Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Computers Interface With Kids Better Than Teachers


When my son went into special ed when he was only three years old he had trouble communicating with humans. The school had an Apple computer, this is many years ago. He spent about five minutes with it and bonded. It was astonishing watching this "learning disabled" child glom onto the computer and merge. He just...did things with it. The teachers who were supposedto instruct him ended up asking him for assistance with their own computers. This amused and amazed me.

Seems I am not the only one to think that maybe computers are different from all other forms of learning.

From the BBC in India:
Teach-yourself computing for kids

By Mark Rickards

Today is an important day for one Indian boy, nine-year-old Narput Singh. Something new is arriving in his remote village of Varna in the dusty, dry state of Rajasthan.

Something he has never had a chance to see before - it is a computer.

The digital divide seems at its greatest in India. On one side you have some of the most advanced work in IT taking place in cities like Bangalore or Delhi.

On the other you have children who have little or no access to new technology and live in conditions where clean water and electricity are still luxuries.

Please remember that the Indians are now a very formidable challenge for Americans in the field of programming and running computer systems.

Sugata was able to make some important but controversial observations.

"Groups of children given adequate digital resources can meet the objectives of primary education on their own - most of the objectives."

Teaching themselves

In the thousands of small villages across the length and breadth of India, this clearly has enormous implications. If the schools cannot provide access to both computers and trained teachers, then perhaps Sugata's approach could work.

The Hole in the Wall project is to leave a computer in their village, and it will be up to Narput Singh and his friends to work out how to use it.

The moment the box is open, the children swarm around it. They've never even seen the packaging before and some of them are rubbing bits of polystyrene on their arms, even trying a bite of it. Sugata gives a short talk before letting them loose.

"Who can ride a bicycle?" he asks. Forty hands shoot up.

"And who taught you?" There is some confusion and shaking of heads.

"No-one taught you," he says. "It's a skill you can learn on your own."

He turns to the computer behind him. "And the computer is like a bicycle."

I want to cry. This is so very simple. It is exactly how I feel about computers. As an older person, I struggle to learn. Lucky me, my kids are here to save me from my own timidity. My son says, "Hey, just do anything. Even if it crashes the computer." Certainly he wizzes along merrily while I drive like a senior citizen. Periodically, I have to flag the kids down for help.

But Sugata has noticed a pattern emerging after the first initial chaos. "You find that the noise level begins to come down, and from somewhere a leader appears.

"Often his face is not visible in the crowd, but he is controlling the mouse because suddenly you see the mouse begin to move in an orderly fashion.

"And then suddenly a lot of children's voices will say 'Oh, that pointer can be moved!' And then you see the first click, which - believe it or not - happens within the first three minutes."

Narput Singh has the mouse and takes control. And within three minutes he has clicked and, to his surprise and pleasure, inadvertently opened a game. He doesn't distinguish between educational games and those that are just for fun, and he is soon learning English words through a painting game with colours to fill in.

Whilst he is picking up the use of the computer directly, others around him are absorbing what he does.

With no adults giving cautions or commands it takes three minutes for children to begin nonrandom interfacing with the computer. Scary. I have watched children including my very own refuse learning in school. What really eats at them is the "lecture" method. They already are online and in control with computers and to slog along with someone can be painful. As I interface with the internet I feel the same rising anger. "You just don't get it, do you, here, let me show you," I want to shout. Heh. I do shout.

"We know that in nine months the entire group of children in a village would have reached approximately the level of an office secretary, which means they know dragging and dropping files, they know downloading, they can play video and audio and they can surf the internet".

Not everyone is enthralled with Sugata's results. Tom Standage, technology editor of the Economist, is sceptical of such projects. He points out that Bill Gates chose not to drop computers across the developing world as part of aid packages, preferring to concentrate on medicines and other more practical help for poor communities.

One wants to shake Gates awake. Here he is, pretending to be the cutting edge of the computer revolution and he can't see his own mountain he stands on. He does know he wants those Indian computer programmers. He complained to Bush just this last week about the immigration restrictions.

"The internet is the future," says one elder, "and our children have dreams."

Time will show whether the dreams are turned to dust in the desert, or whether the computer can make a lasting difference to these children's lives.

Hellfire, yes! I know that computers unlocked my son's inner genius. I know of an army of Asberger kids who are productive adults thanks to computers. Bill Gates, one glaring example. I know that my computer interfacing is most important. I love my computers and want better ones all the time, who cares about cars, I want the best computers available. To say that I adore them is an understatement. My kids make their livings off of computers. And they are very aware of the challenge of everyone else learning about this great tool. It puzzles me that computers are used so poorly in American schools. Just let the kids go with them. Some will do stupid things and some will do smart things.

That is life. Just like they learn to drive and some use this skill to flip cars into ditches and die.

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