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The Nation | EDUCATION

Do Tots, Computers Mix Well?

April 11, 1999|Larry Cuban | Larry Cuban is a professor of education at Stanford University

STANFORD — Photos of diaper-clad tots facing computer screens and using mouses to command the machine delight Americans. But who really benefits: the tots or the technology companies?

Currently, two forces drive many parents to park their children in front of computers: fear that in an economy marked by corporate downsizing, computer illiteracy will mean job insecurity; and faith that schooling is a socioeconomic escalator to high-paying jobs. Yet, how much time, if at all, should 2-, 3- or 4-year-olds spend on computers? Does what children learn from computers help or hinder their later school work?

More than 40% of homes now have computers, and of those homes with children, 70% have educational software. In at least one-quarter of preschool and kindergarten rooms, there is a computer center, usually equipped with two to four machines of varying vintages, at which children spend from a few moments to a half hour daily. For-profit companies such as KinderCare Learning Centers use computers for 3- and 4-year-olds in all 1,100-plus centers. Computertots offers computer training for children as young as 2 in more than 240 franchises.

Although there have been many studies of computer use by preschoolers and kindergartners, few noted the amount of time children actually spent with the machines over the course of a day or week. In two studies, the time varied from a few minutes a day to twice-weekly sessions of 15 minutes each. For the most part, children use game-like, interactive software that features animation and sound. At some centers, timers limit exposure to the computers.

Studies report mixed findings when preschoolers are unconstrained by timers. Some suggest that young children spend equal amounts of time with computers, art, sand play or blocks; others reveal that unless time limits are set, students gravitate toward computers and use them longer. All studies note that children remain fascinated with the machines even after their novelty has worn off, and that they prefer to work with one or more peers while at the computer. Results on whether boys or girls spend more time at computers are conflicting, while social class, race and ethnicity are predictive of access to computers.

Is time at the computer beneficial? Many studies conclude that as little as 10 minutes of doing drill-like programs can help preschoolers and kindergarteners learn to name letters and recognize words. Software programs that recite what children type promote early literacy in kindergarten and first-grade children who express ideas and write simple sentences. Similarly, for math software, 10 minutes of computer use a day proved sufficient to help primary-grade children learn to count, sort and other premath skills. Computers even promoted emotional and social development among preschoolers and kindergartners, in that the machines encouraged taking turns, seeking help from peers and teaching one another.

But all these studies share a serious problem: How can one factor--a piece of software used for a few minutes a day--be disentangled from children's developmental level, their teacher's style of instruction, previous patterns of social interaction, the influence of other children, and whether the child uses computers at home? Many, but not all, researchers know the answer: You can't sort out the impact of technology on learning and say confidently that this or that software caused children to learn more, the same, or less.

In a 1996 position paper, the National Assn. for the Education of Young Children embraced technology for preschoolers but with enough caveats to restrain enthusiasts from filling preschools with computers. The paper's theme is that computers are tools, and tools are neutral. They can be used to enhance or impair children's learning. This is a common view among experts on technology in schools, and one that needs examining, if not revising.

With the computer and its software, we have rich stimulation, the creation of a surrogate reality, mechanical thinking embodied in programmers' codes and a budding relationship between a child and a machine. These features reinforce elements of the larger culture that daily impinge, through television, advertising and movies, upon family, preschool and kindergarten. Are these features embedded in computer software culturally neutral? In all honesty, this cultural interaction occurs, and computers, as schoolroom tools, are scarcely neutral in their effects upon children.

On the other hand, viewing the computer as an add-on to the main work of teachers helping young children grow in a carefully designed setting is worthwhile on two counts.

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