(this page is part of the Family Guide to Digital Freedom, 2007 edition. Please do read that introduction to know more about the Guide, especially if you mean to comment this page. Thanks)

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Do teachers force students to think and look for substance even when using a computer?

Children who are told to use a computer for study “just because”, often only learn how to waste time and be superficial. One of the mothers mentioned in the Wall Street Journal article found out that the laptop encouraged her son to behave just like many grown-up managers with masters degrees from the coolest Universities: he would spend more time finding the fanciest fonts than “digging through library books”.

In addition to this, all a child can learn by doing research online without strict supervision is how easy it is to copy, paste and believe whatever is found in the first two minutes spent with a search engine or online encyclopedia. This is perhaps the greatest danger of all: to end up, in just a few more years, with teachers “formed” in this way, hence unable to conceive of anything better.

Are the teachers really motivated and up to the task?

Too many teachers, especially in primary school, are not prepared yet to use and propose computers effectively, or don’t even believe it’s really useful to do so: often this isn’t even their fault. Many of these people are very responsible, dedicated and well-prepared in everything related to traditional teaching. Often, however, they barely know how to operate a mouse and have no interest at all in ICT: they are “teaching” how to use computers, often with little or no decent training for themselves, only because some central Government Regulation said so. In such cases, the only solution is to discuss the problem openly, encourage them to ask for better assistance and training and support their requests towards the School Administration.

Don’t be afraid to ask!

Don’t accept computers in the classroom or for homework unless you have personally checked with the teachers that they want to avoid these dangers and know how to do it. The next and last thing to do is to verify if the curriculum is designed properly, as explained in the corresponding chapter.

A word on the ultimate “Children Machine”

The “Children Machine” is the current name of what was initially named “The 100 Dollar Laptop” or “One Laptop Per Child” Project. This mini-portable computer is to be purchased in very large quantities by the nations of the emerging world, which would then give one laptop to each one of their children. The reason to do so would be the chance to “leapfrog decades of development - immediately transforming the content and quality of their children’s learning”.

During summer of 2006 some countries like Nigeria had already ordered a lot of units, while other important markets like India officially said “no, thanks”. The reasons range from lack of trust in the project founders to the same general doubts expressed in this chapter, that is the fact that children, especially poor ones, need a lot of other things before any computer.

While only time will tell if the Project will succeed as its founders expect, the Children Machine remains a good thing because it may have very positive impact on computing in general, if not on education in developing countries.

Even if nothing else should come from it, this Machine should teach a lot, both to designers and to the general public, on how to give to the great majority of people all and only what they really need from computers: reading, writing and arithmetic at the smallest possible cost, without wasting electricity.

The interest around the project may also spark an interesting debate: if a 140 US dollars object is enough to “leapfrog decades of development - immediately transforming the content and quality of their children’s learning”… why isn’t it offered everywhere? Why should families in other countries have to spend much more, directly or indirectly, to achieve the same result?