Are computers really needed in (basic) education?


(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)

Information and Communication Technology is an essential part of any complete, modern education. Computers are already replacing pen and paper as basic, necessary tools to find a job or accomplish several everyday tasks. This started about thirty years ago: less than two generations ago, which is extremely fast on a global scale.

It is for this reason that, in spite of the media hype about how empowered and productive we all are thanks to computers, most of us still look at them with a sense of fear and inadequacy and know almost nothing about how they work. The result is that everybody proposing to “teach kids about computers” is greeted with gratitude and an open wallet, and anything done with computers looks cooler and self-justifies itself.

Too much technology, however, doesn’t guarantee good results. A study on the effectiveness of education technology released in April 2007 by the U.S.A. National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance found achievement scores “were no higher in classrooms using reading and math software products than in classrooms without the new products”.

Too much technology can also seriously dumb down young people, if it isn’t proposed in the right way, at the right moment and in the right order. It may be useless, for example, to learn computer programming at any level before integrating computers in the existing curriculum. Consequently, there are four simple things to check before saying “Yes, let my children use computers”.

How early is too early to start using computers?

It is very likely that computers as study tools don’t provide any meaningful advantage to children who haven’t really yet mastered what are popularly called the “Three R’s”, that is Reading, wRiting and aRithmetic. If this isn’t guaranteed, sooner or later the results show, and they aren’t pleasant. The author has personally known several Senior High School students who could not mentally multiply by powers of ten without a pocket calculator. A recent study in Italy found that many University students “could not articulate thoughts”. “They write theses as if they were cell phone short text messages”, the Rector said. The average level at some Universities was so low that they had to organize introductory classes to re-teach punctuation, grammar and so on.

Even in the absence of such excesses, most parents will agree that time passed in front of almost any screen, especially alone, should be minimized. Not because computers are evil, but just to enjoy life more and to learn first things first.

Are there clear goals and restriction on computer usage?

At least until 1011 years of age, computers can find a place in study and school activity only if the children receive them to do something specific, rather than being just abandoned in front of a keyboard. Otherwise the computer would become simply an excuse not to teach, or at least a source of distraction and a waste of time already denounced by several parents in the Wall Street Journal: specifically, every computer provided for study with public money to children in that age range should have really strict content filters.

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