Are computers the best teachers?

Most children love computer games. And most computer games teach something, be it fast reflexes or strategic thinking. So, does it follow that computers are the best teachers?

early childhood education

Early childhood education centres are compelled nowadays to introduce computers to all age groups. Because of the importance of the formative years in children’s learning, the idea is to include working with the computer in the curriculum of language, maths and pre-reading skills.

Says an Auckland mother: “Next Generation Childcare in Birkdale has had computer technology in place for years, including blogs for each kid. The children can make their own videos and voiceovers, Skype old teachers on the other side of world and email parents at work. I was surprised how easy kids picked it up from the ages of 3- to 5-years. It definitely helped with self-confidence, information sharing and encouraging teamwork.” The computer is a learning tool there, not a games console.

In childcare centres, children generally use computers in groups, either with a teacher or with other children. The surprising thing is that often the roles are reversed, with children teaching adults how to use
the technology.

Sounds like a dream come true. Nevertheless, parents should be aware of the downsides to computer-based learning, particularly at this early age. Young children explore the world by touch. Their neurons form new pathways every time their fingers encounter a new texture or an interesting three-dimensional shape - yet during a computer session, the only thing they are likely to handle is the mouse. Toddlers need to discover how things really feel, behave and move in the real world: clay is sticky and dries out, sand runs through your fingers and feels rough, liquid runs through your fingers and feels silky, jelly wobbles, ice melts. They need to catch a ball, not just see it bounce around the computer screen, and they can only learn how to spin a hula hoop so that it rolls back by practising it in the real world.

school

When your child enters a primary school classroom, they will most likely be greeted by a row of computers against the wall. These are predominantly used before school and during rainy lunch breaks to play educational games, although the teacher may include a lesson on Google searches for older children. The library may have iPads with graphic novels and interactive texts. Still, most learning takes place the old-fashioned way: number games, plays from the School Journal, exploring the orchard in search of inspiration for poems, and pitching real tents during Outdoor Education Week.

At intermediate school and college, though, computers become essential learning tools. Last year, Orewa College and Pinehurst School made headlines by placing the iPad on their compulsory stationery lists, while Wellington High School has made laptops compulsory for its 2012 Year 9 students.

Most teachers love tablet computers because they make textbooks come alive. Education is simply more interactive and fun with electronic gadgets. Computers encourage a natural form of discovery through trial and error. They can tutor those who are falling behind, repeating the lesson as many times as an individual learner needs it. For example, www.teachertools.co.nz provides free video lessons that cover every numeracy lesson a New Zealand primary school student will be taught while at school. These lessons are supported by a range of books used by over 75% of New Zealand primary schools. E-simulations empower students to experiment with and experience a variety of complex systems such as weather patterns, mechanics, business models, and political phenomena. Working together on projects that involve computers fosters collaboration among students, as well as between students and teachers.

So is computer technology in the classroom a giant step for mankind? “There is very little evidence that kids learn more, faster or better by using these machines,” says Larry Cuban, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. He believes the money would be better spent on recruiting, training and retaining teachers, who still form the essence of education. “IPads are marvellous tools to engage kids, but then the novelty wears off and you have to get into hard-core issues of teaching and learning.”

what computers can’t teach

The absence of real human interaction, such as facial expression, body language, and tone of voice cues, make education software a very poor teacher of everyday social interactions.

The lack of physical interaction with the real world is also an issue, and we’re not only talking of a sedentary lifestyle. If a child has only experienced something on the computer, like driving a car or playing golf, they won’t know what the real thing feels like. The simulation will not mean anything to them and won’t prepare them for real life. The weightless tenpin bowling on the Wii is misleading compared to the real heavy ball, so a Wii bowling champ may be lost in a bowling alley.

conclusion

Computers are an integral part of the civilisation in which our children are growing up. If we want them to keep up with the fast-paced world of technology, then we need to accept that some of their learning will have to come via a computer screen. In the words of one teacher: “My personal breakthrough was the realisation the computer enhances our learning programme, rather than detracts from it. Literacy, numeracy and science, in particular, are areas that have been extended with the addition of ICT (Information Communication Technology).”

Just as long as a good portion of learning continues to come from real trips to the zoo, mixing real paints, and smelling real roses, the computer can be a superb learning tool.

your child’s learning style

“Not everybody is suited to learning optimally through a computer,” says Barbara Prashnig, an international expert on learning difficulties. “Kinesthetic learners who learn through experiencing the world, or students who enjoy working in a group, are better off using traditional education.”

However, if your child has a preference in four or more of the following, a computer can be a good additional teacher:
•  visual (reading)
•  visual (watching)
•  tactile
•  learning alone
•  stationary
•  internal motivation

If we want them to keep up with the fast-paced world of technology, then we need to accept that some of their learning will have to come via a computer screen. In the words of one teacher: “My personal breakthrough was the realisation the computer enhances our learning programme, rather than detracts from it.”

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