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Change Our Approach to Teaching Technology: Lives May Depend on It

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]n the not-so-distant future, you’re driving to work. You approach a busy intersection, and your car exchanges some information with the traffic signal. It slows as two other cars pass safely in front of you. Your car automatically adjusts its speed once again after passing through, and the light never even changes.

by Andy Hanson

Soon, traffic lights might not even need colors. They likely won’t need weight sensors to indicate a car is there, or timers to regulate traffic flow. Instead, they communicate with GPS satellites, your car’s onboard computer system, even cellular networks and community Wi-Fi.

Welcome to the Internet of things.

This presents boundless possibilities. Imagine the gasoline savings alone when cars virtually never have to stop during a city commute. Your house, and everything in it, could be controlled remotely and even perform tasks based on certain conditions, such as your robot vacuum cleaner activating when your furnace filter detects a specified threshold of dust particles in the air. When you lock your doors and leave at a time that you’d normally be watching your favorite show, your home security system “talks” to your DVR, and the show is recorded for you to watch later.

Our future technological world is a convenient and cushy place, or a terribly frightening one. It’s our choice.

To illustrate this point, allow me to add something to the scenario above: One guy. Just a guy who knows how to code, and has malicious intentions. The reality is, that is all it takes. Let’s say this guy hacks into the traffic signal software. That one person can bring every city in America to a crawl in seconds, causing car accidents at every intersection simultaneously from his dorm room. With every intersection clogged with crumpled cars, what are the emergency responders to do?

I’m certainly not alone in sounding the alarm about the potential for the Internet of things to go horribly wrong. Marc Goodman, who now is the chairman for policy, law, and ethics at Silicon Valley’s Singularity University, has a new book called Future Crimes, and it details some of the reasons why we should be very worried about our security in the future. Recent news events hint at a future in which hackers target our cars. We have heard about how our power grid could be hacked by a 12-year-old. Our nation’s networks are penetrated by foreign government hackers more frequently than anyone wants to admit. The National Guard has even been ordered to monitor and protect the nation’s networks against cyber threats, both foreign and domestic.

The cold, hard truth is that we are headed for a collision between the Internet of things and a populace that largely knows nothing about the technology on which they depend for their day-to-day lives. No matter what you’ve been told about the tech-savvy youth of tomorrow, they don’t know how it works, either. And no one is teaching them. We need to be preparing today’s children for the future they will inherit, and no matter what the back-to-basics crowd might say, the three R’s just don’t cut it anymore. We need ethical, or “white hat” hackers. Lots of them.

Most schools in America have been trying to integrate technology for decades. Too frequently, though, we use technology in ways that simply replace, or at best slightly enhance, what we’ve been doing in schools forever. We read digital instead of printed books. We take online quizzes that are graded instantly, saving teachers time. We create better projects that require more critical thinking. We dig deeper in problem solving and do more research.

These approaches to technology use don’t go nearly far enough. A teacher using technology to do the same things she’s always done isn’t preparing students for a rogue traffic signal scenario. Digital worksheets are as bad as their analog predecessors. And no amount of computerized “drill-and-kill” activities will teach a student how to look for vulnerabilities in the technological tools we use every day.

We need to go deeper. We need to get behind the scenes. We need students who understand how the things they use work, what components are involved, how they interact and depend on one another, and how each of those components can be manipulated. We need to teach students how to hack everything.

This isn’t a difficult proposal, either. It’s not like we need to change everything about schools and how they do business. All we need to do is teach code right along with language, arts, and math. In fact, many schools and libraries are already implementing maker spaces that embrace this kind of thinking we need. There are plenty of online tools (often free) to teach kids how to code, so teachers don’t need to be gurus themselves.

Kids who love Minecraft can join Learn to Mod, a program that teaches javascript while making modifications that kids can use in the game. There are hacking camps where companies pay large sums of cash to anyone who can find vulnerabilities in their products. And, of course, coding can lead to a great career.

Get kids coding. You can start early with things like Hopscotch, an iOS app designed for young kids to learn the basics of coding logic. It’s drag-and-drop, so it’s easy to get started. Keep it going in Middle School with Arduino and Raspberry Pi. In High School, the curriculum could include full-fledged coding with the help of sites like Udemy, with over 30,000 courses.

This stuff sounds boring, but believe me, students latch on to the challenge. They are intrigued by the idea of being able to program the world around them. Let’s give them the power to do it.

It’s up to us to make some simple choices. Making them now will determine whether our future is comfortable and convenient, or terrifyingly vulnerable.

The opinions presented here are solely those of Andy Hanson

Andy Hanson headshot Andy Hanson is the Technology Director at Southeast of Saline School District in Central Kansas.  He is a former 5th and 6th grade teacher, Staff Development Coordinator, and Technology Integration Specialist.  He has two boys in public schools: Drew (13) and Austin (9).  As an educator and father, he is passionate about educational technology and school reform.  Follow Andy on Twitter @AndyEdTech.


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