Many folks, including some parents, believe that simply providing children with access to digital technology will automatically enhance learning.
THESE days, the "soccer mom" has long been replaced by the "techno mom" who buys a Leapfrog electronic toy for her baby; lap-surfs with her toddler; has a Wii, Xbox and PlayStation for the kids; puts the spare TV in the child's bedroom; sets her child down for hours at a time to use addictive social media like Webkinz and Club Penguin; and buys a laptop for her preteen so she won't have to share her own computer.
In many homes, the computer is now primarily an entertainment device, for downloading music, watching videos, playing games and social networking.
While some people may assume that the computer is a research tool, used for exploring the world, keeping up with current events and learning new things, in many families, people lack the knowledge and skills to use it for these purposes.
Parents' behavior and attitudes toward technology are a critical factor in predicting a child's experience with various media. Research shows that students who have at least one parent with a graduate degree are significantly more likely to create content, online or off-line, than others.
Says sociologist Eszter Hargittai of Northwestern University, "While it may be that digital media are leveling the playing field when it comes to exposure to content, engaging in creative pursuits remains unequally distributed by social background."
It seems that digital- and media-literacy education is more important than ever, which is good news for children and teachers at the Russell Byers Charter School, who will participate in the Powerful Voices for Kids program, a digital- and media-literacy initiative in Philadelphia, now in its second year.
With support from the Wyncote Foundation, more than 100 children ages 5 to 15 will participate in the summer learning program, which gives kids the chance to build critical-thinking and communication skills in responding to mass media, popular culture and digital media, including using the Internet, playing video games and social networking.
Educators from the Philadelphia region can visit the program any day during Open Doors week, July 19–23, in a free program of professional development for educators interested in bringing digital and media literacy into their community.
Although children and young people are using digital media, they are neither smarter nor digitally literate just because they use computer technology.
Much of the hype about the transformative potential of technology in education is promoted by fans of Twitter or Facebook or subsidized by those who stand to benefit from selling interactive white boards, games or cell phones.
As the Duke study showed, computers are used primarily as an entertainment device unless a parent cultivates an active, learning-oriented approach to it.
Unfortunately, many parents are too distracted with their "constantly connected" life to pay much attention to how the computer is used at home. And too many teachers are busy covering traditional content to spend time building children's critical-thinking skills in using the Internet.
Many kids play games on computers in school. Then teachers complain about a generation of young people
who lack the ability to identify appropriate keywords for an online-search activity or who can't identify the author of a Web page. (These are the same kids who can find five different Lady Gaga remix dance videos in a nanosecond.)
So let's not confuse just owning technology with having the knowledge, skills and competencies needed to be successful in the 21st century.
Renee Hobbs is a professor in Temple University's School of Communications and Theater and founder of the Media Education Lab.