Debunking the Age-old Technology Myth


"Many times, the thought of fear itself is greater than what it is we fear." - Idowu Koyenikan


Too often I hear educators say that they aren't good at technology—that they are afraid that they are going to press the wrong button, make a mistake, or even break something.  I believe that part of the reason is due to their fixed mindset regarding their ability to learn and use technology, and the other part is due to a negative stereotype that has been around for years.

Unless you have been living under a rock, you are probably aware of the stereotype between a person's age, and their ability to use technology effectively. People generally believe that there is an inverse correlation between a person's age, and their technology skills.  The stereotype is that as age increases, technology skills decrease.  More specifically, after the age of 25 (where technology skills are thought to peak) the skills drop off significantly with age. 


Figure 1: Age vs. Technology Skills Stereotype

If we look at the above chart, the line graph depicts the stereotype that I previously mentioned.  On a scale from 0 to 10, where 0 represents the minimum technology skills, and 10 represents the maximum technology skills, you can see a visual representation of this stereotype (See Figure 1).  I would like you to locate your age, and consider if this graph accurately represents your perceived ability to learn and use technology tools.  With the exception that you might work in a technology-related field, my guess is that you would find the intersection of your age and your perceived technology skills to be pretty accurate.  Not because you have a finite set of skills, but because you are probably a product of the stereotype.


Figure 2: Age vs. Technology Skills Potential

Now, if you look at the second chart, this line graph depicts the potential of anyone's ability to learn and use technology (See Figure 2).  This visual representation indicates that anyone over the age of 25 can reach the same maximum potential when using technology.  You might be asking yourself why I chose the age of 25 to reach maximum potential.  Well, the reason is simply because brain research in neuroscience suggests that the human brain doesn't fully develop until a person reaches the age of about 27 years old.  In fact, The Journal of Adolescent Health published an article in 2009 stating, "Longitudinal neuroimaging studies demonstrate that the adolescent brain continues to mature well into the 20s." This means that based on the timeline of age and brain development; children, adolescents, and young adults are still increasing their intellectual capacity.  Therefore, one can draw the conclusion that a person's technology skills cannot reach their full potential before their brain has had a chance to fully develop. 

The argument that I would like to make is this:  Age does not predict, nor determine one’s ability to learn and use technology.  In fact, anyone with a growth mindset (regardless of age, knowledge, experience, or skills) has the ability to learn and use technology.  I would like to share two stories that are in direct contradiction to the stereotype that I have addressed.  My hope is that these stories will poke a few holes in the fabric of this myth in an attempt to debunk the stereotype.

Experiment in Ethiopia

Back in 2012, Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the MIT Media Lab did something truly extraordinary.  Using his One Laptop per Child initiative, he and his organization decided to deliver 20 tablets to 20 first-grade students, to two different remote villages in Ethiopia.  Negroponte's goal was, "To see if illiterate kids with no previous exposure to written words can learn how to read all by themselves, by experimenting with the tablet and its preloaded alphabet-training games, e-books, movies, cartoons, paintings, and other programs" (Technology Review, 2012).  The most fascinating detail about this initiative was the fact 
that Negroponte’s team didn’t explain how the devices work, or even open the boxes. And within two weeks the children were able to learn how to sing the alphabet song and taught themselves to write letters (Wired Magazine, 2013).

The Pandemic Predicament

With the rise of COVID-19 cases in 2020, senior citizens found it difficult to stay connected during the lockdown.  Due to the fact that the majority of senior citizens either had a preexisting condition, or were immunocompromised, they weren't allowed to be in close contact with family and friends.  Therefore, many seniors decided to turn to technology in order to engage in social interactions.  According to Smart Cities Dive, One particular New Jersey resident and senior citizen, Susan Schwitzer didn't even know what Zoom was before the pandemic.  Now, Schwitzer is "Zooming from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., participating as an active and enthusiastic member of a virtual senior center led by Selfhelp, a New York-based nonprofit that provides human services to elderly New Yorkers, including Holocaust survivors" (Smart Cities Dive, 2022).  This is just one of the countless stories of senior citizens taking an active approach to learn and use technology to connect with loved ones during the pandemic.

Final Thoughts

In both of the cases that were presented, people of completely different ages were able to use technology that they had never experienced before.  However, the reasons for learning the technology were entirely different.  The children in Ethiopia were overwhelmed by curiosity, and the senior citizens were motivated to solve a problem.  Since the students in Ethiopia had no background experience of using technology, they were not afraid to explore the tablets.  And even though the senior citizens might have been a bit apprehensive about learning how to video conference, they were able to overcome their fear with purpose.  What's more, the subjects featured in both cases demonstrated a growth mindset by believing in their abilities to learn something that was totally foreign to their prior knowledge, exposure, and skills. 

I hope that the information presented in this post makes you rethink your own ability to learn and use technology, as well as the ability of others, regardless of age.  I'll leave you with this final thought: You can always teach an old dog new tricks, and one's ability to learn something new is fully dependent on their levels of curiosity and courage.


References

  1. Crowe, Cailin. “Older Adults Turn to Technology during an 'Epidemic of Loneliness'.” Smart Cities Dive, 4 Jan. 2022, https://www.smartcitiesdive.com/news/older-adults-turn-to-technology-during-an-epidemic-of-loneliness/611121//. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8074950/
  2. Johnson, Sara B, et al. “Adolescent Maturity and the Brain: The Promise and Pitfalls of Neuroscience Research in Adolescent Health Policy.” The Journal of Adolescent Health : Official Publication of the Society for Adolescent Medicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Sept. 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2892678/
  3. Talbot, David. “Given Tablets but No Teachers, Ethiopian Children Teach Themselves.” MIT Technology Review, MIT Technology Review, 2 Apr. 2020, https://www.technologyreview.com/2012/10/29/84908/given-tablets-but-no-teachers-ethiopian-children-teach-themselves/
  4. Wired Magazine: Free Thinkers Reform School November 2013 [WIRED 21.11]

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