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A privileged generation
Find a university undergraduate these days and chances are a computer will not be far away. Computers have become an integral part of their academic and social lives.
With such regular exposure to computers, you might expect a correspondingly high level of expertise. Not necessarily so, says Dr Tim Metham of Sussex University.
“One thing that is very frustrating at the university is that many of the undergraduates cannot go anywhere beyond the Internet as a source for material. The temptation is simply to download chunks of information and cut and paste. But so much of that material is unqualified, unrefereed.
“In an odd way, there are all the resources you could want and yet the students are quite unable to use them in an original and a discerning way.”
Perhaps this is not all that surprising. It is true that many undergraduates have had access to computers for most of their lives, but, for the most part, the machines they have used have been quite primitive by today’s standards. And until very recently, Internet access has been limited, slow and unreliable.
Contrast that with children entering a well equipped school today. Many of them will never experience a computer with a CPU running below one gigahertz or with a storage capacity of less than 20 gigabytes. Fast Internet access will be a given. Chances are also good that the machines they use will be connected to a powerful local network.
It’s hard to imagine what computer skills they will acquire by the time they enter a university. But one thing is for certain — they will have a huge head start over the present generation of undergraduates.
Gerry Campbell, the grade school coordinator at Kesinee International School (KIS), shares some of Dr Metham’s frustration over the uneven quality of the information available from the Internet. When his ten-year-olds do their on-line research, he says, they often have a difficult time separating what is credible from what is not.
Ten-year-olds! Fortunately, they still have time to get their act together.
Actually, it may not take them very long. Ten-year-olds, these days, often have skills that put adults to shame. At the Regents’ School in Bangkok, for example, a ten-year-old would be conversant with a wide range of productive programs from word processors to spreadsheets.
“I introduce (Microsoft) Word, in year one,” says IT coordinator Tony Sharman. I introduce spreadsheets probably in year three. I use Junior Pinpoint (Longman). It’s a combination word processor, database and spreadsheet. I usually start (Microsoft) PowerPoint at the end of year three or in year four.”
At the International School Bangkok, Hyperstudio (TAG Learning), is also a big favourite. “It’s a multimedia program,” Pimolpun Burapharat, the ISB Educational Software Technology coordinator, explains. “We use it with grade three. Kids really enjoy this program. When they learn something new, they put it on to a (Hyperstudio) card. They can then add sounds and pictures. They use scanners or copy pictures from the web. “Hyperstudio projects can be printed and sent home or, with the new version, they can send them via email for parents to see.
“It’s a never ending change of environment,” says ISB’s director of information technology, Steven Lehman, of his field.
“Nowadays you’ll see kindergartners doing things that maybe a few years ago you had eight- or nine-year-olds doing. In the middle school every year we find the students come up with more skills and we have to constantly change the program to suit the skill level of the students.”
It all starts in pre-school – earlier for many children who have computers in the home.
“Children can start as soon as they show their interest. There’s no need to wait until this age or that age, says Dr Piyarat Khanthap, IT coordinator at KIS. “Children can start learning with the computer from one year old providing they have the proper software and proper care.”
Proper care means a number of things, she explains – the position of the monitor, an appropriate mouse and chair, for example. And parents or teachers should try to stay with the children, asking questions and conversing with them.
“Its quite incredible what young ones can learn,” Dr Piyarat observes. My two-year-old nephew knows how to open programs, how to quit them, and how to turn off the computer properly. Even some of the older ones at some schools can’t do that.”
In preschool, much of the emphasis is on building a basic familiarity with the computer, especially developing mouse and keyboarding skills.
Here, observes Sharman, they have distinct advantages over many adults. “They all come in with no fear,” he says.
At Regents, they use a number of simple, fun, but instructive programs for the little ones. Among Sharman’s favourites are Tizzy’s Toybox (Sherston) and Thomas the Clown (Logotron). Children enjoy these programs, he says, and they also learn rudimentary matching, sorting and sequencing.
At ISB, the program of choice for the little ones is Kid Pix (Broderbund). “We use it in kindergarten but you can use it with four-year-olds,” Lehman says. “Three-year-olds will play with it.”
One advantage of Kid Pix, Lehman says, is its flexibility. Like Hyperstudio, it can be used for a wide variety of activities. Above all, both programs let students produce something tangible.
“The kids don’t see these programs as games. They see them as having a purpose. The student’s put their language skills together with their technology skills and they try and get a product to come out. Kids really like this. They want to get something out at the other end.”
With Kid Pix, Pimolpun adds, each time the students come into the computer lab, they have a different type of project. “We make a template for them. They try to find the graphics and the letters to fit in. They also start drawing their own pictures.”
In the first grade, the projects get more ambitious, she says. “The kids make their own books. We have a program called “Amazing Writing Machine”(Broderbund). They do the planning in the classroom, and when they come in they write at one side and draw pictures on the other side.”
Into the classroom
It is important to put the computer in perspective,” says Lehman. “You don’t want students to be thinking that everything has to be done on the computer. You don’t want them to be doing things on the computer that they could be doing some other way. It doesn’t replace the teacher, that’s for sure.
“The idea should be to get kids interacting with computers as part of their daily lives and get them to see it as a tool for learning rather a centre of attention,” Lehman stresses.
To do this, Lehman has been working hard to find an economical way to bring computers into the classroom. “That is the natural environment for learning. It’s where the teachers have all their resources and it’s a situation where the students are interested in their learning. If you take the kids to the computer lab, naturally enough the computers are the focus of attention.”
In the past, Lehman says that computer allocation has often been based on the mistaken assumption that if you put one computer in a classroom, it’s good and if you put in three computers, it’s three times better.
“That is wrong. For the teacher who is really good at technology, three computers are nothing and they can’t use them. And for the teacher who isn’t good at using technology, they ignore them. But, if you put like 12 computers in a classroom, then the teacher who’s good at using technology can do something and the teacher who’s not so good has a good role model,” Lehman explains.
To do this in a cost-effective way, Lehman is experimenting with laptop computers that can be wheeled in and out of classrooms on carts. ISB has a wireless network, so essentially all students have to do is to turn their laptops on and they are ready to work.
“It’s great,” he says. “You walk into the classroom and you see kids sitting around with laptops. Some are doing math games. Some are writing. Others are watching a video. Some kids aren’t even using the computer. They’re doing something else.”
Lehman’s goal is to maximise the time computers are in use. Presently, he has five carts of 12 laptops each and hopes to have another ten within six months.
“It’s really changed the way technology gets used,” he observes. “When you put it back in the classroom, it becomes part of your regular lesson and the technology stops being the feature.
“Initially, the students were very excited about having the computers, but the novelty has worn off. To them, it’s like another book or a dictionary. They just use it for learning.”
On the software front, Lehman admits he has been much less successful. It is a problem he says that confronts educators throughout Thailand. Good software is almost impossible to buy locally and importing it is a constant hassle because of intellectual property rights concerns on the part of exporters.
Then there are the Thai customs authorities. According to regulations, software should be taxed at a flat five percent, but in reality things are not that simple, Lehman says. There are many doors to go through and negotiation is a normal practice.
“But it shouldn’t be a matter of negotiation,” Lehman complains. “It’s punishing education in the country because the Thai schools have exactly the same problems that we have.”
Parents who buy software in small quantities should have any easier time. Lehman suggests they buy over the Internet where suppliers abound and prices are reasonable. For those nervous about giving their credit card numbers over the Internet, he suggest getting a special card with a very low limit.
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Last modified: August 18, 2003