What thirty years of technology looks like: the early high-school years

Thirty years ago, I was attending a high school. My oldest son is preparing to attend a similar high school. There was a meeting at my son’s future school, and I paid attention to how things changed.

  • We went to visit the school and hear the principal give a talk. I would say that a good half, if not more, of the adults were staring down at their smartphone. Maybe people would have thought it rude only ten years ago. Certainly, ten years ago, you would not have assumed that you could make use of a full Internet access during a talk at your son’s school.

  • My son’s school has a “web portal” where you can track everything about your kid. As the teacher enter grades in the system, they become available to you. If my kid is taken aside for a minor infraction, it goes in the portal. The tiniest thing goes in the electronic record. You can also email teachers and you should expect answers. The principal admitted that the portal was so exhaustive that many parents felt that it is too much. Data flows a lot more freely than it used to.

    It goes without saying that you are assumed to have access to the Internet and to a computer. When I took on my current job, about ten years ago, there were serious concerns about online learning. I was told that not everyone could be assumed to have a computer and to have access to the Internet. These concerns were raised by older professors, but they could indeed document that some students were not at ease with computers. Sometime in the last ten years it became reasonable for a school principal to assume that all parents have access to the Internet and that they can routinely use a rather complicated web site. Though we take it for granted, I must point out that hardly any of us received formal training on the use of the Internet. You think that using a web browser and email is trivial but it would have looked like an advanced skill thirty years ago.

  • I attended a Catholic high school where being part of the Church was a big deal. There is no talk of religion at my son’s school. However, the principal mentioned Facebook several times. It strikes me that Facebook is larger and more important today than the Catholic Church was thirty years ago.

    To me, it is a fascinating change. Ten years ago when I started blogging, people kept asking me about whether I felt concerned for my privacy. Today I see these very same people sharing openly their private lives on Facebook.

    So, apparently, parents of high-school students in 2016 do not worry about the privacy of their young ones. Not in the sense that they would forbid them to use Facebook. I am quite sure that this represents a massive change from only five years ago.

    As for thirty years ago… it was, of course, impossible to find out anything about anyone online. There was no online. Facebook was the stuff of science fiction novels. I mean… not even Star-Trek characters had anything close to the Internet.

  • Electronic devices are forbidden at my son’s school during classes… except for whatever the school provides. Back when I attended high school, the only “electronic device” most of us had was a calculator. Today I doubt that a calculator is even considered an “electronic device” not anymore than a watch.

    I can see why they want to forbid electronic devices. It is easier to ban tools than to compete with them. As the principal hinted however, it is a losing battle. Students do sneak in their mobile phones. There is a reason why it is a battle that cannot be won. Electronic devices are becoming extensions of ourselves. Technology is part of what human beings are. We are not naked monkeys. The smartphones they seek to control today are probably going to look as quaint as a calculator in only 5 to 10 years.

  • Because of the ambient paranoia and the repeated warnings, it is obvious that the schools systems have been repeatedly hacked in various ways by the students. I am not surprised. When my youngest son was only 6, he hacked my iPad. What he did was very simple: he sat near me while I entered my password and memorized it.

    At home, I configure the router to try to control Internet usage, but I found out recently that my oldest son was able to get into the router and reconfigure it. What he did was not very hard: he figured out that if he uses my computer, the password is already entered so he can access the configuration screen without having to do any work.

    Thirty years ago, there was no network. Only paranoid people password-protected their systems. Computing security is now a thing when you are barely a teenager.

Conclusion. It is difficult to say anything new about how things changed, but I believe it is still worth pondering the scale of it. Computers and the Internet became ubiquitous. In 30 years, we went from a state where computers are a curiosity of dubious utility, to total and complete ubiquity. In fact, kids are expected to carry what would have been a supercomputer only two decades ago… they are also expected to part of integrated Internet social networks where they are tracked and they can track others. Thirty years ago, data was scarce and precious. Today, it is common to be overwhelmed by the amount of data. Thirty years ago, computer security was the stuff of movies, today, you get hacked by your own kids. People still voice superficial concerns regarding their privacy while, in practice, they are remarkably open about sharing their life with the world. It is true that schools look superficially similar. Desks, papers, pencils, tight schedules. Kids are kids. But almost everything about what the kids do outside their classes is irreversibly changed.

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