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Parents and Teachers May Be at Odds Over Use of Computers, Study Says

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As the number of families buying home computers for educational purposes increases, "some of the traditional lines of authority between teachers at school and parents at home may be challenged or disrupted," concludes a New York University professor who has conducted an in-depth study of 20 families with microcomputers.

The study, which involved middle- or upper-middle-class families also shows, suggests Joseph B. Giacquinta, professor of educational sociology and the principal researcher, "how the use of micro[computers] and educational software at home might cause a clash between two cherished American values: achievement and equality of opportunity."

These preliminary findings were drawn from more than 2,000 pages of log reports compiled by doctoral students who for three months observed 20 families in the New York area. The researchers believe the study--which was supported in part by a $100,000 grant from the publishing firm Scholastic Inc.--is the first in-depth look at the use and effects of microcomputers in the home.

'First-Hand' Look

"We wanted to look first-hand at what was going on around the microcomputer in the home," said Mr. Giacquinta in explaining why he chose to work with a small number of families rather than conduct a large-scale survey.

According to the study:

Seven of the 20 families purchased home computers primarily for educational purposes. In seven of the 11 families that adopted the microcomputer for work or business, at least one child was using the machine for schoolwork.

The foremost activity for the families using microcomputers for education was programming, or learning how to program. "Trailing a distant second," Mr. Giacquinta noted, "[was] word processing of school papers or class notes. Only children in a few families [were] using educational software prepared by professionals to learn school subjects and skills."

The researchers found that programming was the dominant educa-tional activity because parents believed "it makes one more logical or rational" and because it was an activity stressed in the schools their children attended.

Families resisted buying professionally prepared educational software, despite the large selection available, because "the materials are perceived to be inadequate," according to the nyu researchers.

But they noted other factors that could also be inhibiting such purchases: Effective programs may not be accessible; parents may not be aware of existing programs; they may lack the skills to evaluate programs; the cost of such programs may be too high; and the parents may be uncertain how the programs could be used by their children.

Families Need Help

"The preliminary findings from this in-depth study of 20 families indicate that parents clearly see the computer as an important educational tool for their children, but that families obviously need additional help in understanding how the computer can be used for learning purposes," said Richard Robinson, president of Scholastic.

The report notes that the parents in the study "are hoping exposure to educational home computing will foster their children's achievement at school and in fact put them at an advantage in their competition at school and eventually at college and [in] the world of work." The report further notes, however, that "parents fear their children will become 'hooked on computers' and as a result abandon friends, [and] other important interests."

Authority and Equality

In one family, the parents were upset because their child's teacher would not allow the use of the home computer for schoolwork, although the parents permitted it. According to the research observer, the child said her teacher prohibited her from using the machine because "only about half the kids in the class had a [microcomputer] and it wouldn't be fair to the kids that didn't since they would have to keep copying things over and the kids on the [computer] wouldn't."

In conflict, Mr. Giacquinta con3cluded, were the family's desire for achievement and the teacher's contention that "it was unfair" to allow some students to use microcomputers at home while others could not.

"Purposeful or not," Mr. Giacquinta said, "this stand in the name of equality of educational opportunity was denying the family their adherence to the value of achievement."

Further Study

Mr. Giacquinta said the university will continue studying the 20 families. In addition, he said, the institution is seeking grants to conduct a regional study, involving about 45 schools and hundreds of families, and a national study of about 1,500 families.

"There are so many claims being made by software manufacturers, hardware manufacturers, and educators," Mr. Giacquinta said. "Many people are seeing these machines as a panacea for as many ills as you can think of. I think it behooves us to monitor that. How much of a panacea are [microcomputers] and what are the unanticipated effects of these machines that many of us might not want?"

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