Children using technology

Meet the Realtimers, future workforce of the world

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The future workforce is the most connected and technologically aware generation to date. What does this actually mean for our prospective employees? Will their changing minds forever alter the workplace?

Forget the Millennials. Here are the Realtimers, the next generation of coders and thinkers. They are the age group which has had lifetime access and use of communication and media technologies. However, there is an ongoing debate about whether this advantageous knowledge and easy access to tech is detrimental or beneficial to their development as working adults.

To really predict what the future workforce will be like, we need to look at how much technology today’s children are exposed to, and what it may be doing to their cognitive growth.

Reader in cognitive psychology Dr Tim Smith and his team at Birkbeck, University of London, questioned 715 parents about their child’s daily touchscreen use and sleep patterns. He says the children, who were between 6 and 36 months old, “were showing interesting developments in using devices at such an early age. We documented usage to see if there are associations or particular behaviours that we would usually look for in development over the first years of life.”

The team found children swiping and exploring the touchscreen were able to stack blocks from an earlier age, thus developing fine motor skills prematurely.

Concerning the relationship between the screen and real world “we didn’t find any negative patterns with learning and language age, or how they associate with reality,” he assures. However, they found children’s sleeping was affected. For every extra hour of touchscreen use during the day, children were sleeping for nearly 16 minutes less in each 24-hour period. As sleep is important for cognitive growth, Smith is unsure of future implications: “There is a lot of anecdotal evidence of what we see in everyday life, and children being advanced users of technology and changing how they socially interact with people.

“Yet it’s unclear how applicable those findings are and what changes the technology environment might have on child development. It’s tricky to be able to make that prediction right now.”

There have been other studies on whether iPads and technology benefit a child’s learning experience, such as ‘The Technology Trends Report 2017’ by online retailer LaptopsDirect. This showed that 74 per cent of parents surveyed believed tech improved their children’s problem-solving skills, 67 per cent felt it enhanced their children’s writing skills, and 54 per cent worried their child would be behind peers if they didn’t use technology.

Another report, ‘Mobile Devices in Early Learning’ by Stranmillis University College in Northern Ireland, aimed to assess the impact of portable devices like iPads on almost 650 pupils in five Belfast primary schools and nursery schools/pre-schools for two years. This found that the introduction of devices had a positive impact on development of children’s literacy and numeracy skills. Their communication skills also improved, especially when sharing an iPad.

However, Professor Alan Dix of the Human-Computer Interaction Centre at University of Birmingham says: “There is growing evidence that electronic media (books and note-taking) have negative effects on learning.”

He adds there are interlinked issues concerning children and technology, with more or less equal evidence for each: the benefits of digital technology in education (e.g. eBooks, electronic note-taking), impact of non-educational digital technology (games, social media) on cognition or behaviour, and whether effects of the first two points make permanent differences, especially on very young children who are in early stages of cognitive development.

“There has – of course – been much said about the need for schools (and universities) to use the latest technology,” he quips.

For example, in an article from the news website The Georgia Straight, Lia De Cicco Remu, director of Partners in Learning at Microsoft Canada, says: “Kids don’t express themselves with chalk or in cursive. Kids text.” She adds we shouldn’t expect children to “go to school and sit in the same seat everyday with pens and paper” because “when they come home, they’ve got all these devices and they’re gaming and they’re doing all this great stuff online, and the expectation at school is to do something radically different. Would you want to do it?”

However, many studies now seem to indicate problems in actual use. Dix says: “A cross-country Unesco report found that while some technology positively connected with educational attainment beyond a basic level, adding more technology led to poorer results.

“It could be these effects are due to the need for interfaces and practices to ‘catch up’,” he suggests.

Also, Dix says that evidence has shown non-tech note-taking is better than electronic. However, this seems to be due to the tendency to transcribe electronically “rather than digest and summarise, as happens with paper notes. Perhaps it is possible to have electronic note-taking systems that encourage reflection, or train students to use electronic note-taking differently. 

“It would be good if this were true, as there are clear advantages for electronic notes in terms of indexing, sharing, etc, but with current technology it certainly seems that these advantages come with a significant educational cost,” says Dix.

Also, a report from news agency SWNS Digital says children as young as three are hindering their emotional intelligence by spending too much time on smartphones, tablets and computer consoles.

It says children need to spend time with each other to learn sharing, effective communication and emotional development. Dr Amanda Gummer, founder of Fundamentally Children, issued the warning and blamed ‘Me’ and ‘Now’ cultures, along with children being over-protected by parents who are not encouraging them to take responsibility for their own happiness and wellbeing. 

She added: “There is a growing concern that the increase in remote communication hinders children’s emotional development and actually children today can find it more difficult to understand and manage their emotions. Inter-personal relationships play a huge role in development of emotional skills and there is a worrying trend for children to spend less time socialising with others and more time in solitary situations, so they may be getting fewer opportunities to practise those important skills.

“The last 10 years have seen a massive increase in screen use and a trend for children to get access to and ownership of their first mobile device at ever younger ages,” Gummer points out.

“The main area for concern is with very young children. If they develop a screen-based play pattern before they start school they’re likely to be less able to share and make the most of the learnings available in a social, classroom setting.”

Dr Jim Taylor, author of ‘Raising Generation Tech: Raising Children in a Media-Fuelled World’ predicts that for the future workforce, there will be a decline in the skill to collaborate effectively, a weakening in creative and innovative thinking, and less healthy and productive personnel. “There will be huge social and physical opportunity costs with excessive device use; time spent in front of a screen is time not spent interacting with other people (social and emotional skills are skills that develop only with practice), with being physically active, and directly manipulating the environment.”

Literacy specialist Sue Palmer concurs: “A long-term research study by Philip Adie and Michael Shayer showed that, on Piagetian tests of conceptual understanding, 11-year-old children in 2004 performed at the level of 8/9-year-olds in 1990. It was during this period that outdoor play seriously declined.

“Under the age of 7/8, children learn best from real-life, active, ‘embodied’ experience and interaction, rather than two-dimensional screen-based play. Unless we reinstate ‘real play’ at the heart of care and education for the under-sevens, many elements of ‘employability’, including problem-solving skills, will be adversely affected.”

Another skill that must be learned is self-control. Adam Alter, psychologist and professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, is reported in the Irish Examiner as believing up to half of us may suffer from some form of behavioural addiction, which means addiction not to a substance but to patterns of behaviour: “checking and scrolling and clicking and watching”. So if you put “something shiny and interesting in front of [children], they will gravitate towards that even to their detriment”, he says.

It seems our Realtimers are doomed, but what about their views? What do they want from their careers?

‘The Age of Digital Enlightenment’, a 2016 report by IT business Logicalis, surveyed 1,000 UK 13-17-year-olds on their digital habits, opinions of the digital future, and expectations for their education and careers and employers in terms of digital technology and enablement. The young people surveyed spend about nine hours a day online and mobile (93 per cent have a smartphone), own five digital devices and, as Gerry Carroll, marketing director of Logicalis UK says in the report, are “collaborating, consuming, publishing content, or coding their own digital solutions, they are increasingly sophisticated in their digital literacy”.

Of the survey respondents, 41 per cent are studying computer science, and when given a list of career options the number one choice for the boys (but not girls) was IT and information management. Seven per cent have tried hacking, equating to at least one hacker per classroom. Most say they’re doing it for fun or out of curiosity.

Realtimers also recognise the benefit of IT to their future careers – 52 per cent would make ICT and computer sciences a mandatory qualification in the curriculum, 71 per cent believe it will be more important to know how to use IT, and 56 per cent would like to create their own apps to use on a company’s IT infrastructure.

The report says we must ensure we have the technology in working environments and educational establishments to guarantee we can keep up with the future workforce and foster their digital skillset.

Carroll says a “Silicon Valley addiction” and a revised ICT curriculum that focuses on ‘how’ as well as ‘what’ mean the percentage learning to code (18 per cent) is steadily increasing, up from 16 per cent in 2014 and 7 per cent in 2013.

He believes that building a knowledge economy – innovating the next big technology trends – needs creators and coders. “We also need skilled ICT engineers to help established organisations implement new digital infrastructures, to enable digital transformation, and maintain competitive advantage from the continued computerisation of operational processes.

“They instinctively know how to use and exploit digital apps, devices and data.”

According to a 2015 study by Oxford University and Deloitte, 35 per cent of jobs will be lost to computerisation, yet we will probably need a workforce to manage digitalised functions, apps, and the ‘Internet of Everything’.

In response to these ‘digitally automated jobs’, the Logicalis report says we are likely to see creation of new careers – at the very least to build, maintain, manage and analyse the applications and subsequent data generation – so will need a workforce with the digital skills to fulfil them.

Carroll reckons that from schools to business to UK government, organisations should be mapping their digital transformation and enablement, bringing insights of the digitally literate into the strategy process. “Realtimers have an opportunity to achieve the efficiency and productivity gains from ICT that we promise ourselves and find difficult to deliver – and enable the digitalisation of our businesses while establishing new careers to achieve this,” he adds.

Some argue that digital technology is causing problems, while some see positives. Interestingly though, many seem to agree on the underlying evidence. As Dix states: “It is not so much that the digital devices are leaving us cognitively impaired, but that our emotional responses are affected, which then has effects on performance.”

Even the ‘optimistic’ view, like Daniel T Willingham in his ‘Smartphones Don’t Make Us Dumb’ article in The New York Times, says that “digital devices are not eating away at our brains. They are, however, luring us toward near-constant outwardly directed thought, a situation that’s probably unique in human experience.”

For Dix, potential for permanent change is most worrying: “Accounts of people who take ‘digital breaks’ usually include statements that they found their attention spans growing after a few days, suggesting that any negative effects are temporary and can be unlearnt just as they have been learnt.”

He was “looking at the way the presence of the web changes the nature of cognition and asking what cognitive skills we need for this (e.g. more information seeking, less memorisation). However, the frightening thing was when looking at learning theories, it became evident early access to the web is likely to discourage precisely the constructive learning skills needed for using the web later – rather like sitting a toddler in a Porsche rather than a tricycle.”

The Logicalis report says schools should be careful to consider the most relevant application of digital tools for learning within the classroom, as it’s easy to fall into the trap of implementing technology for technology’s sake and inhibit the usefulness of a digital strategy.

In the workplace, more than half of Realtimers surveyed agree the provision and funding of digital devices, services and tools is the responsibility of the employer. With 69 per cent expecting to work flexibly, both in hours and location, they will probably think it fruitless to travel daily to an office.

Smith reckons the future workforce may be able to also find solutions to problems we cannot grasp: “All the media, books and TV screens do not afford as much interactivity and may become a good thing for them as they see the limitations of this technology that you and I didn’t see because we grew up with it. As information becomes more accessible through conversation, gesture and intelligence of the computer interface, they will have greater ownership and possibly take advantage of the immediacy of seeking things out and getting things done in the digital realm.”

He adds that extrapolating from the children in the iPad study, “boundaries are not there, our understanding of how questions are answered and how information is gathered, to spend time to get information, that’s all gone”.

Taylor says: “Information used to be king; whoever had it could control the world (well, not quite, but you get the idea).

 “Now information is freely and easily available to everyone, so it isn’t that important. What is important is the ability to turn data into knowledge into experience, wisdom, and new ideas and new information.  But information is the beginning and having it available isn’t enough. Rather, it must be learned, ingrained, and then integrated into a larger set for it to have value.”

Steve Braund, marketing manager at Develop Training, says: “Numbers-wise, projections show [Realtimers] will make up 20 per cent of the UK’s workforce by 2020. In terms of interaction in the workplace, studies suggest they have an attention span of just eight seconds, having been raised on a diet of instant media.” Realtimers struggle to focus in environments where prolonged attention is needed, but can actively sustain attention span if content is engaging.

Braund adds: “We see this more as a reflection of their ability to absorb information from multiple sources without being distracted from a primary task, rather than anything derogatory.

“They are passionate about the world around them, and about progressing in their careers quickly.  As such, expect them to engage with socially aware organisations that invest in technology and in their employees, including training programmes. These should be delivered through a variety of tactics, such as online training complemented by classroom learning and hands-on learning, especially in industries where practical skills are vital, such as construction and utilities.“

The Logicalis report says understanding and drawing upon Realtimers’ innate skills and behaviour is an opportunity to evolve and digitally enable our workplaces, infrastructure, operations and culture, and to finally realise the productivity promise from technology. 

What today's teens think about technology

The most important skills and qualities in the workplace, according to the young people surveyed by IT business Logicalis, are time management (35 per cent), the ability to use ICT programmes (29 per cent) and team leadership (28 per cent).

35 per cent say earning a living wage is their top priority.

81 per cent think teachers do a great job integrating digital learning into the classroom.

79 per cent of the young people believe teaching is better when technology is used.

71 per cent believe it will be more important to know how to use IT, rather than create it.

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