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Sunday, February 26, 2012

Computers- educational friend or foe?

Ah, computers. Where would we be without them? How would we manage in this century, when everyone is assumed (by everyone from the banks to our employers) to have access to the internet, if we didn't have that technology at our fingertips?

Of course children must learn to use computers. They'll be crippled without that skill. Time has marched on, and you'd better keep pace or you'll be left behind.

And yet there's this groundswell of opinion, in the blogosphere and in the scientific community, against technology in the home, against technology in the classroom. What are these people on, you might wonder? Why are they dragging their feet? Technology is now a fact of life, you cry. Get with the program. Our children must be allowed to use computers as much as possible! As much as we do, in fact! Quick, hand them an iPad or an iPhone, or they'll be left behind!

But yet again, it's all about balance, folks. Sorry to repeat myself.


Computers and education can be a marriage made in heaven, as long as there's balance, and clear intent, and a guide with a very firm hand.

I'm as hooked on my laptop as the next person. I've been sucked in to everything from mindless games to turn my hyperactive brain off at the end of the day, to Facebook so I can keep in touch with my distant friends (and they're all distant- thank heavens for FB!), to relying on the technology to find everything from my shopping to my next job. I live miles from anywhere. Computers save my sanity, not to mention saving me from using countless litres of fuel driving many miles to do small but vital tasks.

Without balance, though, my relationship with my real-life human partner comes unstuck because I forget to spend time with him. My fitness goes down the toilet. My eyes start to fail. My environment becomes chaotic, because I get 'lost' in the world of the computer and forget about the real world. I start to sneeze from the dust mites, the tomatoes rot on the vine because I didn't go out to pick them, my dog looks at me sadly wanting to play.

And how are children any different? With computers, children can drill themselves in reading, spelling, maths and a multitude of other skills, and feel like they're having fun. They can research all sorts of topics without mum and dad spending thousands on a set of encyclopaedias that'll be out of date by next year. They can make music, write and publish stories, have pen friends all over the world and learn about other cultures...

...and sit on their rears till they get obese, play repetitive closed-end games till they lose any spark of creative thought they ever had, build neural connections that demand five second 'grabs' of information before moving on and so create a personal case of ADHD (yes, the research is in), get bullied by their peers even in their own bedrooms...

Balance. Computers have become like food. We can't live without them, but for many of us, they become an addiction that we have to monitor constantly.

I'm a relatively old computer addict at 55, having started my literacy journey in the first flush of the music sequencing and notion revolution when I was teaching musical composition to adolescents. It was like magic back then- it made incredible things possible, even for the least musically talented of my students. And having discovered the magic in one area, I went seeking it in others too. I got the technology bug.

But the day came when I landed the job of Head of Music in a private school which prided itself on being ahead of the technological tide. Every student in the early years had a laptop, which was expected to be used for educational purposes in every lesson (with the possible exception of sport), and the aim was to push this initiative through until every child in the school was educated in every class of the day using their computer.

Does it sound idyllic, techno buffs?

I learned a salutary lesson that year. I went in thinking that this school really had it together, was really ahead of the game. And I discovered that it was mayhem. I loathed it. I lasted a year before I threw in the job in disgust.

Why? I simply wasn't doing any teaching.

But how could this be? I was a computer addict myself! Why wasn't I banging the same drum as the senior admin people? Why couldn't I learn to work with the technology to make my teaching even more fabulous?

Here is what compulsory computer-based classroom education looks like.

The first ten minutes of the lesson are spent dealing with children who have no battery power left, because they played games in the bus all the way to school and at every break, missing the opportunity to interact with other students or (in break time) be physically active. Half of these will have left the power cord at home. The other half will all be trying to find a free socket to plug into, but there won't be enough free sockets, so then they'll either decide they have a free ride for the lesson ("I can't do anything, Miss, my battery's dead") or start fighting for access.

In the meantime, the other kids have become bored and restless. They've lost focus, and you haven't even started.

The next ten minutes of the lesson are spent trying to get everyone back on task and teaching the lesson the way you intended, during the course of which you discover that there are even more students without a computer because they're in for repairs and the backlog is killing the school technician with stress. Some kids will be without their machine for months. These children will also be stressed, feeling they're disadvantaged and falling behind- or they will have discovered the habit of laziness.

So now you have bored, unfocussed, lazy kids and stressed, anxious, tearful kids- and none of what you're doing has anything to do with what you were trying to teach.

The next ten minutes of the lesson are spent frantically trying to restructure the lesson so the kids without computers can take part too. The temptation to tell everyone to shut down and just teach the way you used to is overwhelming, but you're not allowed to do that, because then the parents who have mortgaged the house to buy laptops for all four kids at the school will be waiting outside the gate with an axe to ask you politely why they had to waste all that money if you're not even using the damn things.

At this point, your own teaching pedagogy is hopelessly compromised. You have too many demands on you to actually teach anything effectively. The thought of going outside and letting everyone run around for the rest of the lesson is inviting; at least they'd be gaining something.

The remaining half hour is spent patrolling the room, trying to teach something- anything- in between shutting down games, because even many of the kids who actually want to learn just don't have the willpower to resist. You can't actually teach from the front any more; you have to march around flicking from the lesson plan to the escape key like a drillmaster on crack. (Those who want to argue that computer games aren't addictive, please queue outside in an orderly fashion while I prepare enough nice white coats with tie-back sleeves.) Interspersed with shutting down games, you will also be coping with the hands shooting up to say "My battery just ran out and I can't find a socket / don't have my power cord" and the hands shooting up to say "Mine looks different to that" or "My screen just went black".

And then there are the children who just aren't into technology. Instead of grappling with what they're trying to learn in your class, they're also forced to grapple with operating a machine which they neither understand nor like. Your subject doesn't get a look in with these kids, because while the rest of the kids are starting the task they're still trying to find the right icon and clicking the wrong button. That's what they're meant to be doing in IT class, not in every class of the day.

And what about the teacher? There is no thread, no continuity; if you follow the thread of the lesson when someone's just lost power, you consciously decide to leave them behind flailing on the sidewalk while you march relentlessly on. Mmm, great teaching practice there.

And then the bell goes. Game over. Usher in the next lot of kids and do it all over again.

This is the problem with putting a fallible object like a computer between the teacher and the child. In the end, it's all about the machine. It's not about the subject matter, it's not about enlightenment or creativity. There's this piece of metal and plastic and circuitry that we keep banging into before we can even get started with getting kids excited about learning. The lesson is constantly skewered by technicalities.

Using computers effectively in education requires two things. First, the computers have to be working- all of them. Secondly, the students and teachers have to be able to use the computers effectively without the computers using them. And that's a skill that many children simply don't have. We're talking self-discipline, impulse control, focus. Not exactly skills that year 8 students, for example, are renowned for. In fact, I don't start to find that skill in most children till they're about 16.


I'm betting that the day will come when it's proved that computers are intrinsically addictive, because I've watched what they can do to even the most intelligent, motivated students when free access is allowed at all hours. I know uni students who've failed because of their addiction to computer games- don't you?

If your aim is to get the kids out of your hair, then sure, let them play on the computer for hours. All lesson, if you're a teacher and you're over it. (You could also give them a lot of beer. The effect would be similar.) But don't fool yourself that it's educational, regardless of the program. Don't fool yourself that it's anything but lazy parenting or lazy teaching. Sorry. Turn the damn thing off. Two hours total, on all screens, per day.

Used when appropriate, computers can facilitate education in amazing ways. But they are not a panacea, nor are they a sugar pill. In classrooms they need to be used like a potent drug, taken when required with an educator's prescription only. In my senior music composition class they were a wonder, a miracle without parallel; in all the other types of music lesson, they didn't feature at all.

Yes, every child needs to know how to use technology. That's why they brought in IT classes. But don't be fooled. A lot of the time, the computer just gets in the way.

A lot of the time, the computer just leads your child astray.

2 comments:

  1. I agree. Computers are great, and kids can learn a lot from playing educational games such as Starfall.com... but they should be used in moderation! Kids still need to play with real toys, read books, and have actual, real-life, non-virtual experiences. The computer should make up just a small fraction of their lives.

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  2. Yes, moderation is key! I wrote about this topic here

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