Surveys show that most children have more sophisticated computers in their bedrooms than in their classrooms. Geoff Strack looks at the disturbing implications of recent research
Parents who provide more than one computer in their homes place their children at an advantage. Research I carried out in London and Hertforshire last year showed that where there are more computers in the home, children use them more frequently, and where there are four or more, they use them twice as much as if there were only one. The many children who do not have access to any computers at home is a big enough concern, but the effect of having only one also needs to be considered.
The survey - conducted in areas that would not be considered affluent - showed that just over half of the 800 children questioned had the use of at least one computer. It supports the results of other surveys which show that, in Britain, there are now computers in more than half of all households with children.
In 1996, just over half the computers in homes had been purchased less than two years previously, which means that most homes had far better computer provision than schools. One child in her first secondary-school lesson asked where she could find the mouse and was told that pupils in that school did not use a mouse until Year 8.
Almost all the computers going into homes in the past few years have been multimedia systems that include access to CD-Roms. Children, therefore, are growing up with an expectation of computers that is too often not matched by what schools can provide. Many young children as young as three are able to use a mouse and navigate around a CD such as Jump Ahead Preschool, yet few early-years classes are able to offer them the opportunity to progress from this.
Who at home helps children learn how to use their computers? Fathers said that they were the ones who provided the most help, but children indicated that, for the most part, they found things out for themselves or got help from a friend. A quarter said that mothers or sisters were the main source of help. (If this question had been asked five years ago, the proportion would have been much lower.) Children's use of computers at home is clearly being influenced by the increasing number of people who are tele-working - and the majority of these are women.
There were other areas where respondents to the survey offered differing interpretations of reality. None of the parents said that they had bought a computer just for their children to use, although many children thought that this was the case. The majority, however, believed that the computers were bought for joint use.
Parents and children were asked to indicate how much time they spend working on computers at home. Trying to work this out exactly was not easy, with both groups claiming to use the computers the majority of the time. If most computers are in children's bedrooms, it is not always apparent when they are using them. Alternatively, parents and pupils could be using computers at the same time in different parts of the home with neither aware of what the others are doing. However, if, as had happened in some homes, the computers were networked, then it would be obvious when someone else was logged on and using a computer in another part of the house.
In the United States, a recent survey showed that 70 per cent of home computer owners had a modem. As the percentage in this country increases, a number of important developments will be able to take place. Schools will have to come to terms with the idea that home learning could become an attractive rival to school learning.
It is important that we learn from countries such as the US and Australia, where home-learning using computers is well-established, what works and what does not. The Buddy Project, started in Minnesota in 1990, was designed to put computers into the homes of all school-aged students in the state. Children are able to receive help from friends, teachers and support groups. Teachers on their own had not been able to meet the needs of their students using computers at home. It will be a challenge for schools in this country to resolve situations like these.
The numbers of home computers is increasing nationally. In Essex, a recent survey revealed that more than 70 per cent of pupils now have home computers. Few schools have tapped into this valuable resource or even debated the challenges that will inevitably arise. If pupils are expected to complete school work on a computer, does it matter whether they are working at home or in school?
Where schools have too few computers or where pupils have better facilities at home, it would make sense to let them work at home. It is relatively easy to envisage post-16 students staying at home one day a week, completing work set on other days. Clearly, this would present fewer problems than arranging home-study days for younger pupils, but there is no reason why it could not be extended to other pupils in secondary schools, particularly in areas where a lot of time and money is spent transporting pupils to school.
Many of the changes being brought about by computers in the home make me think of a statement made by President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt in 1992: "Education should no longer be primarily attached to a specific location - the school - nor contained by a specific time-frame."
* Geoff Strack is adviser for science and technology for the London borough of Hackney. E-mail:firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about US research into home computers use can be found on
For US computer trends, look at http:gate.dataquest.com