How video games prepare kids for a bright future job

03/17/2012 5:00 AM

03/18/2012 6:26 PM

Kaitlin Albright likes to kill computerized people in video games. She is a native of Caldwell, Kan., a little town on the Oklahoma state line; she is a 19-year-old freshman at Wichita State University. She has killed people in video games since she was 2 years old.

She is one of those kids that baffled parents complain about, because she’s addicted (her own word) to these video games. She estimates that she has spent more than 10,000 hours of her life killing people or doing other fun things in games like Call of Duty, or the Assassin’s Creed, or other games. Ten thousand hours, by the way, translates into 250 work weeks, or 5 years of work.

“Killing people is fun,” she says.

Her parents tried to stop her, pleading, begging, setting time limits. She got around the limits sometimes by faking out her parents in a nice way. “let’s all watch a movie together, a family night at home.” But once Mom and Dad got absorbed in the movie story, Kaitlin would sneak off and kill people.

The theory many parents might have about a child like that is that she is a lazy, unmotivated time-waster.

But her grade point average at Caldwell High School was 3.8 on a scale of 4. And her part-time job at WSU, answering phones for WSU’s chief information officer, means that she works for Ravi Pendse, arguably one of the leading authorities on the Internet, world technology, and the future of jobs.

Pendse says Kaitlin Albright is an amazing young person — and a model for the future.

He says we should embrace how she’s prepared herself for the new world that is about to challenge or dislocate all of us.

•  •  • 

Randy Roebuck is another local authority on technology and the new world we need to prepare for. He is trying hard to get people back into the work force. As the executive director for technology at Wichita Area Technical College, he’s helping heal the trauma of recession and prepping anxious workers for the new tech world roaring into existence all around us, sometimes collaborating with people at the Chamber of Commerce and with people like Pendse.

Roebuck worries about some people coming to WATC. They need jobs. But a fair number of them seem surprised and dismayed when WATC people ask them at the front door whether they know digital technology.

“Why do I need to know that?” some of them say. “I just want to be a welder.” Or, “I just want to be a sheet metal worker.”

But what many welders and sheet metal workers do now, in Wichita, one best places in the world to be a welder or sheet metal worker, is use digital tools. Welding and sheet metal, some of it, gets done now with computers and digital technology.

Within five years, Roebuck said, all the 3,000 or so students at WATC are going to need not just a smartphone, but will need to carry around an iPad.

Roebuck and other educators say this world is sweeping us into a new dimension, in which many of us will need technical skills that many of us do not have. Roebuck and other technically skilled educators say if we don’t prepare and train and obtain continuing-education classes, we could get left behind. For example, he said, you can’t even be nurse now without knowing technology; nurses are using a number of technological tools every day. At WATC, there were 400 applicants for the 40 seats in the school’s nursing class. Everything is competitive; if you know technology, you have a better shot.

Which brings us back to Kaitlin Albright.

•  •  • 

One day recently at WSU, Pendse was telling people about “Outliers,” the book in which writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote about how the creative mind works. Gladwell made the point that people like the Beatles and Bill Gates are not merely “gifted.” Before John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bill changed the world, and even before they achieved age 21, Gladwell said they practiced relentlessly, perhaps 10,000 hours apiece, at the music or the computer work they felt drawn to.

After Pendse said this, the freshman who answered Pendse’s office phone spoke up.

Kaitlin Albright told Pendse that she had easily surpassed 10,000 hours playing video games long before age 21.

He loved this. He did not think she’d wasted any time.

One of the mistakes we make, he says, is to assume that young people like Albright are wasting time playing these games. “Don’t look only at how much time they spend doing these things,” he said. “Instead, look at what they can do after they do these games. These games are very demanding — to get to level 14, you first have to get past level 13. It’s demanding.”

For years now, Pendse has been captivated by young people and how they are transforming the world, learning technology at an exponential rate, in spite of strong opposition or foot-dragging from school districts and parents who don’t get it about technology.

Pendse works with Cisco, the San Jose technology company that manufactures networking equipment.

For years, Pendse has said that we should throw out all our cliche thinking about young people, and their tendencies to “waste” time texting, playing video games, and downloading what some of us think are useless YouTube videos showing a guy shooting his daughter’s laptop.

Instead of banning texting in schools, he says, we should embrace the new technology for a generation that goes to sleep when teachers lecture or mark drawings on a white board. We should embrace gamers, he says; they can do magic.

Not long ago, Pendse said, Scientific American magazine reported how scientists had tried for 10 years to figure out the protein structure of a retrovirus similar to HIV. But then researchers, thinking outside the box, turned the search for the protein structure into a video game called Foldit in 2008. Teams of players folded molecules and rotated amino acids to create 3-D protein structures. Gamers came up with a good solution to the scientific puzzle in only three weeks. Their solution might lead to a drug that fights HIV, Scientific American said.

Video games don’t waste time, Pendse says. The kid who answers his office phone might well represent the future of the world.

•  •  • 

Pendse, a Ph.D., says she’s a bright person. And Albright says her life goal now is to become a neurosurgeon. Why? Because her technologically inclined science teacher in high school liked to show videos of the human brain.

There are three kinds of people, Pendse says. There are those like Kaitlin, good at technology. They will do well. There are those in the middle, like those just-over-30 people coming in to WATC who are scared, and retrain themselves for this new world. “I don’t worry about them either, because they are scared enough to be motivated to do what is necessary,” Pendse says.

Then there’s the third category: “People who like ostriches have their heads in the sand about technology.”

They are doomed to suffer, Pendse says. Their afflictions will include job loss, job dislocation, being passed over.

Whatever you might think about Kaitlin Albright’s 10,000 hours of video games, Pendse says, there is no doubt she’s an expert on games. So what good are these games?

“Well, these games are complicated,” she said. “And if you can play them, you can pretty much handle any other kind of technology that comes along.”

Kaitlin wasted none of those 10,000 hours, Pendse says. She’s trained now to handle technology, though she learned none of that in public school.

If only public schools embraced the kids’ technology, he said, the world would be a better place.

He is no basher of public schools; in fact, he says that the public schools never receive enough support or money or understanding from the public or government. We all need to help them embrace technology, he said, so they can help teach kids how to survive.

•  •  • 

If only it were as simple as that, Cathy Barbieri says.

She’s the chief information officer for Wichita Schools. As a mother, she has a personal understanding of how technology can help a child: Her son Michael, who used to irritate her playing “Angry Birds,” is the top student in his class at the Florida Coastal School of Law, a private school in Jacksonville, Fla.

His class rank is a testament not only to his dedication, but to technology, she says: he has suffered a disorder in which brain seizures impaired short-term memory. But he excels in part because he learned how to take notes on a laptop at a fantastic rate. He uses technology and relentless outlining to burn learning into his long-term memory. “Technology is part of Michael’s survival,” she says.

Barbieri herself carries a laptop and smartphone, and knows how these tools could enhance the educations of the 50,000 students of USD259.

But Pendse’s suggestions, that the school classrooms embrace texting, YouTube, smartphones, iPads, and all the other wonders would be a disaster for schools, children and parents, she says, if it was done without first figuring out certain problems:

Where’s the money to pay for not only the smartphones and iPads but the bandwidth to connect them with the Internet?

And if you allowed students to use the tools they own in class, how would you help students who can’t afford these tools? About 75 percent of those 50,000 students in the Wichita district are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches, meaning their families are poor.

And how would anyone prevent students from downloading pornography? Public schools operate in part with federal money, and that means federal mandates, including complying with the Child Internet Protection Act, which protects kids from being exposed to inappropriate web sites. Facebook is no porn site, but because of the many uses it can be put to by children, Facebook is blocked for Wichita’s 100 schools and 50,000 students. So are most other social-media sites.

Children really are as smart as Pendse says they are, Barbieri says: Some kids in USD259 know how to download apps on their mobile devices to get around the district’s Internet security blocking system. School officials like her have to stay on top of that.

The district nevertheless is doing what it can. Pleasant Valley Middle School, using money from a grant, now has 200 iPads, in a pilot program to see how this tool can be used appropriately in schools. Curtis Middle School got district money to buy 60 iPads for another test of how the iPad can be used, Barbieri said.

It would be good if we could figure out how to help these students with more technology, she says. The Internet creates many possibilities for education, many of them free. “But free is not always good.”

•  •  • 

One last word about Kaitlin.

She says her father, the police chief in Caldwell, is a nice man who knows little about technology, at least compared with her.

She understands why he and her mother tried to cut down on all those hours spent killing people.

But when he encounters a problem at the home computer, guess who he asks for help?

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