Computers in Education: Brave New World

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With politicians pumping millions into technology for schools and parents snapping up iMacs and early-learning software for babies and toddlers, you'd think that computers were the ideal remedy for every educational problem. But even the most ardent supporters of computer-based learning admit that computers are no panacea. As Steve Jobs noted in a 1996 interview in Wired magazine, "What's wrong with education cannot be fixed with technology." Just like any other educational tool, computers have the potential to do harm if they're not used properly.

If you have a Mac at home, chances are it's located in a bedroom or den. Although keeping the computer out of sight means you won't be bothered by the din of the latest shoot-'em-up, you also won't know whether your child is zapping space aliens or visiting adult chat rooms instead of doing her homework.

As the American Academy of Pediatrics noted last year, electronic gadgets in the bedroom also mean less time for socializing with friends and family. In her book Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds -- and What We Can Do About It (Simon and Schuster, 1998), educational psychologist Jane Healy suggests that parents limit their children's time at the computer. As she aptly puts it, computers shouldn't substitute for "conversation, chores...or just relaxing and 'hanging out' together." Dr. Healy also points out that computers pose potential health risks for children. (See "Parents' Guide to Erogonomics," How-to, elsewhere in this issue, for a primer on setting up computer workstations for kids.)

If you think that keeping up with the steady stream of new hardware and software is tough at home, imagine what it's like for school administrators who may have 50 or more aging computers to manage. Over time, maintenance and upgrades often cost more than the original hardware and software. As Healy notes, ongoing expenses take their toll on tight school budgets, so there's less funding for traditional activities such as music and art instruction.

Unfortunately, all the money in the world won't help if teachers don't learn how to use computers effectively. Surprisingly, even teachers graduating from training programs may not have the necessary computer skills. In a 1999 survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics, only 33 percent of U.S. public school teachers with computer or Internet access reported feeling "well prepared" or "very well prepared" to use computers in their classrooms. Healy's advice: spend less on technology and more on people.

In a suggestion that's guaranteed to shock many parents, Healy recommends keeping computers away from children until they're seven years old. Before then, she cautions, computers may actually interfere with a child's physical and mental development. (According to Healy, children with certain physical and psychological handicaps are a notable exception.) Even if you discount Healy's warning, don't expect computer learning to take the place of what children learn from other activities, such as going for a walk in the park or playing with blocks.

McGill University educational psychologist Dr. Glenn Cartwright disagrees with Healy's advice, saying that he knows of "no evidence that computers should be reserved for anyone of a particular age." In Cartwright's opinion, the real problem is that desktop computers usually aren't suitable for small kids. The challenge, Cartwright adds, is to design computers that are tailor-made to support the developmental activities of babies and young children.

Even skeptics admit that kids who are at least seven years old could benefit from computers, whether they're used for instruction or for specific jobs such as writing a research paper. The problem, she claims, is that so much educational software is written by programmers who know more about whiz-bang graphics than about instructional design. Healy offers valuable tips for parents who want their children to use educational software:

Work with your children as they explore new programs.
Ask yourself what your child is actually getting from the software and what habits she's learning. You may be able to accomplish the same goals with a real-life experience or activity.
If you notice that your child responds impulsively -- by clicking on the screen until he achieves the desired result, for example -- ask him to explain what he's doing and why he's doing it.

According to Healy, there's still no solid evidence that the Internet is beneficial for children. As she puts it, "Anyone who assumes that being connected to the Internet...automatically assures learning is either a fool or a salesman." At the very least, Healy says, you should teach your children not to believe everything that they read online. She also warns that children may be tempted to plagiarize when they can download pages of formatted text and graphics with a few mouse clicks.

As with educational software, Healy has some practical advice for parents:

Teach your children never to give out personal information about themselves or their family. (For more on Internet safety for kids, check out the Department of Education's Web site at
Help your children choose Web sites relevant to their homework assignments. If they use any material they find online, make sure that they cite the sources in their writing.
Set strict time limits for Internet access, and supervise online sessions closely.

Encourage your children to read and talk about the Web sites they visit -- with hypertext, it's easy for kids to look at pictures and click on links without actually comprehending what they're reading.

Not even the most vocal critic of educational technology would suggest that computers should disappear. As Cartwright says, computers in education are here to stay -- the challenge is to develop computers that don't have to be confined to a computer lab or special corner of the classroom. And, as Healy writes, we must also make certain that the future remains dedicated to people, not machines.

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