,” he explains. In addition, says Fuchs, “We find a lot of benefit and cost-savings by brand.”

The Buncombe County schools have chosen to go with both Macintosh and Dell as their “house brands.” To most students, however, brands and platforms mean very little. “Switching over is not a big deal; students don’t seem to have any problems with it,” Fuchs observes.

June McCracken, director of instructional technology and accountability for the Asheville City Schools, agrees. “The children don’t have any trouble going from a Mac to a PC or vice versa,” she reports. Within the next few years, however, kids in the city system may not have a choice. “In the past couple of years, our technology person has said we’re to go with Dell [Computers],” says McCracken. For the time being, though, there are still Macs in the system, and the six elementary-school computer labs are Mac-based.

Another school moving from Macs to PCs is Rainbow Mountain, a private school serving students in grades K-8. According to Technology Director Michael Neal, who also teaches fourth and fifth grade, “We were 50/50 Mac-to-PC until last year, but the Macs got so glitchy, and they’re difficult to network.” The older computers, including the Macs, will continue to be used throughout the school, but Neal says Rainbow Mountain has “just outfitted our computer lab with 10 new Gateway computers. The older computers have been sent out to our different classrooms and will be networked by a cable modem to the lab and to the Internet,” he explains.

It seems, then, that most local kids have access to decent, reasonably current machines. So what are they doing with them? (Something more productive, one hopes, than what most adults do with theirs…)

From basic skills to Web design

Regardless of what school they attend or which computer platform they use, most local students perform similar tasks in computer labs. Typically, they work on improving skills in different subject areas, learning how to use certain software programs, and integrating this new knowledge into their overall studies.

“In our K-5th-grade curriculum, we have an integrated management program called NCLearn that has reading, math and writing activities,” McCracken explains. “All of our elementary children (except those in kindergarten) use that program a minimum of three times a week for 30 minutes at a time.” Although the basics are stressed, students also have the opportunity to pursue “enrichment activities,” such as producing newsletters or performing Internet-based research — under the watchful eye of teachers and filtering software, of course.

By the time kids reach middle school, the “emphasis is on word processing, spread sheets, data bases and research,” says McCracken. “In middle school, students are becoming more independent and choosing which tool is appropriate for which purpose,” she explains, such as whether “a spreadsheet or presentation software [is] more appropriate” for a particular project.

By the sixth grade, students begin applying the computer skills they’re learning to their courses, says McCracken.

Asheville High School offers some more specialized courses, such as programming, actually building computers, and even a “new Web-design program that’s starting in conjunction with AB-Tech and Cisco,” McCracken reports.

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