Gene Marks, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, (herein known by the phrase Rich White Guy, or RWG) offered some advice to an archtypical Poor Black Kid (PBK) last week regarding how to educate himself out of the ghetto by means of modern technology. I'm not going to discuss his qualifications for giving advice of this type (none), nor the possibility that he has no idea what he's talking about (significant), nor the barely concealed privilege and racism of his remarks. That's been done very well elsewhere.
I want to talk about his advice to "get technical."
If I was a poor black kid I would get technical. I would learn software. I would learn how to write code. I would seek out courses in my high school that teaches these skills or figure out where to learn more online. I would study on my own. I would make sure my writing and communication skills stay polished.
So, Poor Black Kid (PBK) will need textbooks and a lot of time to sit down in a quiet place where he won't be interrupted to study. That such places in urban settings can be few and far between doesn't seem to have occurred to RWG. The same goes for PBK's polishing his written communication skills. Want to learn to write well? Read several hundred books, several thousand articles, and write a thousand words or more a day for a year. That's how it's done. Time, space, and solitude are what's needed. Public libraries would be good spaces to do this in if they weren't being de-funded left and right.
Part the second:
And I would use the technology available to me as a student. I know a few school teachers and they tell me that many inner city parents usually have or can afford cheap computers and internet service nowadays. That because (and sadly) it’s oftentimes a necessary thing to keep their kids safe at home than on the streets. And libraries and schools have computers available too. Computers can be purchased cheaply at outlets like TigerDirect and Dell’s Outlet. Professional organizations like accountants and architects often offer used computers from their members, sometimes at no cost at all.
At first glance this is not bad advice, but again, it misses the point. Three things stand out to me as a guy who sold computers and the components that went into them for years. First, schools and libraries (not to mention school libraries) in neighborhoods where Poor Black Kids go to school are likely to be poorly funded, staffed and maintained. The value of the equipment they have is directly proportional to the amount of money spent, which, as I said, is not likely to be high. So the equipment this kid is meant to educate himself on is likely to be old and semi-functional, or non-functional at least part of the time.
Second, what he calls "cheap" computers generally don't last more than a couple of years. That's why they are cheap. If you spent several thousand dollars at Dell to get the good stuff, then pay for a top-tier service contract on top of that, you get real customer service. If you didn't, you get sent to Dell Hell where you get to spend a fortune in phone charges listening to some guy with an ESL accent insist that you should turn your PC off and then on again. Third, yes, professional organizations often offer perks to their members but Poor Black Kid is obviously not a member of these fraternities yet, so this tidbit falls a bit flat.
If I was a poor black kid I’d use the free technology available to help me study. I’d become expert at Google Scholar. I’d visit study sites like SparkNotes and CliffsNotes to help me understand books. I’d watch relevant teachings on Academic Earth, TED and the Khan Academy. (I say relevant because some of these lectures may not be related to my work or too advanced for my age. But there are plenty of videos on these sites that are suitable to my studies and would help me stand out.) I would also, when possible, get my books for free at Project Gutenberg and learn how to do research at the CIA World Factbook and Wikipedia to help me with my studies.
Now we get serious. It's time for Tech Talk.
"Free" is a relative term. Air and water are free until you need someone (say, the government) to guarantee it's safe to breathe and drink, or unless you want to take it with you in a big tank. That takes money. Technology in all its myriad forms, applications, and performances, takes real money to make happen. What RWG doesn't seem to get is this: what he calls free technology is only available because thousands of people who produce it worked long hours with no pay then made a conscious choice to give it away it for free. Textbooks--the mainstay of higher education in the industrialized world--are never free, and they are what the education industry thrives on: text book sales. (Forbes, being a publisher of some note, surely understands this.)
So. Does PBK have to pay for the software? No. But will he have to scrape up $80 for a 6-inch Kindle or more for a Netbook or laptop to make use of this online material? You bet your booty.
Anyway, here's an experiment for you: send your application to harvard with the words "Self educated by means of free technology" scrawled on it instead of a high school transcript, and then call them a week later and see how you did. If you're accepted, I'll eat a bug.
I don't have a problem with Google Scholar per se (I'm unsure if it will ever live up to the hype but that's another post), but in my experience both as a teacher and student, services like Spark Notes and Cliff Notes do more to wreck kids' ability to read a book than anything else. You won't understand the book any better, you just get exposed to a slim cross-section of it. That's not reading. That's cramming for an exam. Not a habit PBK should be cultivating this early in his academic career. Sources like TED and KhanAcademy are worthwhile, or one could be really ambitious and take a look at MIT's Open Courseware website.
I love Project Gutenberg. How can you not like a source of 36,000 free ebooks for download to a PC or portable device? The books are high-quality items all produced by bona fide publishers, and are made available through the effort of thousands of volunteers. The trouble is that these books are not generally textbooks. Classics, yes, and lots of them (here's the top 100 titles by download), but Business, Science, and Math classes don't use the classics. They use textbooks. Those are expensive and not generally available on line except in the most expensive universities.
The CIA World Fact Book, also isn't a bad resource. It's not the most easily accessible almanac in the world but, yes, it is complete, as long as you remember that its data are limited to descriptions of countries. Wikipedia, on the other hand is not a primary resource. For anything. Ever. Why? It's written and edited by absolutely everyone regardless of background, education, or research. Some articles are clearly better (or worse) than others, but using Wikipedia as a primary source is a sure ticket to an F from any competent teacher.
That said, one thing Wikipedia can be extremely useful for is to show you where else to look for source material. Scan the article, then go to the reference links. Those will lead you to better sources.
I would use homework tools like Backpack, and Diigo to help me store and share my work with other classmates. I would use Skype to study with other students who also want to do well in my school. I would take advantage of study websites like Evernote, Study Rails, Flashcard Machine, Quizlet, and free online calculators.
I won't argue with any of this on a point-for-point basis, as they are good suggestions for people who make continual and substantive use of online files. But--and you knew there'd be a but--Diigo, Backpack, Evernote and all those other good suggestions require all participants to have a PC of his or her own. In poor families, you're more likely to see one device shared among several people, or none at all. Again, Poor Black Kid is more likely to be relying on crappy equipment and spotty online access than not. These well-meant ideas don't work so well under those conditions.
I don't know what exactly our Rich White Guy thought he was thinking when he wrote this. None of it this is bad advice as far as it goes. But it seems inappropriate to me. It assumes that Poor Black Kids go to schools that are equally well funded and equipped as Rich White Kids' schools. That is not the case. It hasn't been the case for decades. Up to date textbooks, equipment, competent and well-paid teachers, and the time and opportunity to study are what make mediocre students into good ones and good students into great ones.
So . . . yes. Medicore White Guy is technically correct even as he misses (or obfuscates) the larger point: Poor Black Kid can use technology to help educate himself out of the inner city. Possibly even into a job in Big White Sky Building. But the tech he probably has access to will break often, take a lot longer to work, and the experience will suck.
But hey, at least it's possible, right?
I'll merely point out that this is why you need an archivist on your staff:
A curious library caretaker in the Bavarian city of Passau has discovered a treasure trove of ancient silver coins and medals that went overlooked for more than two centuries. The surprise find is reportedly worth as much as six figures.
Janitor Tanja Höls had often passed by an unassuming wooden box stowed away in an archive in Passau's historic state library, but it wasn't until about two weeks ago that curiosity got the best of her and she was decided take a look inside.
What she found were dozens of coins, most of them made of silver. "I had no idea that I'd found a treasure," the 43-year-old told the German news agency DAPD on Wednesday. But when she told the head of the library in the Bavarian city what she had seen, he soon realized their value.
"This find is a real bonanza," Markus Wennerhold said, adding that it happened to coincide with preparations for the library's 400th anniversary.
The library believes that the collection of 172 well-preserved coins likely belonged to Passau's prince-bishops. Wennerhold suspects that they were hidden there around 1803 during Germany's secularization, when such church assets were transferred to the state. They may have wanted to keep them out of the hands of tax officials.
Read the whole article here.