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Pencils, notebook ... and a computer?

Experts agree that computers have an increasing and valuable role in education. Not all agree on the best approach, however.

By DAVE GUSSOW, Times Technology Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published August 17, 1998

A back-to-school checklist: Pencils, notebooks and other supplies? Absolutely. New clothes? Almost certainly. A home computer for schoolwork? That depends.

"The best thing educationally a parent can do for a child is get a list of great literature," said Sherry Dingman. "If they have only 15 minutes a day, spend it reading to them. There is no substitute for that."

Dingman, an assistant professor of psychology at Marist College in New York, has won awards for innovative uses for technology in education. She wants kids to use computers. But not at all costs.

"No, it's not necessary" to buy a computer, Dingman said. "The local public library and reading to your children is necessary. Conversing with adult human beings builds children's intelligence. Reading, talking about what you read, is necessary, more necessary than a computer, more necessary than TV, and it's cheaper. Get a library card."'

That said, Dingman and others agree that computers have an increasing and valuable role in education. Not all agree on the best approach, however.

Various studies have shown different results on the impact of computers on student achievement. Not all schools are equal when it comes to equipment, so not all students have the same opportunities for access.

A recent survey by the research firm Market Data Retrieval showed that less than 10 percent of the nation's public schools are truly high tech, based on student-to-computer ratios, number of CD-ROMs available for students, access to a network and access to the Internet.

Some educators, such as Dingman, question how schools use technology and how they spend money on it. The debate goes further still when some families can afford home computers for their kids and others can't.

So, what's a parent to do, and what age is best to buy a child a computer?

"I think it becomes important some time in elementary school to have exposure to the idea of having a computer to accomplish something," said Lynn Andrea Stein, a fellow at the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College and an associate professor of computer science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

That can mean something as simple as taking a child to the public library and using the electronic card catalog to find a book, or showing a child how an ATM works, she said.

Stein says parents have a role in their children's technology education.

"Buying a computer by itself is not going to do you any good," Stein said. "Having your child exposed to computers in an interactive, useful way is better than having a computer at home with little interaction. I think the investment of your time is more important than the investment of your money."

For those who can't afford a new home computer, Stein and others said, they can consider a used computer, which can cost $500 or less, or something like WebTV, where the child can learn the keyboard and surfing the Internet. "Surfing the Internet is absolutely something children need to do in a supervised way," Stein said.

When should a parent let a child surf alone? That depends on the child, Stein said, but he or she needs to understand that, just as any community has dark alleys and places to avoid, so does the Internet, and children need to know how to handle themselves online.

"Just as there are concerns about letting children watch TV unsupervised, there should be concerns about unlimited, unsupervised computer time," Stein said. "Each family needs to figure out what is an appropriate amount of supervised or unsupervised use of various technologies."

While back-to-school ads tout the latest and greatest machines, educators say less expensive machines will do just fine for younger children. The sub-$1,000 market for PCs hasboomed in the last year, and Apple just came out with its new iMac for about $1,300.

"If you're talking about buying a computer for an 8-year-old, they don't need to be able to run big number-crunching programs (or) graphics with multimedia," Dingman said. "They don't need that much of a computer for their first computer."

Parents should take the same approach to buying a computer for their kids as they would for a car: Would they go out and spend $30,000 on a car for a teenager? They'd probably buy a cheaper, used car. Same with computers.

And as with a teen's first car, after plenty of chaperoned training, there is a time to let your kid solo.

"If you're really going to let a kid use a computer, you really have to turn the computer over to the kid," Dingman said. "You have to let them turn it on, boot it up. If they're going to be computer literate, they have to learn about operating systems."

The computer uses that excite Dingman involve the online world, such as Diversity University (www.du.org), and virtual campuses set up by various universities, where teachers and students, even young ones, can meet, ask questions, collaborate on writing projects or learn about technology.

"It used to be that bright kids didn't meet each other until they get to graduate school," Dingman said. "Now they're building virtual worlds together and they're practicing running society. They're getting it all worked out when they're 11 or 12 years old."

To participate, "all it takes is an old computer with a modem in it and access to the Internet," Dingman said.

She said younger children who visit the site are meticulous when it comes to things such as spelling, because mistakes are a giveaway on age. It has even helped improve students' spelling on standardized tests, she said.

"The real power is that you can interact, you can transcend the spacial barrier between people, play chess with someone around the world," Dingman said. "Kids can go out in cyberspace and talk to people they could never meet at their local elementary school."

Stein sees technology expanding the boundaries of traditional school projects.

"Some of the most exciting ways I've seen computers used now are connecting people and involve allowing people to put together much more sophisticated projects than with traditional media," Stein said.

But Dingman doesn't think schools are using technology well. Some don't have enough computers in classrooms. Some kids are better prepared to use technology than others, while many teachers feel threatened by it. And schools are paying too much for what they get.

"Teachers basically feel a need to control computer use," Dingman said. "So they're going to bring one computer into one classroom and, what, show them one Web site, play games? What are they going to use this tool for in the classroom?"

Dingman said schools should create computer labs, which can be used as "token reinforcement" after students finish the day's reading, writing and arithmetic lessons, or allow students freer rein to use programs, the Web and other facets so they "can develop their own talents and skills."

Students probably would get more and better use out of a computer at home than they do in schools, Dingman said.

Judy Ambler, director of instructional technology for Pinellas schools, agrees it is a long, slow and expensive process to properly equip schools, but it's a mission she says is critical.

"These kids have been brought up much different from their parents" in a media-driven society, she said. "To say to them go back and learn the way their parents did doesn't make much sense."

Suzanne Dross sees a different student today than she encountered five years ago when she was featured in a Times story about using the Internet in her classroom at Southern Oak Elementary School in Largo.

They have more access at home, they have their own e-mail addresses, they're surfing the Web at night.

"They're coming in knowing a lot" about technology, said Dross, now the technology coordinator at Azalea Elementary School in St. Petersburg. "That's going to be their world, and I think that's why it's important that it start with young kids. They're going to grow up in a world where the computer's going to be important."

Dross doesn't think the choice between a PC running Windows and an Apple computer for the home is as important as its capabilities, especially for students to learn how to use electronic reference sources.

This summer, Ambler's staff was preparing a Web page for parents thinking of buying a home computer, which will outline some of the issues to consider. "You cannot begin to keep up with it," said Ambler, referring to how fast technology changes. "Think of parents just starting the process. They don't have Net access. They really don't know what it all means."

Ambler says the school system must prepare students for a business world that already relies heavily on technology.

"I think technology is the answer but only if we have good materials and trained personnel," she said. "'We're attacking all those aspects but not doing it fast enough."

But people can't do everything with technology.

"You still can't take a computer with you to curl up on the beach," said Stein. "I would be very sad if children weren't exposed to appropriate books.

"But I think sometimes technology can help diversify our tools to teach."

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