A few days ago, I had one of the very much older volunteers at the Mesa FamilySearch Library ask for some help with a tablet computer. The experience started me thinking even more about the challenges technology add to the already substantial challenges of genealogy. This is something I have written about from time to time, but in light of some of the trends in genealogy, I always have more to say on the subject.
1. Genealogy is not a video game.
I was watching one of my young grandsons play a simple video game on an iPad. His mother (my daughter) told him to put it away or she would ground him from playing video games indefinitely. He reluctantly put the machine away and did the task he had been assigned (sort of). There is this huge unsupported assumption that because these children can manipulate a computer or video game to play games that they are somehow now competent to do genealogical research. Where does this come from? I can drive a car, a rather complicated skill, but that doesn't help me understand how to do research. Driving a car may be useful to get me to the Library, but it is not a core skill for research.
Let's look at my grandson, a wonderful child with many talents. He can read at grade level but almost never does (he is one of a few who don't. Most of my grandchildren are avid readers). This is not a criticism, he is normal. He is very young and cannot spell or type on a computer adequately yet. Making the jump from playing computer games to searching the U.S. Census records is very a very, very large jump. He can play any number of computer games much better than I will ever try to do.
Here is another issue. He cannot read cursive. They do not teach children cursive writing in our schools to the extent that they can read other's handwriting. If I gave him a handwritten document from my Great-grandmother to read, it may as well have been written in Chinese.
2. Computer skills have already become a core skill for genealogical research.
Now, you will say, this second point contradicts my first one. It does not. What I said was that playing computer games does not qualify someone for doing genealogical research. The next question is does my young grandson have any useful computer skills? (I am not picking on him, I am just using a very bright young boy as an example). More generally, do most of the younger children have those skills. The answer is mixed. For example, almost 45% of all households nationally still do not use the Internet according to the Children's Partnership, a national, nonprofit child advocacy organization. Further statistics show that 26% of 4th graders and 34% of 8th graders in Arizona scored below the basic level of math that is expected in their grade (national average is 19% and 30%, respectively). OK, so I could go on. Merely because someone we know who is "young" can operate an X-box or Wii or cellphone, does not indicate "computer literacy."
Computer skills are comparable to reading ability. Some cannot read at all, but the levels of reading ability are huge. I know people who when handed a letter or document will hand it back and if asked if they are not going to read it, will say, "I already did." They can read an entire page at a glance and understand what they read. The same thing happens with computers. There are people that consider me to be a computer whiz. But compared to some of my own children and their spouses, I am a rank beginner.
What has happened in genealogy and is increasing becoming an established fact, is that without recourse to a computer you are severely limited in doing genealogical research today. End of story. When we talk about the vast online resources available, it is just that, they are online. Many repositories no longer have paper access to their records. They are only available online. For example, the Maricopa County Court system is entirely online, we file all of our pleadings in electronic format. You cannot even look at paper documents in the court anymore, you have to look online. Computer skills are no longer optional.
"Digital literacy is a complex and contested term. It is often understood as the ability to participate in a range of of critical and creative practices that involve understanding, sharing and creating meaning with different kinds of technology and media." See “It’s not chalk and talk anymore” School approaches to developing students’ digital literacy."
The same could be said about genealogy. Adding genealogy to computer skills makes for two highly complex skills. Genealogy is not made "easier" by adding in computer skills, it is facilitated. It is actually more difficult because you have to acquire additional skills.
There are many distinctive aspects to computer literacy such as the physical ability to type, operate a mouse or touchpad and other devices, the ability to understand and operate menu driven hierarchal programs, an ability to conceptualize abstract concepts such as virtual files and organization and many more.
Very few of the entire spectrum of computer skills are actually taught in school. Younger people have the same challenges in learning computer literacy as older people who are just beginning. Mastering one aspect of computer usage, i.e. the mechanical skills to operate the keyboard and mouse, are not entire spectrum of those necessary to acquire computer literacy.
OK, so this is just a start at this subject. I will have to continue in future posts. This is not necessarily a series. What I am hoping to do is start some discussion of the real needs of those learning genealogy today and not basing that assessment on invalid assumptions.