THE WORLD INSIDE THE COMPUTER
Superbaby Meets The Computer
Fred D'lgnazio, Associate Editor
If you haven't seen it already, you should go to a library and find the March 28, 1983, issue of Newsweek magazine. Turn to page 62 and read the cover story, "Bringing Up Superbaby." The story is about how parents are pushing their kids to learn earlier and earlier. Kids who are only a few months old are studying art books, gazing at flash cards, doing toddler gymnastics, going to dance class, putting together puzzles, taking swimming lessons, and learning how to compute. In the article there's a picture of a little kid who is pounding away on the keyboard of an IBM Personal Computer.
Just a few years ago, Elizabeth Wall (a media specialist in Sarasota, Florida, and author of The Computer Alphabet, Avon, 1983) sat down next to one of the pioneers of personal computing. He asked her what she was up to. "Teaching elementary school kids how to use computers," she told him. He was shocked. "There's no future in teaching little kids computers," he said. "They will never get the hang of it."
Since that expert made his remark, use of computers has dribbled downward, from college to high school kids; from high school kids to middle schoolers; from middle schoolers to kids in elementary school – and beyond.
In Bruce and Diane Mitchell's Small World preschool and kindergarten, in Durham, North Carolina, four-year-olds and five-year-olds are playing educational games on Atari computers and Timex Sinclairs. They are programming a Turtle robot by tapping on the keyboard of an Atari 800.
But preschoolers and kindergartners are old. They're almost over the hill! The Newsweek article mentioned a school called Tiny Bytes where kids can begin computing before they've celebrated their first birthday.
Computer Literacy Or Else
Some toddlers are going to be victimized by pushy parents trying to fill their offsprings' "little sponges" with computer facts even before they've learned to walk or talk. I can imagine an "enlightened" household where the parents are trying to give their three-month-old an early start on her way to a high-tech future. The baby, blithely unaware of her parents' designs, is reaching for a rubber ducky. The mother pushes the duck away. "Too easy," she says. She whips out a stack of big white flash cards. "Let's practice these first, then you can see the duck on your lunch break." As the baby gazes sweetly at her mother, the mother runs through the flash cards. "RAM!" she calls out. "RAM .. R .. A .. M .. RAM! BIT! .. B .. I ..T.. BIT! CHIP! ..C.H.."
One wonders what a kid who gets computer flash cards at three months is going to be like when she gets to the ripe old age of five years, or ten, or fifteen. She may have a lot of computer facts under her belt, but how well adjusted will she be? What will be the result of all this parental prodding?
This is not to say that computers shouldn't be introduced to kids who are still wandering around the house in dirty diapers. Because they should be!
The question is how.
Parents who are pushing their babies and toddlers into computer literacy are missing the point – at least as far as computer literacy is defined. We are presently in the Age of Computer Literacy. But we are quickly moving beyond it. Pretty soon it will not be productive for us to study such arcane terms as bit, byte, and CPU. We won't have to know how a computer works, just how to work a computer. We will be leaving the age of computer literacy and entering the Age of Computer Intimacy.
Take the TV or the car. These are high-tech machines that are part of almost every little kid's environment, right from birth. Do parents go around with flash cards with words like CHANNEL SELECTOR or PHOSPHOR SCREEN? Or with words like CARBURETOR or PISTON? Of course not. Nevertheless, the smallest children learn how to operate TVs, almost before they can walk. And little kids play with model cars, toy cars and trucks, all through their childhood. And when their magic birthday arrives and they can get their driving license, they quickly learn to drive and operate an automobile.
How many kids suffer from automobile anxiety or TV phobia? Very few.
Even more important, how many kids can expect to find a job when they grow up as an automobile mechanic or an expert in TV repair? Again, very few.
Yet TVs and cars are far more common than personal computers.
The point is that we have moved beyond "TV literacy" and "automobile literacy" to a new age of intimacy with both these machines. The technologies have matured. They are black boxes, idiot boxes that almost anyone can learn how to use. They're everywhere. We're comfortable with them in our garages, our living rooms and bedrooms.
This is where computers are headed, too. They've just started, but, at the speed they're going, it won't take long. By the end of the 1980s, computers will be black boxes, just like cars and TVs. They will be in most people's homes. They will become so common that they will cease being an eye-catching phenomenon. In fact, they will almost be invisible. Like electric motors, they will slip into other appliances and disappear from view.
Kids who are less than one year old in 1983 will be less than seven in 1990. So why are parents teaching them computer literacy terms and concepts, preparing them for a job market that exists in 1983, but will change radically even before the kids have made it through elementary school?
Parents are pushing because they are panicking. The swift pace of computer technology has them running scared.
And they are pushing their kids because of the status of having them say "floppy disk" as their first word.
What they don't realize is that they are training their kids in what will soon be an obsolete technology and, worse, an obsolete approach to technology. They are being trained to become the automobile mechanics and TV repairpersons of the 21st century. These are honorable professions. But is this what the parents intend?
Computer Osmosis Vs. Computer Bullying
Millions of personal computers are going into people's homes. Millions and millions of little children are waking up each morning and walking or being carried past computers on their way to their bottle, their Boo Berries, or baby cereal. For them, computers are no more wondrous or rare than the floor lamp, vacuum cleaner, or telephone. They're just one of the many things that "belong" in their lives. They have a place, along with everything else.
This is exactly as it should be. Computers are a big deal to us. And our kids will see that. When we spend all night in front of a keyboard trying to debug a program or escape from the wizard's castle in an adventure game, they'll notice. If we shout and point at the new computer and say "Gee whiz!" and "Oh, gosh!" enough times, they'll notice. And if we get frustrated with the computer and begin saying unkind things to it or give it a good bop, they'll notice that, too. Whether positive or negative, our kids will pick up on the attention we give to computers and the amount of emotional involvement we have with them. Kids are very sensitive about this sort of thing.
Growing Up Together
You and I are already grown. We're big people. But computers and kids haven't stopped growing. In fact, they've just begun. Both are going to change rapidly over the next 20 years.
At the end of that 20 years, what will they be like?
We imagine that our kids will end up pretty much like us. But how about computers? When kids enter the job market in the late 1990s or early 21st century, what will computers be like?
According to experts, we are quickly entering a new era of personal computers. I call this era the Age of Computer Intimacy. Others call it: The Age of User Friendliness. The Age of Forgiving Systems. The Age of Easy Computing. The Age of Humanlike Machines.
As anyone who has struggled with a cranky program recorder, or with a cryptic BASIC error message, or with computer cables, plugs, and connections knows, we have not reached computer heaven yet. Far from it!
But we are moving closer. While at the West Coast Computer Faire in San Francisco, I attended a seminar on "Second Generation PC Software." It was mind-boggling.
I learned that if you have enough money, you can buy computer programs and computers that are really, truly friendly. They hold your hand. They speak English (most of the time). They help you out of tight spots. They remind you of what you are supposed to be doing when you get lost.
And, boy, are they powerful! With just one package, one electronic mouse, and 45 windows, you can figure out your income tax, send electronic mail, draw pie charts and bar charts, do word processing, and file, sort, and retrieve records. All with the same set of commands.
At present, these systems are extremely expensive. Only the folks who carry around Pierre Cardin calculators can afford them: But computers, in general, used to be this way, too. Only wealthy, technically sophisticated organizations (universities, large corporations, the government, and the military) could afford them. But computers have come a long way. Now you can buy a programmable computer for under 60 dollars. Pretty soon the price will be even lower, and the computer will be more powerful and easier to use.
The new generation of "easy" computers and "friendly" computer software is coming. And it will include machines and programs that we can all afford.
What Do We Tell Our Kids?
If we're not supposed to tell our children (and babies) about bits and bytes, then what do we tell them?
Nothing is okay. Unless they ask. Or unless you're so excited about something neat that you just feel like babbling.
Just have a computer around the house. That's enough. Treat it like you'd treat a typewriter, a telephone, or a calculator. But let your kids touch it. That's the best way for them to learn. For example, my four-year-old son, Eric, drives me crazy when he uses a computer. He has grimy, dirty fingers. He presses buttons in such a way as to make a computer act like an amnesiac. But he loves to play on the computers because he is allowed to play freely. And (with quiet wincing and cringing) I let him. One of his favorite games is filling up the picture screen with graphics symbols, multicolored bars (using color keys and the reverse-video button), and random letters, numbers, and punctuation symbols.
Another of his games is to use the computer as a Gobbledygook Processor (that's "GP"). He types all sorts of strange looking words like
IXCCY##559 ISK ERIC!!!!! AAAAAAAAAAAAA
then sends them to the computer's printer. He rips off the printer paper (in the same lavish, boisterous way he handles toilet paper) and tapes it up around the house as a sign of who knows what. Or he stuffs a wad of it in an envelope, and it becomes a letter. Or he gives it, as a gift, to me, to his mother, his sister, his kitty, or his toy robot, Denby.
A Tool Or A Crutch?
Actually, there's more to computer education than this. Our responsibility as parents (and teachers) extends beyond just making computers available to our children. Much further, in fact.
When our youngest children start entering the job market, in another 15 to 20 years, all computers will be "easy" computers; all programs will be "friendly." Computers and programs will also be a lot more intelligent than they are now. There will be a tremendous temptation to let computers take over many of the thinking chores that we humans find bothersome, tiresome, boring, or too difficult. At some point, for many people, the computer will cease to be a support and start to be a crutch.
Our responsibility, as parents and teachers, is to teach our children the value of using computers in the proper way: to help them do their own thinking.
What Do You Think?
What do you think? How early should kids begin learning about computers? What should be the role of parents (and teachers)? What should kids learn? How should they learn it?
Please send your ideas and comments to me:
2117 Carter Road, SW
Roanoke, VA 24015
I'll return to this subject in a future issue of COMPUTE!, and I'll reprint a number of your letters.
A book has just been published for parents of older children (ages nine and up) who are interested in computers. I recommend the book because it is a practical guide to the technology as it exists today. If you want to launch yourself and your family into computing today (and you should), then you need a survival manual. The best survival manual of all is this magazine (COMPUTE!), with all its tutorials, articles for beginners, practical programming tips, and actual programs for you to copy into your machine. But, if you're a parent, you should also take a look at:
Eugene Galanter, Kids and Computers: The Parent's Microcomputer Handbook (Perigee Books, The Putnam Publishing Group, 200 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10016; $7.95; Paper-back; 7-page index; 190 pages)
Sample chapters: Microcomputers and Your Child; What Is a Microcomputer?; The Microcomputer's Parts; Programming by, for, and with Children; Running the Machine; Kids Can Write Programs; Evaluating Computer Education.
The author, Eugene Galanter, has been teaching kids about computers for several years. You can write his school for additional information or to ask him specific questions about kids and computers:
The Children's Computer School
21 West 86th Street
Neiv York, NY 10024
Looking For Good Software?
Of course you are. So you should get in touch with an organization that evaluates the newest educational software:
Educational Products Information Exchange (EPIE)
Columbia University Teachers College
P.O. Box 27
New York, NY 10027
EPIE has recently entered into an agreement with the Consumer's Union to test and evaluate hundreds of consumer-oriented and educational computer products. The results of their research, reviews, and laboratory tests are just becoming available. You can read about these results in their MICROgram, published monthly as part of:
The Computing Teacher
The International Council for Computers in Education (ICCE)
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403
Teachers (and interested parents) can write EPIE & Consumer's Union and obtain special publications, including the Micro Courseware PRO/FILES for K-8 Educators ($84), and the Courseware Resource List (as a bonus for ordering the PRO/FILES):
EPIE & Consumer's Union
P.O. Box 839
Watermill, NY 11976