Digital Literacy – It’s Important! (Seriously)

This stuff matters.  Really!

I feel compelled to confront a very serious issue facing the newest members of Planet Earth: digital literacy.  Just as we teach our children to read, teach them manners, and, as best we can, teach them the difference between right and wrong, we must teach our children the ins and outs of navigating our new digital existence.

NPR ran a very interesting story this weekend about a research lab at the University of Maryland.  The lab, funded by Google, recently released a study about the ways in which children search for information online.  The results may be surprising – not every kid is a computer whiz.  As it turns out,

There were many children just sat there and watched until they would find the information. As opposed to, hey, couldn’t you do a keyword. Nope, uh-uh. This is what I do. I’ll find it, don’t worry. We had one child swear he was going to find the Vice President’s birthday next year in the Spongebob Squarepants Web site.

This is not good, people!  As someone who was in charge of learning these skills on their own, I implore all of you to take an active approach to rectifying this situation.

Let’s be honest about this – people in my generation (ages 22-30, for the sake of discussion) are members of a unique generation that was in charge of bridging this gap on our own, learning the necessary skills as we progressed.  My first computer, a Commodore 64, was a complete mystery to nearly every person of responsibility in my life.  How do you use it?  What can it do?

My parents certainly couldn’t teach me these sorts of skills.  My mom only recently learned how to send a text message (a major technological achievement, believe me).  So, I did what everyone else my age did – tried different things until I found one that worked reasonably well.  Occasionally, I would share tidbits with friends, or pick something up in a magazine.

Once the Internet came to my house (which was admittedly late – they just got high speed connections in my neighborhood last year), the floodgates opened.  I could connect with other people who were facing the same problems I was, who knew more than me, and who could speak my language when it came to technology.

Now, I am in charge of working to pass this torch to those who come after me – we all are.  It’s vitally important that our children grow up knowing how to successfully use technology.  They need to know how to navigate the pitfalls and gold-mines that can be found online, and be made aware of the implications of their online actions.  This is no small task!  Where do we begin?  According to Dr. Allison Druin, director of the Human-Computer Interaction Lab at the University of Maryland, parents

can be mentors in the sense of trying to motivate a kid to go further and farther.  Also, being able to let kids see how you search and what you do to refine a search.

This might be a great start, but it’s not nearly enough.  Children need to know where to go to find resources, what kind of things are likely to be found online, and what kinds are not.  For these things, try contacting your local librarian, they are fantastic at these sorts of questions.

Children also need to be given the skills and knowledge to navigate these online areas, become able to recognize trouble if they see it, and know how to handle things that they might not be familiar with or know what to do when they get in over their heads (hint: ask an adult you trust!).

If you don’t have any children of your own, that doesn’t mean that you can’t help with this process.  Contact your local library to volunteer, share you skills and knowledge whenever you can.  Do you have a certain area of technology that you’re particularly fluent in?  Be an evangelist for using it correctly, and share what you know – kids talk to their friends, and your positive influence can quickly spread.

I encourage all of you to become involved in helping the children in your lives learn as much as they can about becoming engaged online citizens – not only does it benefit each individual child, but our society as a whole depends on their ability to function in an online world.

You can hear the whole NPR story at this link.  And, for the record, this study concluded that girls were more persistent, but less successful, than boys at performing these online searches.  I’m just sayin’.

This essay appeared originally on the Information Space blog.


Duke University Professor Scores One For Academic Freedom

I wrote earlier about the lack of an academic backbone at Yale University, whose Yale University Press refused to publish the controversial “Muhammad” cartoons.

I learned today that Duke University’s Voltaire Press will be publishing a book containing these images, in high quality color, along with several other controversial drawings.

From the Volokh Conspiracy:

I’m pleased to be the first to report that the newly founded Voltaire Press at Duke University has just published Muhammad: The “Banned” Images. The book includes all the images that were omitted by the Yale University Press from Jytte Klausen’s The Cartoons That Shook the World — including the 12 Mohammed cartoons — plus many more historically significant items (a total of 31), together with brief discussions of the context behind each work. The images, reproduced in high quality and in full color, include works by William Blake, Gustave Dore, and Salvador Dali, as well as Muslim artists from the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal empires.

If you’re interested in reading the book, you can order it here. You can also ask your local public or university library for it, which I think will increase the chances that the library will buy it, and make it available not just to you but to others.

Let me also applaud Duke University for making a worthy stand on this issue, and with amazing quickness for the academic sphere.

Three cheers for Duke!

On Law School

Author’s Note: I have been meaning to write a post with this same title for some time now.  Luckily for me, I haven’t.  The post that I would’ve authored 2 months ago (or even 2 weeks ago) would be nothing like the post you find below.  With that caveat, enjoy.

I have been heavily considering law school as a next step.  I have struggled with the decision, wrestling with ideas of prestige, location, funding, and – of course – the actual education.  I even went so far as to register for, and take, the LSAT, get all my applications completed, and letter-writer packets constructed.

But – I couldn’t bring myself to pull the trigger.  There are several reasons for this, but I will outline the most pressing of those here.

  1. Cost.
  2. Commitment.
  3. Post-Law School Outlook

1. Cost.

Of course, the major “cost” is the bottom-line dollars required to ascertain a JD in today’s world.  The schools that I was considering would have cost me anywhere from $150,000 – $250,000, an absolutely mind-boggling amount of money.  And, it would likely all have come from loans.  This is the reason that many recent grads take jobs at big firms and grind their best years away at 80-hour-week increments – the simply have too much debt and no other way to pay it off.

The GAO recently released a report on the drivers of law school cost, and it had some interesting insights.  Even more interesting was the community reaction to the report:

One professor noted that he “I certainly find that I think harder than I used to about whether I am providing value to students, and I think of it as dollar value and return on long term investment.  I treat myself a lot more as an educational fiduciary than I used to.”

On top of that, going to law school represents an enormous opportunity cost for me.  It is three years that I cannot do something else – I cannot work to gain experience or exposure in another industry, I cannot consult or do other interesting side-projects, and I can’t start a family.  These were simply costs that I was not willing to bear; the cost/benefit equation did not balance out.

2. Commitment.

For me, three years is an incredibly long time to commit to something.  I have an upper limit of commitment that currently barely reaches 18 months (hence my ability to finish – with any luck – my current degree program).  Today, the opportunities are just too exciting, move too swiftly, and come and go so quickly that to not be able to actualize them as the arise is an option I cannot engage.

Also – this means three more years before we can move back to the Pacific NW, something that remains an ultimate goal, and one that we would prefer to achieve sooner rather than later.

3. Post-Law School Outlook

By now, everyone has heard that times are tough for recent law school grads.  Coverage at blogs like Above The Law has been expansive.  Also, lawyers who do have jobs seem to find little to no security in them (hence the creation of “This Week in Layoffs“).

For me, this is worse news than most, as I have no vision of what I expect to do with my JD, and honestly have no desire to “be a lawyer.”  Rather, I’m in it for the theory, the legal education, and the ability to “think like a lawyer.”  The connections, additional degree, and other benefits would be nice, but are (were) not the driver for me.

The market may be better in 2012/2013, or, it may be the same.  It could be even worse.  The only thing that I can say for sure is that I would be carrying a six-figure debt load and itching to do non-traditional things.  This is a recipe for disaster.

To conclude, I’m looking forward to pursuing post-grad opportunities, but law school will not be one of them.  Though I haven’t entirely ruled it out in the future, I have a hard time imagining situations where it would be both feasible and viable for me.

This ship has sailed for me.

H1N1 Hysteria!

Now they’re even accusing Beer Pong of adding to the craziness that has become swine flu.  The audacity!

An actual email sent by the Syracuse University Office of Off-Campus and Commuter Services:

Oh, the humanity!

Oh, the humanity!

Although, I do give them some credit for the photo of the Solo cups nestled into the foliage.  Nice.

Work, and other future endeavors

Fantastically interesting (and frightening) article over at Business Week today [though – I could do without the auto-play video ad, BW].

The phenomenon appears to be affecting even those with professional degrees (JD, MD, etc.):

At Northwestern University Law School, at least three-quarters of students who graduated in May had their employment deferred, in some cases up to a year, says Bill Chamberlain, head of the school’s career center.

That’s simply staggering – at least 75% of Northwestern Law grads can’t find a job.  NW is a very good school, in a major city (Chicago), and the grads are having that tough of a time.  Things must be seriously bad out there.

Another worry, aside from the simple fact that you don’t have any income, is a phenomenon called “scarring.”

Young people have figured out how to avoid horrid blanks on their résumés.

The unemployment crisis among the young is not as dramatic as the financial crisis of a year ago. But it may turn out to have longer-lasting effects.

“Scarring” – not getting that experience while you’re young puts you on a lower career trajectory for the rest of your life.  Oh, great, thanks.

The video associated with the article talks about the “clash of expectations”: someone with a graduate degree who “expects to be paid commensurate” but lacks experience.  What does that even mean?  Maybe it means that graduate degrees aren’t worth nearly as much as people think (a topic I have addressed here before).

Also mentioned in the video is a “sub-minimum wage” for young people and people who are training.  Are you kidding?  Think about that – how will that make the “scarring” less of an issue?  It just sets people on a lower career trajectory from Day 1 – and makes their climb up the corporate ladder that much longer.

At this point, perhaps I need to adjust my expectations for the future – or simply stay in school forever.

What Kind of Message?

I received the following email from Syracuse University today:


The email is promoting an event where Bob Costas, noted sportscaster, will appear.  Notice, however, that the university refers to him as “Bob Costas ’74” – the implication here is that Mr. Costas is an alumnus of Syracuse University – he is not.

Mr. Costas is an “honorary alumnus” – who left Syracuse before graduation to pursue career opportunities.

What kind of message does this send to students?  It’s not important that you graduate, just that you succeed.  If you can succeed without us, that’s fine – and if you do really well, we’ll give you the whole “alumnus” thing anyway, and welcome you back any time with open arms.

I would expect more from Syracuse – but perhaps the Chancellor is merely executing her vision to “test our notions of who is a scholar and what scholarship is.”  Perhaps “outward-looking engagements both optimize education and yield new forms of scholarship and new scholarly arrangements, propelling us forward as an academic institution” do not necessarily require graduation, and completion should become an afterthought.

If that’s the message the Chancellor wishes to send to students, congratulations.  If not, I’d suggest referring to Mr. Costas simply as Mr. Costas, no ’74 about it.


Just when law school is looking like a less-attractive option, something pops into the news that re-kindles my fire.

Today, it’s a post by Eugene Volokh over at The Volokh Conspiracy: Crime-Facilitating Speech and Reporting Police Movements.

The basics: a guy was tweeting police locations during the G-20 summit in Pittsburgh.  PA State Troopers bust in his hotel room door, and find him with a police scanner and a laptop.  He’s arrested and charged with “directing others, specifically protesters of the G-20 summit, in order to avoid apprehension after a lawful order to disperse.”

The question: is this free (and therefore protected) speech?

Very interesting discussion from Mr. Volokh:

When may speech be restricted because it provides others with information that may help them commit crimes, here by helping them evade arrest? Consider a driver who flashes his lights to warn other drivers of a speed trip, or articles, books, or Web pages that describe

  • how people can effectively resist arrest during civil disobedience,
  • how easy it is to fool supposed “ballistic fingerprinting” systems,
  • how easy it is to fool fingerprint recognition systems,
  • how one can organize one’s tax return to minimize the risk of a tax audit,
  • how one can share music files while minimizing the risk of being sued as an infringer,
  • how one can more effectively conceal one’s sexual abuse of children,
  • how one can more effectively encrypt messages or files,
  • how one can build a bomb,
  • how one can grow marijuana,

and so on. (I have citations for many of these examples in the article.) A very interesting set of questions, I think, which the Court has never resolved.

These are the sorts of issues that fascinate me – and I’d love to get a chance to tackle some of them head-on as the world (and the lives we live within it) continue to digitize at an ever-accelerating rate.

On Public Universities

As a proud alum of a similarly positioned public university, I was both heartened and saddened to read Bob Herbert’s “Cracks in the Future” Opinion piece in the New York Times.

The problem, now, is the bottom line.

Berkeley is caught in a full-blown budget crisis with nothing much in the way of upside in sight. The school is trying to cope with what the chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, described as a “severe and rapid loss in funding” from the state, which has shortchanged Berkeley’s budget nearly $150 million this year, and cut more than $800 million from the higher education system as a whole.

This is like waving goodbye to the futures of untold numbers of students. Chancellor Birgeneau denounced the state’s action as “a completely irresponsible disinvestment in the future of its public universities.”

Meanwhile, there are billions (trillions?) for banks, commercial lenders, auto manufacturers, and other arguably less-worthy industries who seem to be rolling in money – giving away extravagant bonuses and conducting opulent meetings in diverse and far-flung locales.

Herbert says, and I would agree, that UC Berkeley is undoubtedly one of the finest public institutions in the country and the world – and it’s no small feat for a Washington Husky to recognize this stance.  There are few other schools who would even begin to rival what these two institutions offer, but those, to me, would include:

  • University of Washington (author is slightly biased)
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Virginia
  • University of North Carolina (a stretch)
  • University of Texas at Austin
  • University of Wisconsin, Madison

But Berkeley makes a better example.

We should all care about this because Berkeley is an enormous and enormously unique national asset. As a public university it offers large numbers of outstanding students from economically difficult backgrounds the same exceptionally high-quality education that is available at the finest private universities.

The problems at Berkeley are particularly acute because of the state’s drastic reduction of support. But colleges and universities across the country — public and private — are struggling because of the prolonged economic crisis and the pressure on state budgets. It will say a great deal about what kind of nation we’ve become if we let these most valuable assets slip into a period of decline.

If the priorities of both the populace and the leadership, I fear that Herbert may be correct – we have sold our future out from under ourselves, and ultimately deserve what we have coming to us down the road.  It is not, as yet, too late – but will be very soon.  Without significant, marked, and dramatic changes, we may very well have witnessed the end of American dominance in higher-education.

Only time will tell.