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Study Finds Computers' Popularity Overstated

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The typical student views computers as another "academic drudgery" and views peers who like the machines as unusually bright or unpopular, according to a study of children's attitudes toward computers presented at the American Psychological Association's recent annual meeting.

Moreover, the study found that students prefer not to use computers during their free time and increasingly develop misconceptions about computers, even after four years' experience with them.

"To make children computer-literate is much more difficult than we imagined," said Steven Pulos, one of three researchers at the University of California at Berkeley who conducted the study. "It's difficult to acquire an accurate conception of computers, a natural understanding of them. If you like computers, you risk being seen as a 'nerd' by your peers."

Mr. Pulos, an adjunct lecturer in the graduate school of education, and his co-researchers, Sarah Fisher, a graduate student, and Elizabeth Stage, director of the computer-education group at the university's Lawrence Hall of Science, interviewed 140 "typical" schoolchildren for the study.

The students from grades 3 through 7, who were neither advanced nor slow learners, attended two public schools typical of schools nationwide that have intensive computer curricula, Mr. Pulos said.

The schools' programs included weekly visits to computer laboratories, computer-aided instruction, computer-literacy training, and some experience with word-processing and programming in the basic language.

The researchers found that even at the 7th-grade level, after four years' experience with computers, nearly half the students misunderstood how the machines worked, Mr. Pulos said.

Frequently, he said, they thought programming merely meant to insert a diskette into a machine, or that programming a computer occurred when it was being built at the factory.

"A lot of kids," he added, "think a programming language only allows you access to what is on a diskette," much the way a cartridge works in a video game or a tape works in a video-cassette recorder.

The misconceptions, Mr. Pulos said, are encouraged when teachers talk about inserting a software "program" into a machine, and then talk about "programming." In addition, he said, students view problem-solving as rote learning, as in memorizing the multiplication tables.

The Berkeley researchers also found that:

Forty-three percent of the 4th graders and only 14 percent of the 7th graders said they had ever used computers during their free time, even though computers were available to them during recess, lunch hour, and after school.

Sixty-one percent of the students said that typical students do not like computers and that those who do are unusually bright or unpopular.

Only 29 percent of the students said they would use computers when they grew up.

Children whose mothers used a computer at home had a better understanding of the machines than others. But children's attitudes were not affected by whether their fathers or brothers and sisters used computers.

The accuracy of children's understanding of computers decreased as the amount of time they spent playing videogames on the computer increased.

"Students who like school and academics like computers," Mr. Pulos said. "Those kids who feel so-so about school, as most of the kids did, feel so-so about computers. But you can still see in the popular and professional media comments about how kids are unnervingly good at computers and how they're attracted to computers."

"We can't rely on the intrinsic motivation for computers," he concluded. "We're really turning kids off to computers. And by not paying attention to children's level of understanding when we teach computer literacy, we encourage misconceptions."

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