In this eight-minute TED talk, on the incredible extracurricular achievements of the tech-savvy teenagers of today, Scott McLeod makes a couple strong arguments:

1. A lot more inquiry-based learning as well as self-motivated and impactful work occurs outside of the classroom today, rather than inside.

2. We can owe this largely to the connectivity to a global audience and community that the world-wide web offers.

I agree wholeheartedly with both of these points and the underlying message that we do need to take teenagers more seriously and open our eyes to the truly incredible things young people can and do accomplish.

…But Are We All Really Champions, Now?

However, I’m hesitant to jump two-feet in towards McLeod’s final call to action:

If we want our IN school learning environments to be robust, technology-infused places, which they should be, then we have to give them something meaningful to work on, give them powerful devices and access, get out of their way… and let them be amazing.

At a first glance, that call to action sounds rousing and inspiring and follows logically after his first two main points. The problem arises when you examine the underlying assumption to the entire talk: that all teenagers have the access, tools, skills, time, and opportunities to do all those great things. Because quite honestly, they don’t.

If you take a second watch through the video, you’ll notice that all the students featured in McLeod’s examples are almost all white and their achievements (ex: an 8-year-old girl videoblogging her successes engineering Arduinos or a 9-year old foodblogger turned famous) are indicative of their socioeconomic privileges. Now, this isn’t to say that this 8-year old’s engineering prowess isn’t impressive–it most certainly is!–but by only looking at successful extracurricular digital citizenship feats of teenagers who have unfettered access to the digital world and its tools*, this prescription of “give them powerful devices and access and then get out of their way,” is not actually a recipe for success.

In fact, what happens when you use this prescription and ignore the kind and quality of access students have to the digital domain, is a further widening of digital inequalities: students who already have a baseline set of digital competencies soar and thrive in this kind of environment… but students who struggle with the cornerstones of digital literacy are left scrambling, trying to learn both the technical skills and competencies and figure out the content and a creative approach for their digital productions.

Championing Nuanced Analyses of Digital Inequalities

We definitely do need to reexamine the greater conversation of how teenagers are interacting with technology outside of school, so that we can better leverage how and what they learn inside school–BUT that examination has to factor in huge variability in the quality of access and levels of digital fluency that students are coming to the table with. Only then can we ensure that we don’t unintentionally wind up twenty years from now with an even worse digital divide epidemic than what we discovered in the ’90s, but this time dividing those who have learned how to learn from and make the most of digital technologies (exhibiting digital fluency) from those who have worked hard to attain foundational digital literacy… but who are now getting left behind.


*Research has shown that when it comes to digital literacy and fluency development, autonomy of use (i.e. the quality and quantity of autonomous, independent, time spent using and exploring technologies) is one of the biggest differentiators of how digitally fluent an adolescent is. What that translates to is this difference:

Student A, who has her own laptop to use at home (whenever she wants to and for however long she wants to) and two parents who each have their own computing devices and are available to offer her suggestions and help if she gets stuck with a technical issue. Once she’s done finishing her school homework and submitting it online, she spends her evenings teaching herself HTML and CSS so that she can customize her Tumblr theme.

Student B, who shares a desktop computer at home with his two sisters, mom, and step-dad. He and his sisters each take turns doing their homework on the computer and argue over whose turn it is this week to play Minecraft online. Time on the computer is limited and so he makes sure to get the maximum amount of fun out of his hours each week.

Student C, whose family does not own a computer, and so he completes the few homework assignments he gets that require computer-use at the local public library. He works on public computers that have 30-minute time limits for each station, and he exclusively uses the computer to finish his homework assignments.