Learning by Computer And Scheduling Living Away

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Several years ago when I was returning from a speaking engagement in Texas, I felt somewhat anxious because my plane was late and I knew my children were waiting in the airport. My concern proved needless. During the hour and a half wait they discovered a little girl with a computerized game called Fireman, Fireman, and the three youngsters were completely engrossed when I landed.

Fireman, Fireman--manufactured by Mego, a subsidiary of Time Out--was retailing for about $30 at the time. This small, computerized video game, about three by five inches and less than half an inch thick, is designed to fit comfortably into small hands. It was very popular with a group of preschool children at a nursery school where I was supervising. These 3- and 4-year-old children had renamed the game Cursebabies.

Let me tell you about Fireman, Fireman. Once the game is activated, the outline of a burning building appears on the left side of the screen. On the lower right-hand side is an ambulance, easily identified by a cross on the body of a car. The player can determine the speed with which small stick figures begin to fall from the windows of the burning building (slow, medium, fast).

The player moves two "rescuers," who are holding a stretcher between them. The point of the game is to catch the figures before they reach the ground. If the player misses, the figures splat at the bottom of the screen, literally dividing into three pieces, and instantly in the upper right-hand corner of the screen a small haloed angel appears. Points are given for the number of figures rescued, angels appear for every figure missed.

In the past few years the world of children's electronics has burgeoned. Almost every elementary school in the country now offers some form of computer education. A special computerized language, Logo, has been invented for children by Seymour Papert, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who advocates its use with 3-year-olds.

An experiment to find the earliest possible entry level for computers in the schools will begin in September in three school districts in New York City--districts 2 and 3 in Manhattan and 9 in the Bronx. In these schools, a group will begin kindergarten with computers. They will learn all subjects through a combination of traditional and computerized methods until the sixth grade.

In homes across the country, children are playing with their video Christmas presents, which include: Atari, Intelevision, Odyssey, Bally Arcade. Outside of homes, in public commercial enterprises across the country, arcades with video games are making addicts of children.

Furthermore, children today do not need to learn how to read traditional watch faces to tell time. They look at digital dials, frequently also featuring digital games.

Our children are growing up in a pervasively electronic environment that is alien to many parents and educators. The era of television in which they grew up posed many still-unanswered questions. Now, the growth of the new electronic games and computers is raising a host of new questions.

According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, an experiment at the Hawes elementary school in Ridgewood, N.J., tested the results of a week without television for 142 fourth through sixth graders. The study reported the following: Many affluent and educated families had a television set in every room; these families averaged six hours of television watching per day; some parents refused to abstain from television watching for the purpose of the experiment; some children reported feelings of depression, weeping, loneliness; some families reported extreme discomfort at having to confront each other face to face; in those families where the experiment was successful, people got to know each other better and interacted in new ways.

Television as a cultural phenomenon appears to be both addictive and alienating. So, I fear, is the electronic world of video games and computers. Given our current knowledge of teaching, learning, and child development, and our experience of growing up with television, what are some of the characteristics of the computerized world of childhood that adults need to note?

Here are some of the obvious issues:

  • The world of electronics is intangible. The contact children have with computerized games and programs is either through a keyboard or some other mechanical device for delivering information to a screen. The signals on the screen cannot be touched; they can only be manipulated indirectly by pressing buttons, knobs, or joy sticks.

    Any observer of young children will note (as Piaget did) that they build understanding of the world largely through contact with it--through touching, moving objects, observing, experimenting. We know very little about the effects of a computerized environment, which simply cannot provide such opportunities to children.

  • The world of electronics is hypnotic and isolating; it cuts out other experiences. I observed a Washington, D.C., bureaucrat roller skating to work with a Walkman plugged in his ears. His gyrating body was responding to sounds unavailable to anyone but himself and this constant auditory stimulation became a substitute for the sights and sounds he would normally experience in walking down a street. Obviously, the electronic world can narrow and change the nature of ordinary experiences.

    A microcomputer (the kind found in most schools and in more and more homes) can only physically accommodate two or three people at the most. Therefore, contact with others is limited. Since the nature of the interaction is between screen and user, this is hardly a social experience.

  • The electronic world confuses cause-and-effect relationships. For most of us, knowledge of how a computer works is unavailable. The relationship between pressing buttons and activating programs has a magical quality. When my own children, 8 and 12, played "Animals," a Pascal computerized game--which is a version of 20 questions where the player can teach the machine new animals--they concluded that the machine would be upset and hurt if they tricked it too often. My 12-year-old kept saying he knew it was only a machine but he was still concerned about its feelings.
  • The world of electronics offers simulated experiences. Children can play football, soccer, or learn how to fix a car by computerized programs. The computerized world reduces reality to a series of signals, which are symbols for the real. Educators deal with the world of symbols all the time--numbers, words, pictures. We need to know a lot more than we do about this new symbolic environment and its effect on children's learning.

It is not my intent to suggest that we can isolate children from this technological environment. Obviously, it is here to stay and we must consider its impact on development. We must, as responsible adults who control the use of these devices. We must ensure that they do not become the pervasive experience of the growing child and that an ample variety of traditional tactile, verbal, human experiences, such as family outings, story telling, reading out loud, constructing things, physical contact sports, are not scheduled out of the child's life by the intoxicating notion that these wondrous machines can replace fundamental human experiences.

Vol. 01, Issue 26, Page 19-20

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