Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Caveat Emptor

Thinking about getting the kids educational software for Christmas? You might want to think again.

In "Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds---for Better and Worse", Jane M. Healy, Ph.D., presents evidence that computers are not an educational panacea, as so many seem to think. Here is my brief review of the book:
In this day and age, we often hear talk about the need to be "computer literate," and this concept is taken for granted - even among the teachers and administration of elementary schools. But how necessary is it for children - not only teens, but young children, sometimes as young as three or four - to use the computer as a regular part of their education? Healy explores this issue, which is usually given a pass by school boards, faculty, and administration alike.

Most people tend to think that children's use of computers is permissible, at least as long as it is employed in some sort of academic exercise, a "tool for learning." But Healy, who has been involved with computers and educational computing since the late '70's, points out that the vast majority of so-called "educational software" is of atrociously poor quality, and is more fittingly termed "edutainment." Even software that measures up to standards of educational merit beg the following questions: 1) Does using the software result in a significant improvement in understanding and mastery of concepts, vs. "old-fashioned" methods? 2) If there is no real difference between using educational software and "old-fashioned" methods, why spend all the extra money on computer equipment and software? (The wisdom of doing this becomes all the more questionable when one considers how quickly equipment and software becomes obsolete.) How many school have fallen prey to the idea that computers in school are a "must," and have consequently diverted scarce resources (time, space, money) from programs such as art, music, and even physical education to the money pit that computers represent? In addition to the obvious, computers are a drain in other ways as well: unless a school budgets for and hires technical support (most schools don't), there is going to be a significant percentage of computers out of commission on any given day - kids are notorious for their bravado in trying different things, and crashes are a common occurrence. Even if the teacher is computer-savvy enough to get the machine up and running, it takes away valuable instruction time.

There are other pitfalls of using computers as a learning tool. "Edutainment" issues aside, few children possess the maturity to use software as a means of sharpening their logic and thinking skills, instead preferring to point and click until they come up with the right answer and are rewarded with some inane diversion. Other serious issues which arise from indiscriminate use of a computer involve the negative effects on children's attention and motivation. In short, the more the computer "runs the show" for the child, the greater the negative effect on the child's attention and motivation. Instead of helping to teach the child to think logically and critically, the child learns to do whatever it takes to get the "reward" - not unlike Pavlov and his salivating dogs. Understanding is minimal, and learned response is the chief driving force.

Another significant issue is the relationship between computers and children's health. Like adults, there is concern about postural and skeletal problems, vision problems, decrease in physical activity, and radiation risks. Radiation in particular is a potentially serious issue, since we lack long-term studies examining the effects of cumulative exposure to computer monitor radiation. This is in addition to the fact that children, since they are still developing, are more vulnerable. There is also a growing number of incidents of so-called "video-game-related seizures," caused by the electronic stimulation of some games. In VGRS (which seems to be most common in teenaged boys), the child can actually "blank out" for several seconds before coming to.
I would suggest that at the very least, more research is in order before we as a society rush into a Faustian bargain regarding our childrens' physical, mental, intellectual, and social development.

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