Is a computer a must for your child’s modern education?

Some parents have asked me if they should acquire a computer for their child. This becomes pertinent especially at the time of birthdays or of course for the Christmas season that has just past. These well meaning parents (many of whom have had minimal contact with a personal computer, if at all) are persuaded by advertisers, friends and family, that an early start with a computer will give their child a competitive advantage in the workplace of tomorrow. 

It’s hard not to consider the role that computers play in our everyday lives. Probably far more than you or I imagine. Most people carry around mini-computers in their mobile telephone. If you use an ATM machine, it’s a computer; a fast food teller uses a touch screen computer. If your car or truck wheels need aligning, modern tyre businesses use a computer. Pretty much any modern telephone exchange is controlled by a computer, as are modern fridges and washing machines and even cars. Take a photograph with a reasonably modern camera – a computer. Notice that in each of these examples we are talking about people who do every day tasks without having to use a box or laptop that we traditionally call the ‘personal computer’. Of course there are many people who work in industries which specifically use computers – architects, web designers, accountants and scientists pop to mind.

I could not do a tenth of my work without computers and rightly or wrongly I’m considered a bit of a ‘guru’ with a certain breed of computers (Apple Macintosh). So it seems incredible to some that I do not support or promote computer laboratories and ‘computer studies’ at school.

My rationale is this – one must remember that computers are tools, amazing tools, but tools nevertheless. These tools appear to go through a fundamental shift every 5-15 years or so in the way that they are used, so that the skills of one system have little relevance to the next one. This makes learning about a computing system today, essentially antiquated by the time a child enters the workforce. So the main thrust of my argument is that there is no point in teaching something that will be obsolete.

My first exposure to computers was watching my brothers take computing classes at secondary school where they learned about the computer hardware, basic coding and computing principles. None of that information is used by my brothers or their peers in today’s typical computer usage. I enrolled myself into a course at my undergraduate university to learn the mainframe programming language (Fortran ‘77), none of the skills are relevant in my use of computers today. It was only when I got to relatively recent computers (a BBC Acorn computer) that I actually started todo ‘real’ work such as word processing; desktop publishing (very crude); statistical analysis. Today I use maybe 1% of those initial skills that were developed for computer usage in the late 1970s. None of those skills (apart from ‘typing’) were relevant for the ‘GUI’ or Graphical User Interface of the Macintosh and the subsequent Microsoft Windows 3.1 operating system of the mid 1980’s. I use probably 50-70% of those skills today depending on the task and software I’m using. All of this has changed again with the advent of mobile operating systems. If you own or use a smart phone or tablet with a touch interface, then you get the idea. Users swipe, pinch, rotate and use other hand gestures to get their tablet to do such things as: web publishing & social networking; corresponding on email; movie, sound and photograph editing/touch ups; talking with a friend or family member on a video conference call; creating an original piece of music; reading an interactive book; as well as of course playing games.

I gave this potted history of computer usage to demonstrate how the computer usage of the 1970s had no impact on the new users of the mid 1980s. The computer users of this latter era had no advantage over those users who started their own computing career at the start of the Millennium and my youngest daughter (7 years old when I wrote this) is living proof that she is in no way disadvantaged in the use of modern tablet computers compared to the desktop users of 12 years ago.

Does that mean that computers are irrelevant in a modern education system? Far from it – they are entirely relevant but as tools, not as means to themselves. So we use computers at our school, but as a tool – not as a topic in and of itself. If the children need to use the tool, then we teach them to use that tool. We think of the tool as a way of completing some other teaching/learning task, we do not think it is the actual teaching/learning task. 

For instance, editing video is far easier, cheaper and safer on a computer than it is in a traditional emulsion film editing room (scalpels and sharp knives as well as toxic glues are used to cut and splice the raw film footage). The tool is there to help edit the film - the learning task is how to artistically edit the footage to make an effective video, not how to use the editing software. This is also true for slide show creation where we focus on the slide show software being used to help children create slides that enhance their verbal presentations. In other words it’s the content, not the computing software, that is of paramount importance.

I do see areas for heavy usage of computers in the near future in education but once again as a means to achieving something that is ultimately cheaper and more interactive than the non-computing equivalent. Take tablet computers with their touch screen interface. They can hold dictionaries, atlases, encyclopaedias and other reference material as well as several thousand ‘classic’ books that the child can read. Much of this literature is free, or very cheap and every tablet can have an identical copy or set. A physical version of this would require an extensive and expensive library. This is still an emerging market but the future of these computers in education is tantalisingly close. 

A final area that I see heavy school computer usage will be for protective reasons rather than their use as a tool. As parents and educators we’re not fully aware of these issue because the technologies are so new. However, two areas I can think of immediately are in inappropriate online social behaviour and in inappropriate online social exposure. 

Facebook’ and ‘Twitter’ are appealing technologies for young people to reach and and make connections in unique, dynamic and exciting ways. However, young people may not realise that the Facebook posts and ‘tweets’ that they post today, may come back to haunt them in a decade or two when they are in established jobs, trades or vocations. This is because electronic publishing has the potential reach a world wide audience and also to stay available for a very long time compared to paper publishing. So an inappropriate racial joke posted today by an immature 15 year old boy, may be used against him in 25 years time when he decides to run for the Mayor’s position even though he has since seen the error of his ways. We need to help our children be careful in their online social behaviour, just as they also need to learn appropriate social skills and behaviour in their physical face-to-face interactions with friends family and the wider community.

Inappropriate online social exposure has sadly been exploited by pedophiles and identity thieves who have found a new way to conduct their negative behaviour through use of online social networking sites. The innocence of our youth, their openness of mind and willingness to take risks, make our young generation of users far more likely to be exposed to such a person or ring of like minded people. Our education system needs to work with parents to help give our children necessary electronic survival skills to detect and avoid such undesirable contacts.

Should Santa have brought your child a computer for last Christmas or should the parents buy one for an upcoming birthday gift? I think the answer should be ‘no’ if the belief is that an early exposure to computers will somehow enhance a child’s education today and give them an advantage in the workplace tomorrow. If they need to use some of the tools that modern computers may offer (slide show creation, movie and sound editing) and they need to use them today (or within the next few months) then the answer should be a qualified ‘yes’. Personally, I would recommend the more tablet shaped computers compared to the traditional beige and black boxes. 

Education is a progressive discovery of our own ignorance.  -Will Durant