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Computer Use for Students in Education

Updated on February 28, 2011

Technology Use in an Educational Setting

The question of at what age/grade computers should be introduced to students has been a point of controversy for the past twenty years since computers were first introduced in a meaningful way into the classroom. As with most issues in education, research points in two directions: a) computer use at an early age (preschool – Kindergarten) has no real positive educational benefits, and b) computer use with children as young as preschool has been shown to have positive educational benefits.

Proponents of both views can marshal their ammunition as needed. The Alliance for Childhood argues “that the data seems clear that computers offer few advantages in these years.” Some schools do not begin computer lessons until students are at Grade 2 or 3. For example, at the University of Chicago Lab Schools students do not begin using computers in an organized way until Grade 2 because the school feels that “the primary goal in the Lower School computer classes is to help the students become technologically literate. This is achieved by exposing students to a wide variety of hands-on computer experiences that includes programming, simulations, information gathering, and working with applications and subject area software. By providing a broad range of computer experiences, we help students understand how computers can facilitate learning in all subject areas.”

Many other educators argue that students as young as Kindergarten or even pre-school can benefit from computer use. Pamela Livingston, director of information technology at Chestnut Hill Academy, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, believes that "Computers offer K-3 students opportunities to go beyond the four walls of their classrooms in unique ways. They can take a virtual field trip to China, pose questions to their favorite authors and get instant responses, and exchange information with children at a tribal Indian school through videoconferencing, e-mail, and a video exchange. No one can afford to take all his or her students to Africa. But computers let them go there, learn about it, and experience it in a way no other medium can.”

All this being said, there seems to be a trend in new research that shows that computer use with the early grades does have positive benefits for students providing that computer use is carried out with certain provisos in mind (and in use):

  • Computers are used to do a learning activity in a new and creative way or to do a learning activity that is possible only with the help of technology.
  • Computers are used as a tool for learning and not as technology for technology's sake. That is, students are not sent to a lab just so that it can be said that technology is being used.
  • Computers are used in a way that allows all students to complete the task successfully, independently, and in the time allotted.
  • Computers are used in a way that accommodates students' varied developmental levels and needs.
  • Computers are used for a task that is curriculum-based and meets educational standards.
  • Computers are integrated in the classroom for use in context, not in a laboratory setting using applications that are not related to real work being done in the classroom.
  • For very young children, computers should only be one of many activities that they can explore.
  • The software is interactive or discovery based.
  • Teachers are familiar with the software and its application and are comfortable using it in the classroom.

As Bernadette Davis and Daniel Shade noted: “Schools often put computers in a single room where children use them once a week under a specialty teacher’s supervision. Unfortunately, this practice has undermined the most valuable aspect of the computer – it’s ability to cut across traditional subject boundaries as a practical and useful tool… Only when computers are integrated into the curriculum as a vital element for instruction and are applied to real problems for a real purpose, will children gain the most valuable computer skill – the ability to use computers as natural tools for learning.”

Conclusion:

Computer use is still predicated on the antiquated idea of sending children to a computer lab for independent “lessons” in computer technology taught by a specialist. Best practices with technology suggests that computers be viewed as tools, not as a separate subject. Children in primary grades would best benefit from using computers in the classroom with developmentally appropriate software on activities related to their curriculum where they work on applying them to real problems with a real purpose.

Primary teachers frequently use “drill and kill” software (Math Blaster) with their young students. These types of programs should only be used for limited amounts of time as they are directed at increasing skills and not cognitive development. Young students need to work with software designed for specific educational purposes in general. However, a “smorgasbord of technologies can be quite effective with students of all ages – this would include such things as digital recorders, digital cameras, digital video cameras, computers (such as the iMac) which are designed to be used in a multimedia format.

Additionally, there are numerous websites (the educational website cyberbali.com has a list of these sites) designed to be used by primary age students as an aid to developing literacy and subject matter knowledge. Planned use of these sites integrated with the curriculum and media such as books and hands-on activities appears, according to the research, to be an effective use of computers with primary age children.

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