The IT girls and boys do need help;BERA conference

3rd September 1999 at 01:00
As the annual conference of the British Educational Research Association gets under way, Karen Thornton looks at papers that are being presented on computer literacy, training for deputy heads, formative assessment and advanced-skills teachers

CHILDREN don't "just learn" about computers - they need help from their parents and teachers to get started, according to new research. But, having got going, they become increasingly more independent, especially those who have access to a computer at home.

Previous research has already challenged the myth that today's children easily master computers, say academics from Bristol University and the University of Wales, Newport.

Their survey of 855 children aged nine to 14 from south-west England and south Wales, found that 46 per cent were assisted by a family member when first trying a computer. A further 43 per cent said teachers had given them that initial helping hand.

Children got more guidance from their fathers than their mothers (40 per cent compared with 20 per cent), but there was increasing support from mothers in poorer families. About a quarter of youngsters said their friends helped, as did just "playing around" with the computer and games.

"These resources (family and teachers) were reported twice as often as any other option, suggesting that the role of the 'mentor' in computer use is more significant than commonly suggested, and contradicting the assumption that young people 'just learn' how to use new technologies," argue Keri Facer, Rosamund Sutherland, John Furlong and Ruth Furlong, in draft papers being presented today at the British Educational Research Association's annual conference in Brighton.

Once children are established computer users, they rely less on others for help and more on independent learning strategies, such as playing around or using on-line help services. The shift to more independent working is more marked among children with access to a computer at home.

The researchers suggest that the technology itself makes it easier for children to take a "learning by doing" approach. The case studies showed youngsters were reluctant to use manuals when they ran into problems, preferring instead to use on-line help services, escape keys, icons and dialogue boxes to learn by trial and error.

The result is an engagement with the computer that links "learning to use" it with "using" it -- an approach prioritising practical over theoretical learning, the team suggests.

Parents generally bought PCs to improve their children's computer literacy. Some were proactive in defining appropriate uses for it - for example, pushing youngsters away from games toward more educational software, or emphasising homework when allocating computer time.

Some also tried to make the "inevitable" games more acceptable by suggesting they contributed to the development of wider skills. For instance, one mother said: "In some way, the games teach them some thinking skills.

"There's a bit of strategy and planning and thinking about what you're doing and learning from previous disasters, but I think most of the games are much of a muchness and once you've learned a few things on strategy and beating your enemy then there's not a lot more there to know really."

For most families, though, parents are viewed by children as a resource to draw on when a particular computer problem arises. Youngsters also asked different people for help with different problems. They turned to young people rather than parents for help with games, while adults were more likely to be consulted on other software applications; Computer help desks in professional parents' offices were an unexpected source of assistance with home computers.

There was also a gender difference, with men more likely to be consulted than women.

Man with IT mission, 12

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