Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Tykes and Technology

Many, many years ago I taught computer classes to grade school children.  This was a time when computers were new to the classroom. Most students were enchanted with computers,  and parents were bedazzled by a classroom filled with Apple IIc's. Fast forward to the present and parents are still enamored -- students not so much.

Yet our schools put more and more money into technology. It is estimated that over 2 billion  dollars is spent a year in K-5 public schools for technology. Having worked in private schools I know most parents love it if a school has smart boards, smart phones, computerized instruction, and a couple of computer/laptop labs. The reasons given for this enchantment include:
  1. My child is being prepared for the future.
  2. My child has access to this at home, so he will get bored if he doesn't get it at school
  3. It looks so cool.
  4. It can be individualized and she can learn at her own pace!
  5. He can go to places and see things through that computer that he couldn't do with just a teacher and books.
Let's consider these reasons:

1. Preparing for the future? The technology will change before your kindergartner reaches middle school.

2. Has it at home? Why yes, and your nine-year-old  is no longer fascinated by it at school. In fact she may be bored and annoyed that school doesn't let her play the neat games she has on her personal tablet.

3. It looks cool. You are right, it does! Just as cool as a butterfly coming out of a chrysalis, or the new wooden castle on the playground, or many of the other delights a child might find in a school.

4. It can be individualized. Maybe. It depends on the program, the teacher, and the school. Remember an individualized program isn't synonymous for an interesting program. The percent of completion by adults of online courses is reported at less than 7%.

5. Virtual field trips are fun! That can be great if a class takes a trip to Antarctica or Mozambique.  But a younger child might get more from a trip to a local site than an interactive TV show. 

Computer educators rave about the use of technology to help children create, control, and collaborate. Many schools, however, use technology to control, placate, and give the teachers a break. Does this mean technology is useless? Of course not.

Technology allows some children to bloom. It gives schools opportunities to open far away worlds to their students. Technology allows and encourages collaboration which may help students become interested in a project or responsible to a group. (The ones who don't, however, tend to bring down the group and create  kids who hate group work.) Technology never gets tired or bored and so can deliver structured, repetitive practice better than humans. (We won't talk about what repetitive movements do to a child's hands.) There are many pluses for using technology in schools.

For young children, however, technology isn't a substitute for good teachers and tactile materials. Children still like a human telling them they are doing something correctly. They still need someone who notices they are having trouble understanding or are having a bad day. Children need to touch, and move, and make messes. They need to focus up close at an ant and look far to the distant clouds. Too much screen time can upset a sleep cycle, or take time from playing with others, or make one a couch potato.

Technology is not going anywhere, but parents and teachers need to communicate how much time a child spends in front of a bright screen at home as well as school. We shouldn't be beguiled by the hype presented by companies that are becoming rich through selling their newest technology to our schools. Those who worry about the physical, emotional, and intellectual development of children know that children should have more than the virtual worlds presented by technology.

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