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Episode 15

What Do Kids Learn When They Learn About Tech?


Show Notes

Computer literacy is supposedly coming naturally to younger generations who seem to be born with smartphones in their hands. But there’s a difference between tech familiarity and actually knowing how technology works. And when kids learn about the wide world of IT, what else are they learning?

Kids know tech is everywhere. We spoke to middle school, high school, and college educators about what it is their students are hoping to learn—and what skills they pick up on the way.


00:01 - Johan Philippine 

Brent, Angela, as you both know, I have a son. He's three and he's just starting to learn how to use technology. But he's picking it up really quickly. Have you noticed that? How young people today can pick things up really quickly?

00:17 - Brent Simoneaux 

He's three. So is he picking them up and throwing them back down?

00:22 - Angela Andrews 

I knew what you meant.

00:24 - Johan Philippine 

He's not quite that destructive with the tech yet.

00:26 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah, I'm just kidding.

00:28 - Angela Andrews 

But yes, today's children are really just born with technology in their palms and they know how to work it and use it almost without having to be shown how to use said technology. It's in their blood, I think.

00:43 - Johan Philippine  


00:45 - Johan Philippine 

For today's episode, I spoke to a lot of teachers who teach tech to young people. I met them through Red Hat Academy. That's a program that helps teachers teach IT to students across the country. And they brought up something that was very interesting to me. Their students often know how to use technology, but they don't always really understand how it works.

01:09 - Johan Philippine 

Now, I was lucky to have both parents working in the tech industry and my parents taught me a lot about tech in general.

01:16 - Brent Simoneaux 

Your parents have a really interesting background, don't they?

01:19 - Johan Philippine 

Yeah. They both worked in the video games industry for quite a long time.

01:24 - Angela Andrews 

So you had the cool parents is what you're saying.

01:27 - Johan Philippine 

I did. I did.

01:28 - Brent Simoneaux 

Party at Johan's house!

01:30 - Johan Philippine 

We had many a LAN party in high school. It was fun.

01:34 - Brent Simoneaux 


01:35 - Johan Philippine 

My dad and I, he would teach me how to run ethernet cables through the walls so that multiple rooms would have internet access. And now it's something that I do when I move into a new place.

01:47 - Brent Simoneaux 

Is that something you want for your son as well?

01:50 - Johan Philippine 

Absolutely. It taught me the basics of networking, which I think is pretty important for someone running their own home network. But it also instilled the curiosity and desire to do things myself. So there's a tech angle and then there's just a general life skills angle.

02:09 - Johan Philippine 

But that got me wondering in my conversations with teachers, when kids are learning about tech in school, what do kids learn when they learn about tech?

02:22 - Brent Simoneaux 

This is Compiler, an original podcast from Red Hat.

02:26 - Angela Andrews 

We're your hosts.

02:27 - Brent Simoneaux 

I'm Brent Simoneaux.

02:28 - Angela Andrews 

And I'm Angela Andrews.

02:30 - Brent Simoneaux 

We're here to break down questions from the tech industry, big, small, and sometimes strange.

02:37 - Angela Andrews 

Each episode, we go out in search of answers from Red Hatters and people they're connected to.

02:43 - Brent Simoneaux 

Today's question: What do kids learn when they learn about tech?

02:51 - Angela Andrews 

Producer Johan Philippine is here to help us out.

02:56 - Johan Philippine 

I wanted to get a broad overview of what students are learning in classes. So first I spoke with a middle school teacher. Now, these students are still pretty young. Sometimes they're not even old enough to legally sign the terms and conditions of use for the software they might want to use, but they still need to learn the technology and they still need to learn what's going on in the world around them. So Allen Spector, the teacher I spoke with, clued us in on what these teens and pre-teens are looking for in the world of tech.

03:31 - Allen Spector 

I think students sign up for my technology class because I think some students are interested in becoming more technically sophisticated. They really like technology. For some students, it's intellectual nourishment. They really enjoy problem solving. And for other students, it's escapism. It's a way for them to be in a different world and do something different than regular classes. I think a lot of students are hoping to get real world skills.

03:58 - Johan Philippine 

Now, that last part was pretty surprising to me. I was expecting some of those answers, but not the real world skills part. I expected that to come much later than for students in middle school. In middle school, I personally, I was learning maybe the very basics of programming, but it was to do silly stuff.

04:20 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. I was playing the Oregon Trail. That was about all I was doing on the computer.

04:26 - Angela Andrews 

Well, I'm dating myself and I don't even know if I used a computer in middle school. So there's that.

04:33 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. Well, I mean, but what about technology more generally, was that a thing that you were interested in at that time?

04:39 - Angela Andrews 

I guess to some extent. I mean, folks were starting to have computers in their homes and it just became a little bit more prevalent. I'm sure we had a computer class, like, we actually had a class where we worked on computers. I'm sure we did. It's just that, I just don't remember it in middle school, but it was becoming very popular and prevalent at the time. So with that, you were curious about, "Well, how does it work? Well, how do you use it? Well, what can you do with it?" Yes, the game part is totally awesome. But yeah, it was just one of those things that a lot of folks were really curious about in middle school.

05:20 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. We always had a computer, a personal computer, in our household. My mother was pretty computer savvy. She taught me how to type. She taught me how to do DOS commands and play games on the computer and stuff. And I think that's where a lot of my interest in technology started.

05:41 - Johan Philippine 

Real world skills are part of what the students want to get out of Allen's technology classes, but that's not all that they're getting. Especially since a lot of them aren't very familiar with computers.

05:53 - Brent Simoneaux 

Wait, that surprises me, Johan.

05:54 - Johan Philippine 

How so?

05:55 - Brent Simoneaux 

I just think of technology as being so ubiquitous now. I think I just, for whatever reason, think about kids being really just tech savvy.

06:05 - Johan Philippine 

Well, it's one thing to be exposed to the technology and being able to pick it up very quickly when you have access to it. But Allen is a teacher for a Title I school. These are schools that receive additional federal funding based on need. And so a lot of these students haven't had the same access to technology maybe that I had when I grew up. And another interesting point that came up in my conversations is that the world of technology has changed quite a bit. Some students have never interacted with a keyboard and a mouse before because desktops became really popular for a while. And then as tablets and Chromebooks and these cheaper options and smartphones came around, parents weren't buying desktops at home anymore. So the whole mouse and keyboard is being phased out of a lot of homes. And so Allen is more interested in teaching his students to be comfortable with technology.

07:02 - Allen Spector 

It's more about teaching them to be more technically sophisticated. The more technically sophisticated they are, the easier it'll be for them to intuit what to do next. For me, it's a journey and I just want to help them become more technically sophisticated so as they grow and as technology changes, they're not afraid and they are able to have, perhaps, a head start in life.

07:22 - Johan Philippine 

It's about getting these students familiar with the tools and processes of technology so that they can focus on the actual work that they want to do rather than having to struggle with the tools with which they want to actually build something.

07:36 - Brent Simoneaux 

In some ways it's more about learning how to learn something than it is just learning X, Y, and Z skills.

07:44 - Johan Philippine 

Yeah. I think that's exactly it. To Allen, these tech skills, which he teaches in his computer classes, he also teaches them in his quote unquote regular classes, right? He's also an English teacher and he's teaching his English students how to use Google slides to make their presentations on books and stuff like that.

08:02 - Brent Simoneaux 

Man after my own heart.

08:05 - Johan Philippine 

Mine too.

08:08 - Allen Spector 

I think what they're gaining is superior problem solving skills. And they're learning to take a problem apart and be able to put it back together. They're also learning how to follow directions, take notes. And they're also learning the satisfaction of, "Hey, if I can't solve a problem right away, that might take me more than a day, when I do solve it, the exuberance you feel when you figure something out."

08:35 - Johan Philippine 

Again, Allen really emphasizes getting his students to know enough about the tools to be brave enough to try things that succeed or fail. And that's very useful in working with the at-times temperamental world of technology, but it's also useful in the oftentimes temperamental world at large. And it helps the students become creators at a very young age.

08:59 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. That's an interesting distinction because I think so much of the time we are or we can be consumers of technology rather than creators of technology or producers of technology. And that is that kind of digital literacy or technological literacy, I don't know what to call it, but there's something there and there's something very important and powerful about that as well.

09:28 - Angela Andrews 

The fact that he's introducing these tools to his students at such a young age and giving them the runway to learn and do and create and fail and try again, that's technology in a nutshell. As they get older, they're going to realize, "Yeah, maybe the tool changed, but the skills that we've learned and that we've amassed, they're going to carry us through and they're going to continue to change, and we're going to continue to change right along with them."

09:59 - Brent Simoneaux 


10:02 - Johan Philippine 

So we started with middle schoolers, right?

10:05 - Brent Simoneaux 


10:05 - Johan Philippine 

Preteens and early teen years. They're kind of just getting into the world of IT. My next guest, he's a high school teacher. In high school, the students, they're in the throes of figuring out who they are and what they might want to do with their lives. Very early stages of that.

10:24 - Brent Simoneaux 

I feel like I'm still on that stage.

10:25 - Johan Philippine 

Yeah. We go through cycles, right?

10:29 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. Yeah.

10:31 - Johan Philippine 

Well, for high school, Mark Smith is there to welcome his students with open arms, to the large world of IT. And he shared with us what motivates his students to join his classes.

10:44 - Mark Smith 

You have some that sign up because they like IT and they know they want to work there. You have some, because their parents know that they want them to work in IT. You have some that, they like to game and computers are good for gaming, right? I think you have a range of reasons why they sign up.

11:03 - Johan Philippine 

It's still fairly similar to the motivations that Allen shared for middle school students, but it seems like there's a little bit more direction to their desires, right? I mean, some of them are much more career focused at this point, if not necessarily saying that they know exactly what they want to do with their lives, they're thinking like, "Oh, this would be maybe a cool thing for me to learn long term," right?

11:25 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. Or maybe their parents want them to work in IT. Yeah. I also imagine, whether that's what your parents do or not, working in IT can be a really good job. So I can imagine either your parents, no matter who they are or what they do, pushing you in that direction. Or you yourself knowing as a high schooler, that, that's a great career to have.

11:51 - Angela Andrews 

Exactly. There are good salaries to be had in IT in tech. And as a parent, I will admit, I tried very hard to get both of my kids interested in technology in one way or another. I understand that as a parent, you want your kids to learn those skills because you know it'll bode well for them when they get out into the job market, but you have to do what you love.

12:17 - Brent Simoneaux 


12:20 - Johan Philippine 

I think part of all that is that a lot of the focus, at least in the wider world of talking about teaching technology to young people, is that it centers around teaching them programming specifically.

12:34 - Angela Andrews 

Exactly. And that's not it, that's not all of it. Right.

12:39 - Johan Philippine 

It's only part of Mark's curriculum, but it's still a really big part of it.

12:44 - Mark Smith 

Most of the students know "Program. Yes, I want a program." So is the most important thing I teach them. Yes. But here's why. I think one, it's really good to understand programming for just organizational, structural patterns, things like this. I think that's important. I also think it's important because some people go, "I do like this and this is more what I want to experiment with." And some go, "I don't like this. I would not want to do this all day long." And for them to go, "Okay, there's a whole other world out there in IT. It's not just programming." And even the Goldilocks of going, "Well, I like programming, but maybe not all of it." They're scripting. So there's a middle ground as well that you might enjoy that you can dabble in the programming mindset without having to do that full-time.

13:38 - Brent Simoneaux 

Oh, that's such an important point because I think part of being young, part of being in high school is trying a lot of things out and seeing if it is something that you want to do. And I think what he's saying there is that the world of technology is really big. And if you only focus on programming, you're going to miss out on trying things that are also out there.

14:04 - Johan Philippine 

Yeah. Some of these students, they have some direction about where they want to go and what they want to do. And for some of them it's programming, but for the others, it ends up not being programming.

14:15 - Mark Smith 

I want to expose them to as much breadth and giving them depth to understand how large IT is. So again, we focus on Python and programming concepts in general and how those all connect. We focus on hardware, which is, I think, quite huge. They build computers in the second class and they build it from scratch. And it's not like they're soldering boards, but I mean, they're putting all the pieces together, building modern computers that are specialized for specialized sources. They're learning basic networking. They're learning how to go into their own home routers and change settings and learn to change channels and what all that stuff means, and quality of service. They're looking at what is the operating system, and going more in depth. In the second class, it's more about Windows, but they also experiment with Linux and they also experiment with Mac OS. They look at what that does. They look at how to fix a lot of common problems.

15:19 - Johan Philippine 

That's great.

15:19 - Angela Andrews 

That's cool.

15:20 - Brent Simoneaux 

Right? Isn't that really cool? I'm kind of jealous. To be honest, I'm kind of jealous. Why didn't I have this in high school?

15:29 - Angela Andrews 


15:30 - Johan Philippine 

He tells me that even these days when he talks to a lot of parents of his students, one of the biggest questions he gets is, "Hey, can I learn this too? Can I take this class?" He's a big advocate for adult schools picking up these topics because they're really, really, really useful.

15:46 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. But also, I don't know what your high schools were like, but I felt like there was a lot of, for me, sitting at a desk and listening and learning and taking a test. And it sounds like what he's doing is much more active. They're building things. They are doing things.

16:07 - Angela Andrews 

They're creating. They're doing.

16:09 - Brent Simoneaux 


16:09 - Johan Philippine 


16:10 - Angela Andrews 

Well, I was lucky enough to go to a... I don't even know what they call it, but we had shops and we would pick a shop and there were different majors and we had the opportunity to pick what we wanted to do. So they had technology, they had healthcare. I'm going off on a tangent here, but this is literally what my high school did. You could be a plumber, you could be a machinist.

16:34 - Brent Simoneaux 

Oh, we did not have that.

16:34 - Angela Andrews 

You can go through and you can test the water and see what you wanted to do. 10th grade, you'd pick and that would be your major for three years. And people were actually certified barbers and beauticians. They actually got a license from the state and started their careers, 17 and 18 years old.

16:52 - Brent Simoneaux 


16:53 - Johan Philippine 

It's interesting that you mentioned that because part of what Mark tries to have his students get by the end of his classes are certifications in IT.

17:04 - Brent Simoneaux 

That's very practical.

17:06 - Johan Philippine 

He puts a lot of emphasis on balancing the lecturing aspects that you were talking about earlier, Brent, but also doing a lot of the hands-on stuff because some of it is just the best way to teach. Again, just like Allen was teaching in middle school, find out what doesn't work, right? Try something, fail, figure out why it fails, try again until eventually you've got your project put together and something that works.

17:32 - Brent Simoneaux 

What do we think is the value of what Mark and what Allen are doing with their students versus learning all of this from a YouTuber, for example?

17:43 - Angela Andrews 

Well, they have context. They have curriculum around it. They have someone who's lighting their path, right, and feeding their curiosity. So to have that, to have an instructor there in front of you, teaching you the thing, but also teaching you how to problem solve and figure things out, teach a man to fish type thing…

18:05 - Johan Philippine 


18:05 - Brent Simoneaux 


18:06 - Angela Andrews 

That's what we don't get in the YouTube era. I agree with you. Can you learn just about anything through YouTube or some sort of online platform? There's a lot of that, but there's something special in having that live interaction and that live instruction and having those questions answered and asking more questions when people say something and they generate more thoughts and more interests.

18:34 - Brent Simoneaux 

That community around you.

18:36 - Angela Andrews 

The community around you is what gives you that extra oomph. YouTube is great, but being in these classrooms, getting this content is really, almost priceless at this age.

18:52 - Johan Philippine 

So we spoke to Allen about middle schoolers and getting an introduction to using technology and being comfortable with it. As the students got a little older, we spoke to Mark about getting maybe a little bit more direction in their life, starting to get some of those tech skills and figuring out what they want to do, or at least start to think about what they want to do with the rest of their lives. I then spoke to Benjamin Branch. He is an assistant professor at Shaw University.

19:25 - Brent Simoneaux 

We've graduated high school and we're onto college now.

19:28 - Johan Philippine 

We're on to college. So by that time, the students who are able to and choose to go to college, they probably have some idea of the general field they want to pursue. That's what Benjamin Branch sees from his students.

19:40 - Benjamin Branch 

I believe that students sign up for my classes, such that they can be exposed to industry-level material, and so that they can get an advantage when they are trying to move from academia to industry such that they can begin to speak the language of industry and become literate about things that make them valuable to a company in industry.

20:04 - Johan Philippine 

So already, that's a very big change from what we heard from Mark and Allen, right? While in middle school and high school, they're building a foundation of IT skills, these college students sound very focused on career skills.

20:20 - Brent Simoneaux 

It seems like it's also a matter of speaking the language as well. Speaking the language of industry is I think what he said.

20:26 - Johan Philippine 


20:27 - Benjamin Branch 

I try to break it down at a high non-technical level and then gently bleed down into some of the technical skills that you're going to be able to need. And we don't have time to get down into the depths of every skill, especially in the classes with the freshman and sophomores. But in the more advanced classes, we do try to get... Like for a senior, and they want to graduate and get a job, I say, "Guys, we have to go very, very fast. We don't have much time." And I think I try to help them be realistic, but sometimes to take on a new skill, sometimes that's 10,000 hours of practice and study and we at least try to identify a roadmap that they can get to their desired skill level to try to make the desired level of compensation that they want to make. But that is one thing that I do is try to give them a roadmap, because without a roadmap, you can't make steps to go where you want to go.

21:25 - Johan Philippine 

So Benjamin's teaching his students technical useful skills, but he doesn't necessarily have all the time that he or the students would like to learn them in as much depth as they're going to need in industry. So he teaches them to then go out and keep learning them on their own. And that's huge.

21:43 - Angela Andrews 

That is huge.

21:46 - Brent Simoneaux 

I can tell you that from experience too. A semester feels like a long time when you're a student, because it's four or five months or whatever, but it's really not a lot of time. It's really not a lot of time. There's only so much you can do.

22:01 - Angela Andrews 

Yeah. This is really important because he's teaching on the collegiate level and at some point, these students will be out in the world. And him helping them develop a roadmap as to where they think their career is going to be, that's really helpful because again, they're college students. They're not out in the industry yet. They may not know what it takes necessarily to get from where they are now to where they'd like to be in their careers. And it's nice that he's giving them, because there's always multiple roads to get to where you want to go. But at least if you have that roadmap, it kind of helps you chart your own course and figure out how to get to where you want to be. So, that's really what college is all about though, right?

22:46 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah. There's that career roadmap. And then there's also that skills roadmap as well.

22:53 - Angela Andrews 

I mean, you go to college fully prepared to learn your career, to find a career, to figure out a career. But there's other things that come along with that. They're teaching you the ability to research, the ability to problem solve and troubleshoot.

23:06 - Brent Simoneaux 


23:06 - Johan Philippine 

Yeah. And what's really interesting is that all these teachers are teaching these life skills, right? And they're not necessarily doing it overtly, but that's what these students are picking up when they learn all these other things as well. He's really teaching his students to plan ahead and dive deeper on the topics that they're interested in on their own.

23:26 - Benjamin Branch 

Instead of me trying to tell them, instead of me to give them a fish, I'm trying to teach them how to fish. So I have them read the literature, a lot of the news press clippings. I try to help... I don't try to paint the picture, but hopefully from the reading, they can begin to paint the picture themselves.

23:45 - Johan Philippine 

When it comes to the news and the press clippings, that's a little bit more about giving them a sense of what the tech industry is like in the real world.

23:54 - Benjamin Branch 

I think there's always going to be a situation where you don't know anything, but you should have the skills to go and search the web and find it. And I think it's called Google Foo or something like that I've heard, that people use where they're on the job and they have… so what? This comes up, I've never seen it before, they go figure it out. And I think there's never enough of those scenarios that you can do. I think that is something that we need to do a better job of doing, but it takes time because I think we have to get students not afraid to go and try new things and get into new problems and maybe do some shadowing of real people who see this thing every day, such that they're not afraid and don't have a fear.

24:45 - Johan Philippine 

So by this point, I hope that sounded very familiar.

24:48 - Brent Simoneaux 


24:49 - Angela Andrews 

These are life skills that Allen, Mark and Benjamin are teaching their students. We have to use these skills every day in our careers. So, they're literally teaching students, they're wrapped in tech, but these are life skills to figure out how to be curious and not be afraid. This is interesting. We have so much in common with middle schoolers.

25:15 - Brent Simoneaux 

So, Johan, let's go back to our original question.

25:19 - Johan Philippine 


25:20 - Brent Simoneaux 

What do kids learn when they learn about tech?

25:23 - Johan Philippine 

Well, there's the obvious answer, which is that they learn the technical skills to be able to use a computer or the technology that you're using every day. But then there's exactly what Angela was just talking about, which is, as they're learning these technical skills, they're also learning life skills. Technology doesn't really live in isolation, right? It's all around us. It's part of the world that we live in. It's something that's going to change and be a part of their lives forever. Barring the nuclear apocalypse.

25:55 - Angela Andrews 

Yeah, that.

25:57 - Brent Simoneaux 

Yeah, that.

26:02 - Angela Andrews 

So, listeners, we would love for you to share your thoughts with us about this episode. What are your kids learning in school? How are you introducing tech to your kids? We want to hear about it all. Tweet us @Redhat and also use the hashtag #CompilerPodcast. We can't wait to hear what you guys have to say.

26:26 - Angela Andrews 

And that does it for this episode of Compiler.

26:30 - Brent Simoneaux 

Today's episode was produced by Johan Philippine and Caroline Creaghead. Victoria Lawton is always encouraging us to learn new things.

26:40 - Angela Andrews 

Our audio engineer is Kristie Chan. Special thanks to Shawn Cole. Our theme song was composed by Mary Ancheta.

26:49 - Brent Simoneaux 

A special thanks to our guests, Allen Spector, Mark Smith and Benjamin Branch. And also, we want to say thanks to Lea Zagorin and Jeff Dube from Red Hat Academy.

27:00 - Angela Andrews 

Our audio team includes Leigh Day, Laura Barnes, Claire Allison, Nick Burns, Aaron Williamson, Karen King, Boo Boo Howse, Rachel Ertel, Mike Compton, Ocean Matthews and Laura Walters.

27:16 - Brent Simoneaux 

If you like today's episode, please follow the show, rate the show, leave us a review. You can do that now on Spotify. Share it with someone you know. It really does help the show.

27:28 - Angela Andrews 

Thank you so much for listening, everybody. Keep listening and we'll see you soon.

27:33 - Brent Simoneaux 

See you next time.


Featured guests

Allen Spector

Mark Smith

Dr. Benjamin Branch

We were so excited about our episode on licenses—so we have a special project that we want to share. Our Compiler theme song is now under a Creative Commons license. Add your own special touch to our theme. Remixes have the chance to be featured on a future episode.