• by Aurora Yañez-Pérez, M.A. • IDRA Newsletter • April 1996 •
As the 21st century fast approaches, technology will have become ingrained in the social fabric of our society. Computers will, in all likelihood, have become more powerful tools and will be used by greater numbers of people. In order for the people of tomorrow to be able to use this technology they must be introduced to the technology today. Many agree that this introduction to technology, and particularly to computers, should take place in the school and at an early age.
In their book, The Computer as a Paintbrush, Janice Beaty and Hugh Tucker explain that teachers who are using computers in the preschool classroom give an “enthusiastic description of the learning and developmental benefits their children are deriving from their interaction with this unique learning tool” (1987). Certain terms crop up in teachers’ conversations like: social skills, problem-solving skills, new vocabulary, creativity and equal opportunity for disadvantaged students. Beaty and Tucker state, “Young children’s brains were naturally designed to absorb new ideas and relationships in the way that computer programs present them” (1987).
Some of the benefits of computer use by students include the following:
- Computer use stimulates cooperative behavior and promotes self-esteem. It provides opportunities for success when children can go through all the exercises and when they can teach other students.
- Computer use provides an early understanding of technology. Because the computer is a patient instructor, students can work on programs for as long as they want.
- Computer use promotes self-control. For example, children learn that the computer keys need to be pressed one at a time to be able to get results.
- Computer use serves as an equalizer: The earlier girls have positive experiences with this medium the better because girls are not threatened by the use of technology when they are this young.
A barrier appears when teachers are uncomfortable with the technology. Teachers can consequently project their discomfort to the students. In their article, “The Computer as a Doorstop: Technology as a Disempowerment,” Thomas Callaster Jr. and Faith Dunne state:
“Machines are tools, valuable only when a human intelligence organizes their use in a productive way. In the classroom, that human is the teacher who controls the nature of the environment and what happens there. Good classroom tools extend the teacher’s power to create a rich learning environment. If the teacher does not know what to make of the tool or fears it or misconstrues its uses, it will be used badly or not at all. If the teacher perceives the machine as a master, not a servant, its potential will never be realized” (1993).
Once teachers feel comfortable with the computer, it is important to establish an environment that is conducive to children’s learning. Before this can be accomplished, certain notions have to be dispelled.
For instance, don’t be afraid to let children touch the computer for fear of them breaking it. Computers are sturdy instruments. Once ground rules are established, children tend to monitor themselves.
Don’t worry that the computer software might be too difficult for the children. Research has found that children know much more than they are given credit for, and they tend to adapt quickly to stimulating exercises.
Don’t be tempted to require students to work alone on the computer. Because of the characteristic of the computer screen, it can be easily seen by a number of children at once who can then provide feedback to each other. It is important for children to work at least in pairs so that they can give each other valuable feedback and instruction.
Don’t believe another common misconception that students should work in silence in the computer. Dr. Chris Green of IDRA comments:
“Students, especially young children and others still acquiring language, need extensive listening and speaking practice in order to acquire a strong oral language foundation. Just as you will see young children talking to themselves as they play, if they are truly engaged with a book or computer program you should see them “talking to” the book or computer. Including others in the conversation – teachers, other adults, peers – can enhance this natural language development process” (1996).
Dr. Green recommends that teachers look for software programs that provide listening practice.
Don’t believe that once students have a good software program in front of them and are interacting, the students no longer need the assistance of the teacher. This is incorrect. Although there are certain occasions when it is beneficial for students to work without supervision, Dr. Green states:
“All educational materials benefit from the interventions of a good teacher. You wouldn’t just hand students a book and expect them to learn all they need from it by themselves. The graphics, stories and activities students encounter via software can be the vehicle for rich discussions just as a book, movie or object can. They can describe what they see, predict what will come next, make suggestions for answers and other responses, explain why the group should follow their suggestions” (1996).
Don’t be concerned that students do not know how to spell or type. Children tend to “hunt and peck and use invented spelling at the early stages of learning to write via computers” (Green, 1996).
There is some literature available that addresses how to choose software programs that are developmentally appropriate for early childhood. However, there is less literature on linguistically appropriate software. This is an important issue because, while the value of using technology in early childhood is being hailed, there is a population of students whose needs are not being met. Language-minority children may miss out on the opportunity to develop their computer skills and reap the benefits that other children will enjoy, because – as often happens – their differences are either forgotten or ignored. While the computer is a universal tool, it is necessary for people to ensure that it is multilingual – capable of communicating with the user in a language that he or she understands and is comfortable using. In the school setting, providing linguistically diverse software will help meet the needs of language-minority students, and it can also provide challenging opportunities for other students to expand upon or acquire new language skills.
Beaty, Janice C. and W. Hugh Tucker. The Computer as a Paintbrush (Columbus, Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company, 1987).
Callaster Jr., Thomas and Faith Dunne. “The Computer as a Doorstep: Technology as Disempowerment,” Educational Digest, 1993, Volume 58, Number 9, page 4.
Green, Chris. Interview with the author, 1996.
Aurora Yáñez-Pérez is a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Research and Evaluation. Comments and questions may be directed to her via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©1996, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the April 1996 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]