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Connected kids

Technology opens up new ways for kids to learn and prosper

By Suzanne Rent

When Ronnie Scullion got a computer for her family, it immediately fascinated her then-six-year-old son Misha. 

At the time, Scullion says the entire family was learning about computers. She was taking a course in applied technology. Her two daughters enjoyed the computer, too. But Misha was hooked early on. Soon he was giving out pointers.

“He’d stand behind me and say, ‘You know mom, there is a faster way of doing that,’” Scullion says. “He quickly went beyond my skill level and started making amazing things. He quickly mastered programming, figuring out programs, making things moves dynamically, creating games, finding all sorts of applications for it.”

That early fascination with and aptitude for technology paid off for Misha. He now works for DeepMind, a company that focuses on artificial intelligence. Google purchased DeepMind in 2014. 

Scullion noticed that all of her kids learned problem-solving and math skills from using the computer. But she says kids also learn creative tools such as graphic design and music editing. 

Scullion now uses computer skills in her own career. She developed and currently operates Artech, camps for kids that focus on technology, including animation, robotics, and even games such as Minecraft. 

Scullion is a fan of Minecraft, a video game that allows players to construct worlds out of cubes. While parents may not understand its appeal, Scullion says there are skills kids learn through the playing of the game.

“There are blocks that are used to make things work, electronically within Minecraft,” Scullion says. “They are really picking up relevant skills, just like how to turn lights on and off. They are doing it all in play, but at the same time it’s using the same problem-solving processes you would use otherwise in an electronics course.”

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Students create games during the “Mining into Minecraft Camp” at Artech.

Alexander (Sandy) MacDougall is one of two technology integration leaders with the Halifax Regional School Board. He helps teachers from all grades use technology daily. Teachers and kids use technology such as robotics, coding, and Google for Education, which teaches kids how to use software like word processors and Powerpoint to produce presentations with slides. MacDougall says schools are matching the technology that kids get outside of the classroom. 

“Until recently, classrooms were devoid of technology and therefore not on the same plane as the real world,” he says. “That is changing very quickly. [Technology] engages students because it is a more familiar situation.”

And while the technology kids use now will surely be different when they are adults, MacDougall says the goal is to get them connected early on. 

“We often say we don’t know what we are preparing students for,” he says. “We don’t know what will be out there in five, 10 years. It changes so often. We are hoping to do our best in preparing for that eventuality.” 

But technology in the classroom has its challenges, too. “Not everyone is great with technology,” MacDougall says. “Some students take to it easily and quickly. And some students aren’t keen on or comfortable using technology for many reasons.”

The goal is not to have every device for every student. That could mean students would always be glued to their devices. MacDougall says the best situation has several devices in a classroom with small groups sharing them. That encourages collaboration. 

“When I was in school, we would sometimes have to do teamwork or group work, three people working on a project,” he says. “One person did a lot; two people didn’t do much. Everybody got the same mark, frequently. Now we see if collaboration is done well, that comes back to how the teacher is approaching it, whether the teacher uses it or not. Everyone has a role to play in that and those things, hopefully, work better.”

Scullion says while a young Misha clearly benefitted from learning technology early on, its use didn’t come without rules or challenges. Scullion says when Misha wanted his own computer in junior high, she signed a contract with him. That contract required that he maintain his responsibilities, including schoolwork, or he’d lose access to the computer. Scullion says he kept up his part of the bargain. “I know he liked to play video games and all that, and I was fine with it as long as he kept up with his responsibilities,” she says.

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And there is a concern that kids who love games and computers might be stuck indoors far too often.

 “It’s very important that young people do have time away from screens, time away from digital and technology, to learn to socialize with adults and each other, and to get out in the yard and play,” MacDougall says. 

He also suggests classrooms unplug, too. “It’s a management thing I encourage teachers to do, if a teacher is in a really technology-rich school and classroom, that they have specifically no-tech time,” he says. 

Parents do need to be aware of the content of some of the games students are playing. Scullion remembers when her son took an interest in violent games. He was in his late teens then, but they discussed the content of the games. 

“He liked the game because of the good game play, which I hear from other gamers,” Scullion says. “Probably, we wouldn’t have touched on those issues if that game hadn’t come into our house. That was a bonus.”

Still, Scullion says parents should always learn about the games their kids are playing. She suggests talking with staff at reputable game stores such as EB Games. “They can tell you what’s in the game and they probably have played all the games, so if there are any questions, they can probably advise you,” she says. 

But technology and video games offer parents a chance to get to know what their kids really love. Busy parents, she says, use computers differently than their children do. Sit down and learn what your kids are creating on the computer or play video games with them. 

“I am sure the kids would love to explain it to their parents,” Scullion says. “They know so much more about certain things in games I would never come across. I think parents would learn quite a lot and appreciate more. Getting kids to show you their world is a great way to learn.”